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Rusty Foster Discusses his Research Process, Motivation, and Growing his Newsletter Today in Tabs

Be consistent and ignore your feelings.

- Rusty Foster, Today in Tabs

Rusty Foster started Today in Tabs when he was working a job he no longer liked and had free time on his hands. However, that job ultimately laid him off and he had to make a tough decision regarding what to do next. He put Today in Tabs on pause and joined a software project to pay the bills.

Then, in January of 2021 he decided to bring it back after a nearly 5 year hiatus.

Here are Rusty’s thoughts on reviving an old project and turning it into his day job:

Question/Answers

How did you decide when you were ready to turn Today in Tabs from part-time to your full-time job?

There is definitely a normal pathway of like, I have a job and a side project and then at some point the side project is full-time, but Tabs hasn’t really followed that path.

I started it while I was in my… 7th or 8th year at a job I no longer liked at all and where I didn’t have nearly enough to do. Then within a couple months that job let me go.

So I found out I was going to be unemployed on a Friday, and I had a fretful weekend, and then Monday an acquaintance from the internet reached out to ask if I was interested in taking up a software project he’d been developing and trying to make a company out of it.

Which obviously I was! At this point Tabs was I think already being syndicated at Newsweek? That happened pretty quickly but I am terrible at remembering when things happened so I’d have to check, but that paid about half a salary. This software project offer was for semi-part-time to start, and the budget he had to pay me was abut another half-salary.

So I was like listen as long as I can take a couple hours a day and keep writing Tabs, this sounds perfect. This was circa December 2013.

That basic arrangement continued until the beginning of 2016, when the software project was a real company with actual clients and Tabs had moved to Fast Company and I was having interns and it had also generally expended to be more of a full-time job.

So at that point I had two full-time jobs and I was kind of a mess on a personal-stress level, and I clearly had to choose. I picked Scripto, partly because I felt like I needed a break from writing and partly because a software startup seemed like the easier path.

So I ended Tabs, said farewell, and basically assumed I would never do it again. And I just worked on building Scripto through 2016 and until the end of 2020.

THEN… (sorry for the novella here, it’s just been a long and winding road)

Scripto and I got to a place together where like, I needed to grow in my role (which was CTO at this point) and the path to that growth wasn’t going to exist anytime soon. And the company needed to slim down and conserve runway. And I’d been there 7 years, from pre-incorporation through a lot of ups and downs and I was kind of ready to go.

So we made a plan for me to gradually transition out by February of this year which gave me plenty of time to think about what was next, and I did look around in tech a bit, but I also thought, for really the first time, what if I did Tabs again?

And that felt right? Which was a pretty big surprise because I really had no plans of ever going back. But Substack exists, it was very easy to import the old mailing list and turn on Stripe and like, if it didn’t work, at worst it would buy me a little more time to job hunt.

So I did some prep in the last two weeks of December and relaunched in January this year, and seven months in, it still feels right, and it’s been a modest pay cut but nothing we couldn’t afford, so far.

So the very short answer to “how did you know” is basically: I kept losing my other job.

How do you actively try to grow the subscriber count / readership of Today in Tabs?

It’s the main business thing I feel like I need to solve but haven’t yet.

I think mostly what I try to do to grow readership is like, get people with a bigger audience than me to mention it. But I’m bad at uh, how to put this. Cynically growth-hacking? Marketing?

I don’t know. The best growth days are always a surprise to me, that tend to be easy to decode later but I would never have thought of in advance. One day we happened to have two Helen Rosner stories and I mentioned that it was “a rare double-Rosner” in the newsletter and Helen (who has been a reader for ages) tweeted about it and I got hundreds of new signups from that.

Obvious in hindsight, but unplanned.

Another big signup day was when Sam Sifton recommended Tabs in the NYT Cooking newsletter which like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The conventional wisdom is “do a referral program” or “advertise” and that does make sense but I want people who will sign up and STAY signed up? So I tend to lean on organic growth as much as possible.

Tabs can be an acquired taste.

Any advice for someone who is starting a newsletter from scratch with no preexisting audience or followers?

Yes actually! Do the thing consistently. I am pretty convinced that a lot of what success I’ve had is due to just being very consistent. Like I don’t set myself a length requirement or even a format, but my hard rule is just: stick to the schedule.

This does two things: people get used to you being there every [day | week | whatever] and they start to look for it.

And second, it forces me to produce enough words that some of them are bound to be good.

