How the Tangle newsletter reached 77,000 readers and $624,000 in annual revenue
Isaac Saul wanted to create an antidote to the hyper partisan media ecosystem that dominates the web.
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If you ask Isaac Saul about the origin story of Tangle, the politics newsletter he publishes five days a week, he almost always cites his childhood in Bucks County, a suburb north of Philadelphia. “It’s a bellwether county in Pennsylvania,” he told me. “It's a place that everybody watches in national politics because it usually dictates where Pennsylvania goes, which is where the presidential election typically goes.”
Growing up in such a politically diverse area meant that Saul had friends and family across the entire political spectrum, and he believes this experience guides the ethos of a newsletter that goes to great lengths to consider all partisan angles before rendering a verdict.
Saul launched Tangle in 2019 when he was still a politics editor at A Plus — the viral news outlet founded by Ashton Kutcher — and the dual role meant he had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day so he could get the latest edition out. What started as an email list of 13 friends quickly grew to thousands of readers, and after about eight months or so he debuted a paid subscription. “I was making probably like $70,000 a year or something at the time,” he said, “and overnight I almost matched my yearly salary on this newsletter I'd been working on for eight months. And so I quit my job a few weeks later, since this was a real pathway for me.”
From there, Tangle’s audience grew rapidly, and today it boasts over 77,000 readers, $624,000 in annual revenue, and a small staff. Saul has also begun to branch out into other mediums like podcasts and video.
In a recent interview, Saul discussed how he came up with the newsletter’s signature format, how he converted his free readership into paid, and why he made the recent decision to accept advertising.
Let’s jump into my findings…
Rejecting viral partisanship
In many ways, Tangle is a rejection of the social media-fueled news environment that shaped Saul’s early career.
In 2013, he was hired by Huffington Post to serve as an associate editor. “I was working on what was essentially HuffPost’s viral team,” he said. “I was doing quick 200-word write ups and trying to drive traffic to the website, and it felt like I was in this factory with a bunch of other young writers doing that.” This caught the attention of the team at A Plus, which had coded a program that scraped the internet for the most popular content. “And when they did that, I was one of the top 15 bylines that popped up in terms of page views based on publicly available data, and so that was pretty much why they reached out to me. They wanted to get somebody who could drive traffic to this website and knew how to construct click bait headlines and viral images.”
This was during the time when Facebook was still unleashing billions of pageviews on the news outlets that learned how to game its algorithm. A Plus was designed to capitalize on this traffic, and while Saul was adept at packaging stories for social virality, he also pushed the company to produce more traditional reporting. “I told them I was happy to help drive traffic to the website, but I want some kind of commitment that we're going to do real original journalism,” he said. “And they did. They followed through on that. To their credit, we got a lot of chances to write original stories.”
Unfortunately, A Plus’s archives have been scrubbed from the internet, but Saul’s website bio cites dozens of pieces he reported on for the site, including articles that got cited in congressional inquiries and landed him interviews on cable news. In 2016, Yahoo News named him as “one of the 16 people who shaped the 2016 election.” A Plus even allowed him to travel overseas to report in places like Indonesia and India.
But while Saul was proud of these pieces, he doesn’t shy away from admitting that most of his job involved the production of viral clickbait. As time wore on, he grew increasingly weary of this approach to news, especially once Facebook tweaked its algorithm to de-emphasize news content within the feed. He also began to bristle at how this media ecosystem rewarded partisanship over nuance. “I saw the way my stories would be changed, the headlines they'd use, the quotes they'd choose, those kinds of things,” he said. “In my experience, a lot of media organizations have this left-of-center perspective that gets baked in by editors and reporters. The initial genesis of Tangle as a product was that I was covering politics as a very politically incongruent person myself.”
I asked Saul what he meant by this, and he gave a hypothetical situation in which he was writing about the latest Trump indictment. “Is this indictment legit or is this a political witch hunt? If I want a real answer to that question, I can't just go read the New York Times or Fox News or the Wall Street Journal to figure it out. What I was doing back then was I'd go read the New York Times editorial board, I'd go read the Wall Street Journal editorial board, I'd read Fox News, I'd read Huffington Post, I’d read Breitbart, and then I’d go read Reuters and AP and a bunch of quote unquote ‘straight news.’ And then like four hours later after listening to some podcasts and consuming 30 different news outlets, I'd be like, ‘okay, now I have a pretty holistic understanding of all the arguments that are out there.’ I so badly wanted that to all be in one place, and I didn't really find anywhere that was doing that.”