In March I found this fun “practice guide” glitch app, and built one of our first open threads around it. I have that Practice Guide for Newsletter printed out and taped up on my wall, and it’s funny but also like… you can take it all pretty seriously as good advice?

The corollary advice to “be consistent” is “some (ok a lot) of days you’re probably going to feel like crap and not want to do it, but do it anyway because how you feel has almost no bearing on how the thing turns out”.

As a writer I think it’s common to feel like some kind of spark of inspiration has to be present for your work t be good, and it’s lovely when there is, but most of the time there isn’t.

Forcing myself to write the thing on days when I deeply didn’t feel like it has definitely produced most of my best work.

So: be consistent, and ignore your feelings

What parts of creating your newsletter and building your audience do you enjoy the most? And on the flip side, what parts are the worst for you?

If I’m being extremely honest, what I enjoy the most is attention. Everyone should be talking about me all the time, so the days when something really lands and people are sharing and quoting. This is maybe not my healthiest trait the other thing I enjoy is making myself laugh? My officemates occasionally tell me I spend a day just chuckling to myself, so I guess that’s not bad. The jokes that make me laugh the most are virtually never the ones that readers love the most.

I have just grown to accept that I don’t necessarily understand what People In General find funny but I can hit it often enough.

And the worst parts for me are like, keeping track of things. Making sure that interns get their W-9 forms in, and keeping track of ad invoices and stuff.

There isn’t a ton of Business Spreadsheet type work but what there is I hate. Also fretting over whether list growth is good enough, and income is good enough. I worry too much, I’m trying to be more chill about that.

Do you view the role that you/your newsletter plays has changed over that time?

Yeah it’s weird taking five years off while newsletters became a business again. I feel like there are several pretty big and successful newsletters that I know Tabs was an inspiration for but now they’re way bigger. But I guess, I’m glad to inspire people when I can? And I don’t feel like I’m competing directly with anyone for the same audience exactly.

So the business of newsletters has changed, it’s possible to make a living with subscribers now, but the bio on the Tabs twitter account says “Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter” and I guess I basically like trying to be that?

It doesn’t have to be the biggest, I don’t want to smooth things out for the largest possible audience, I’m glad like, Muck Rack and Morning Brew exist and I don’t have to do that job.

I like being an upstart, so in some ways still being kind of small and a little under the radar is my happy place.

I guess “kind of small” is relative, but Morning Brew is at like, 3 million subscribers and they started after I originally went off the air, so…

I do sometimes wonder how things would have gone if I had picked Tabs instead of Scripto in 2016, but I don’t regret it.

How do you manage your time between reading your source material “tabs” and writing about them? What tools/processes have worked for you to get that writing consistency up?

My research process is basically: I have a Tabs bookmark folder in Chrome, and when I read something all the way through I bookmark it in there. Sometimes I read things that are just definitely not Tabs material, but almost anything can be so I tend to err on the side of saving stuff. Most of what I read in a day comes by way of twitter, or my friend Slack, or the Tabs discord lately, which has been really fun and good

Once in a while I actually go to feed.ly or hit some front pages. I’m not really trying to find things no one has seen so much as summarize the zeitgeist, or at least one part of it, so it’s sort of a plus to let my input be aggressively filtered.

Then at some point between now-ish and maybe 12:30 or 1:00 I will pull up a Bookmark Manager tab in chrome and start looking through what I’ve saved and thinking about themes. Sometimes the rough structure of a day is clear way in advance, and sometimes it’s a grab bag and I have to make what I can of it. But either way I eventually have to start writing, which I do… uh…. whispers directly in the CMS.

The Substack editor is pretty good.

I have literally built… more than one CMS, so I know what a deeply foolish choice this is. But to their great credit, in seven months of daily writing, Substack hasn’t lost anything yet. In the original run I was producing an email and a web version every day, and I had a whole insane production process where I wrote in an extended markdown and run that through custom scripts to generate the HTML for each version.

My tooling was a lot more interesting back in the day but now it’s pretty sparse. All I really use anymore is a browser.

For consistency: I will say it’s really important to have a clear process that becomes a real habit. Like, I used to write in IA Writer and when I opened that blank IA page my brain would click into the mode.

Now it’s when I hit “New Post” in Substack. Like, my body knows it’s time to write now.

It also helps if I have the first line in mind — nothing is worse than a blank page so I try to avoid making the blank page until I have something to put on it. Even if it doesn’t end up working, having anything is better than having nothing.

So ideally: Click “new post,” immediately type opening line, then continue from there.

Are there any newsletters or writers that influence your work the most?

Yes, but they are all old and defunct I think? The old British tech newsletter Need to Know is probably the most direct-line ancestor of the overall tabs voice. I’ve drifted a bit from them over time but the oldest Tabs were very nearly me doing my impression of NTK.

I think Popbitch is the closest thing to NTK’s style and voice that still exists today.

Aside from that, Suck.com and the early versions of Gawker were influences, for sure. And the Awl (RIP)

Some of the best praise I’ve ever gotten is when people who were involved with those places, like Heather Havrilesky from Suck or Liz Spiers from the OG Gawker, or Choire, when those people recognize the lineage and approve, like, I know I’m on the right track.

What have you done to “onboard” new readers over the years?

This is a question I wrestle with. I mean the real answer is nothing. I sort of just hope something grabs people and convinced them to read more and that they gradually start understanding it.

When I re-launched I did write The Previouslies so at least everyone had access to the basic history of what even is going on here, but on a day to day level, I do a lot by accretion and reference, and you kinda just have to pick a spot and jump in and start swimming.

I do my best to make it more of a “club you’re invited to join” than a “club you’re excluded from” but the balance is tricky.

I think the root of that stream of consciousness style is my own tendency to get bored easily and hate repeating things. I’m linking to almost everything I refer to, so on some level almost everything that’s confusing can be understood by clicking a link. The journalism convention of trying to explain all of the backstory in every article just seems dreadfully slow and tedious when there’s a link right there, so I generally don’t do it. That said I think this new season of tabs is a little more discursive than the old ones, which even I can find pretty opaque now.

You mentioned you used to have interns. How did you have them helping you?

The “Tabs Intern Program” started as a joke between me and my friend Bijan Stephen when I was getting ready to come back from a long break in like, 2014. Someone said basically “wouldn’t it be funny if you came back and were like ‘Bijan is my intern now’” and we agreed that yes it would be funny so we did it.

Basically I gave Bij a box to write something in in the newsletter every day, and he would write something, and I would usually make fun of him a little. We played up a “boss / intern” vibe too

But after a few months I was like, “oh this is actually good?” so it morphed into a slightly more formal thing where I would put out a call for applicants and pick someone for each month, and actually pay them. The intern is actually ironically not a help to me at all particularly, it means a little more work for me, managing them and editing them, but it’s one of the most fun things for me to do. I love watching someone learn how to tighten and hone their work and get faster over the course of a month. 

Tabs has always been a one person show, supported by a lot of people sharing stuff on Twitter and a group of close friends who are always willing to have me run something I’m not sure about by them, and occasionally make me some graphics or whatever. I usually give them joke titles like “Tabs Senior Graphics Intern”.

I wish I had a publisher, for the record, but I definitely do not have the income for one at this point.

What’s a topic that’s super interesting to you that isn’t currently reported on well?

Media, honestly? I think I can count the good media reporters working right now on one hand. I know it’s kind of an ouroboros of a subject and a lot of reporters think it’s just bullshit self-absorption but I think the media is more influential than it ever has been, and the coverage of it is very thin.

And media reporting is also severely affected by the overall precocity of the whole industry. To do really good media reporting you kind of have to put your job aspirations in a little box, lock it up, and throw it in the ocean, because over time you’re likely to piss off every potential future employer. So I don’t really blame people who want to keep making a living for not trying to burn all their bridges. Again: if only Gawker still existed.

How do you balance experimentation with sticking with what already seems to work?

I don’t do very much planning, the whole enterprise is very much driven by what’s happening on my feeds at the moment, so experimentation tends to be driven by the days when I don’t have a lot of things in the hopper, or I can’t make anything out of them using the familiar tools.

I know people expect a certain thing from Tabs, so I try to provide that most of the time, but occasionally it’s just not working on a particular day, or I have an idea I want to try out. So I try to let myself have a format break now and then.

I also tend to do more offbeat stuff on Thursday and especially the Friday open thread posts. It’s fairly rare but sometimes there’s an event that calls for more of a blog post than an aggregation newsletter, so I do that once in a while but basically just when there’s a post I can’t NOT write. It’s fairly rare but sometimes there’s an event that calls for more of a blog post than an aggregation newsletter, so I do that once in a while but basically just when there’s a post I can’t NOT write.

What does your daily routine look like?