While working at A Plus, Saul began to sketch out some ideas in a paper notebook for a media outlet that packaged news in a way that he would want to read it. The format included a straightforward presentation of the basic facts at the top, followed then by breakdowns of how both the Left and the Right were spinning the news. “I wanted a news outlet that could be trusted by diehard Trump supporters, establishment Republicans, mainstream Democrats, and the progressive Left altogether. Like what could I send to my best friend growing up who's a cop in rural Pennsylvania and super conservative and my friends in Brooklyn who are like super lefty progressive hipsters, and both of them would read it and trust it?
Saul decided to test out his theories by writing a few sample versions of a newsletter and forwarding it to friends and family. “A lot of people responded and said, ‘this is really great. I'd love to read it, but like, what do you think? I'm interested in your perspective. Of these two arguments, which do you think is right?’” This led to the creation of a final segment titled “my take.” “I actually think that's maybe the most important part of the newsletter now because it's kind of like this act of transparency where I'm just telling readers what I think. So now the readers know what the person who's explaining this story to them actually believes on this specific issue.”
With the addition of this final segment, Saul figured the newsletter was ready to debut to the public. In August 2019, he launched Tangle on Substack — which he chose mostly because it was free — and committed himself to sending out a new edition every weekday.
Building a devoted readership
From almost the very beginning, Tangle started finding an audience. The launch occurred in the runup to the 2020 US elections, and Saul benefited tremendously from the increased interest in political news, with some of his biggest spikes in signups driven by the candidate debates and state primaries. I asked him whether influential politicos were aggressively sharing his stuff to Twitter. “Looking back on it and digging more into the metrics, I've realized that it was mostly people just forwarding the newsletter to friends and family. The readership was just going up a ton when it was a really good edition. I actually don't think Twitter, even then, was driving a lot of article link traffic.” One of his biggest growth days came as a result of Marques Brownlee, a tech reviewer with a huge following on YouTube. “He had a podcast that was getting off the ground at the time, and he had this segment on the podcast where he would just recommend three things that he was consuming that week. He shouted out the newsletter one week and I saw 2,000 new subscribers overnight, basically.”
Saul took great pride in Tangle’s success, but producing it every single weekday quickly began to take a toll. “It's just so much work and so much content to consume,” he said. “I worked really long days.” Remember, he still had his day job at A Plus, which by that time had pivoted to producing mainly video. At some point, he realized he would likely need to go all-in on Tangle to keep it going, which meant he needed to figure out a way to monetize the content.
Saul had no interest in selling advertising, so that meant launching some sort of subscription model. In his talks with the folks at Substack, they suggested that he move four of his daily newsletters behind the paywall and only give out one free edition each week, but he wasn’t excited about the idea of making his content so inaccessible. He knew intuitively that paywalled articles wouldn’t help the newsletter grow its readership, and that by sending out more free newsletters he would increase his chances that one would go viral and trigger a boost in signups. “So I kind of turned [Substack’s recommended] model on its head and opted instead to do four free newsletters and one paid edition each week.”
On April 10, 2020, Saul sent out a newsletter titled “A major Tangle announcement.” While the piece starts out by outlining what readers would get as paid subscribers, it’s mainly designed to engender support of Saul himself:
I have poured my heart and soul into this newsletter, and you all have made it the most fulfilling writing project I’ve ever worked on. My dream is that this can one day be my own business, but right now I’m just trying to survive here in New York City. I work on Tangle alongside my full-time job as an editor at A Plus, where I’ve been for nearly six years … I’m regularly working 14-16 hours a day to produce Tangle. I’ve stayed up late on Sunday nights to prepare for the week, slammed coffees after work to make it through the 121st Democratic debate and transcribed interviews on subway cars to bring you original content. I haven’t really had a lunch break in a year. And I’ve done it all without asking for anything more than a little help spreading the word about Tangle. Today, that changes. Slightly. By supporting this newsletter, I actually get some financial relief for all of that work — and I get an idea of whether this could one day be my full-time thing.
The response from his readership was immediate. Substack’s staff had estimated he could convert about 5% of his free list into paid subscribers; over the next few months, he was able to convert upwards of 15%. About a year after he switched on paid subscriptions, he sent out a newsletter titled “So, I quit my job today…” A sizable portion of his paid subscribers had signed up for the annual plan, and he’d been waiting to see if they’d cancel their subscriptions. “Then, over the last two weeks, the first wave of annual Tangle subscriptions re-upped, and to my absolute joy, I saw that almost all of those subscribers have stayed put,” he wrote. “It appears this thing is worth the price of admission.”