Generally I write for 2-3 hours between like… 11am and 4pm, depending on how much I’m struggling that day. Otherwise I’m tweeting, chatting in various places, and reading things.

I do a lot of reading on my phone after everyone goes to sleep and again first thing in the morning.

Do you ever have writer’s block when writing your newsletter? If so, how do you attempt to overcome it?

Yes, kind of, although “writer’s block” per se is rare? There are days I look at all my links and don’t feel like I have anything worth saying, but I can almost always find a way in somewhere. One thing I do is try not starting at the beginning. If I feel like I don’t know how to start I will just write a sentence that I know is probably gonna end up in the middle. Or sometimes I feel like a story is the most “important” but I get stuck on how to address it, and usually that means it’s actually not the most interesting thing to me, so I just give myself permission to write the dumb joke I really want to instead.

Once recently nothing was working so I went way out to the other end of the spectrum and made a bunch of AI images and collages instead of writing anything. So, that worked too.

So, strategies:

Write something less boring

Don’t write anything

Why did you decide to have a “free” subscription option for Today in Tabs, and how do you think about the funnel for people interested in Today in Tabs?”

I started my career in open source software and somewhere in me there’s still that core feeling that things are better if everyone can access them? On launching I thought, well, more sharing can only help me at this point so I’d rather most people be able to get the content. And then if I can’t make a living doing that, I’ll think about paywalling more stuff. But so far it hasn’t been necessary.

It also takes off some of the pressure of having a few thousand bosses, if people are purely paying because they want to, rather than reluctantly forking over a toll to get through the paywall.

I’d rather build a community than a locked ward.

I think about the funnel as: someone signs up for the email, they think “wtf is this?” then later they think “I love this” then at some point one of my reminders that you can pay connects with them and they impulsively pay for a subscription, and then they start to feel the magic sense of ownership and patronage of knowing that they are one of the few, special people who truly keep the emails flowing.

If you couldn’t work on Today in Tabs anymore and had to start a different newsletter, what would it be about?

A long time ago I had a newsletter called Love Letters to a Stranger where I wrote short stories, and another one called Story Idea that was just like, very short offbeat story prompts. Those were both really fun. If I thought I could make a living I’d probably do a fiction newsletter again.

If the internet didn’t exist... what would you be doing?

Starving.

Does Tabs feel sustainable to you, and is that something you thought about at launch?

When I re-launched I had the benefit of having burned out once already.

And I also knew that I was capable of writing tabs at least four days a week, even while holding another full time job which was a BAD IDEA but like, I did it.

So I figured that “only” doing Tabs would surely be easier than that? And sure enough it definitely is. It’s actually been really nice just focusing on Tabs this time around, and I don’t really feel worried about sustainability. I do need a break though, my normal endurance is about five months straight before I start to need a block of time off. I went a little longer this time but I’m taking the second half of August off and going for a long hike, and I’ll probably return to my old August & February break schedule which generally get labeled “Seasons.” So Season 5 starts in September.

I think in general it’s really something everyone has to learn for themselves, what kind of schedule is sustainable, and I don’t know any way to find out other than to do it. I know where my wall is and what it feels like, which is not pleasant experience to get but it’s very valuable.

What about a story makes it a good fit for Today in Tabs?

I think at heart it’s like, “did it make me feel something?” sometimes that’s “ugh,” sometimes it’s “wow,” sometimes it’s “huh”.

Is there a good joke I can make that a million tweets haven’t made already? Is it something I’m helplessly fascinated with, like bitcoin?

Does it connect with the zeitgeist somehow? Are people talking about it?

It’s not always all of these factors but it’s usually more than one unless I’m really grasping for content.

What three things are currently inspiring and motivating you the most creatively? Over the course of your life, what three things have inspired or motivated you the most creatively?

I don’t know if I good list of three things but what has always motivated me the most creatively is just tools that are out there, that anyone can pick up and start using right away.

So originally that was open source software, perl, the web.

It was just like “here’s a sandbox and some hints, make what you want”.

Then later it was Twitter and TinyLetter, and the ability to tweet a joke and later that day send out the first issue of a newsletter.

I don’t have a brain that can build a great big thing patiently and then unveil it all at once? I need to make something shitty, very fast, and then put it out in public and start refining.

So whatever tools let me do that without a lot of friction have always been the inspirations for me. 

I don’t know if that’s a satisfying answer at all! But I think it’s what I’ve got.