From there, Saul began working on Tangle full-time, and his growth since then — for both the free and paid version of the newsletter — has remained strong. I asked him what’s been the most effective strategy for converting readers to the paid list. “Every Thursday I tell people at the top of the newsletter that tomorrow we're releasing a subscribers-only edition, and it’s going to be on this topic if you're interested in it, subscribe here,” he explained. “And then once a quarter I send out a dedicated email to all free subscribers that’s super straightforward. The subject line of the email says, ‘I'm asking for your money.’” In the body of the email, he then lays out the mission of Tangle, outlines what readers get with a paid subscription, and explains how he plans to spend the money. He’s often able to drive hundreds of paid subscriptions with those quarterly emails.
After about three years on Substack, Saul migrated Tangle over to Ghost. “I love Substack and have nothing but good things to say about them,” he said. “Really the only reason I left was just because the fee was too big. We got to a point where we were doing a couple hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue, and they take 10%, so I was paying them 20 grand a year to publish a newsletter when I could do it for $1,500 somewhere else. It was strictly a business decision.”
Expanding into podcasts, video, and advertising
As Tangle’s revenue grew, Saul was able to hire a small staff. Today, he employs four people in a mixture of full and part time roles. This has not only allowed him to expand the newsletter with additional sections, but it’s also freed up his capacity to move into new mediums like podcasts and video. “I only started doing the podcast version of the newsletter because so many people were asking for it,” he said. “They were just like, ‘dude, I love your emails, but I would love to be able to just listen to them while I'm doing the dishes or whatever. Can you just embed an audio player with an AI voice reading them? That would be enough for me.’ And so we started recording the podcast and we have this small but very loyal listenership of people who listen to every episode and put it on their cars when they’re commuting to and from work.”
The YouTube channel essentially offers a video version of the podcast episodes. In addition to his adaptations of the Tangle newsletter, he also leverages the medium to conduct longform interviews with experts on different topics. Last week, for instance, he interviewed an LGBTQ activist about his survival of conversion therapy. “We’ll often transcribe those interviews and run them in the Friday newsletters.” His staff will also chop up clips from the YouTube videos and distribute them as reels for Instagram, where Tangle has over 18,000 followers.
When Saul launched his paid subscription model for Tangle, he specifically touted the fact that the newsletter didn’t carry advertising, but he recently softened on his anti-ad stance. “The reason I caved is kind of the same reason that I left Substack: it was purely a business decision. We have some competitors in the space, they're advertising, they have way more money than us, and they're beating us over the head with it.” He began accepting sponsorships late last year, and from the very beginning he’s kept strict rules in place. ”We make it as unobtrusive as possible. It's only text ads, no images. If it's a product or something, then we test it. And we don’t accept ads from any political groups.” To date, most of the advertisers have been other editorial newsletters that are using paid acquisition to drive signups. Saul estimates he’s generated around $60,000 in ad revenue thus far.
For the most part, Tangle has benefited from slow, steady growth, but occasionally Saul experiences sizable jumps in signups, particularly around major news events. When Hamas carried out its terrorist attack on Israel earlier this month, the newsletter had around 65,000 subscribers. Saul ended up writing a comprehensive, measured overview of the situation that took great care to add historical context, and a cross-posted version of it went absolutely viral on Twitter, racking up 30,000 retweets and 19 million views. In a matter of days, Tangle jumped from 68,000 free subscribers to 77,000, and the newsletter is now generating $52,000 in monthly revenue.
It’s been over four years since Saul launched Tangle, and it’s clear that he identified a clear need in the marketplace for a media outlet that goes to great lengths to digest all the political angles of a story. I asked him whether he had ambitions to take this idea and scale it up into a more traditional media company. “I don't want to be the next CNN or something,” he said. “I'm not trying to make some big newsroom and have 150 people to manage.” He enjoys having a small, well-paid team, and thinks he can grow the newsletter much bigger with the resources already at his disposal. “I do think long-term there is a way for us to get to a place where we're franchising Tangle and we're doing Tangle Sports or something else like that. I think that'd be really exciting and a good way to make some extra money.”
But ultimately, Saul is happy where he is. He has something rare in journalism: job security. And given his background growing up in a politically diverse community, he’s proud that he’s built something that can cross the political divide and reach people who have been alienated by the modern media ecosystem. We’re nowhere close to a post-partisan future, but for its thousands of readers, Tangle is the oasis that keeps the dream alive.