🔴 Garbage pays

Ryan Broderick dumpster-dives the internet so we don't have to

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Today's guest is Ryan Broderick. He’s the creator of Garbage Day, “A newsletter about having fun online.” He’s among the most popular journalist-turned-newsletter-creators out there. It’s clear by the numbers (68k subscribers, 3k of whom pay for premium content), praise from peers, and the nearly 200 press clippings on his About page.

In this issue, we discuss:

  • 🛋️ Why you need a Simpsons couch gag in your newsletter

  • 🦸 It’s all about superformats (what are those?)

  • 📐 Making and breaking your own rules

On the podcast, we also talked about:

  • 📰 There’s (almost) no difference between journalists and creators

  • 🫵 Every American is a journalist (if they want to be)

  • 🚖 Creators are Uber drivers for content

  • 🧑‍🎓 Garbage Day is on the syllabus

— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. Don’t feel like reading the newsletter today? Listen to the full interview on our podcast.

 “I think American media has a tendency to turn the volume up to 11 on everything. And when you do that with the internet, you lose some really important details, particularly because the internet is just people messing around.”

Ryan Broderick is the model modern creator-journalist. He built his career in the internet media heyday of the 2010s, spending the decade at publications including The Awl, Vice, and Buzzfeed. He’s a tech journalist whose beat is the full spectrum of internet culture, from silly, inane micro-trends to serious issues like cyberbullying.

Garbage Day has been running for five years, though Ryan didn’t go full-time on it until one year in. It’s a thrice-weekly newsletter filled with short essays and dozens of links; a recent issue included 37 links (not counting ad, upgrade, or other operations-type links) and clocked in at a little over 1,900 words. Ryan plumbs the depths of the internet, finds a bunch of stuff, and lands in our inboxes to explain why that stuff is so interesting.

At the time of writing, there are 674 issues of Garbage Day out in the world. Ryan has 68,000 total subscribers, 3,000 of whom pay for the premium plan, which costs $5/month or $45/year. That means yearly subscription revenue alone is somewhere between $135k to $180k. That’s not to mention ad and live show revenue, neither of which are huge priorities.

Fast Company and Robinhood’s new Sherwood publication both host regular Ryan columns. This is part of what makes him a model modern creator-journalist: he’s built his own loyal newsletter audience (and it’s really his audience, not tethered to any one platform; he recently migrated from Substack to beehiiv) that gives him a comfortable living, but he still participates in the media ecosystem as a columnist.

Ryan’s new Sherwood column, written in collaboration with Garbage Day’s one employee, researcher Adam Bumas, is an evolution of the monthly Garbage Intelligence reports they’ve produced for the past year. These are catered towards a professional audience; they’re drilled-down, actionable summaries of exactly what’s trending online and why.

When Ryan started Garbage Day, he was still working full-time at Buzzfeed, in his eighth and final year there. It was just something fun he did on his lunch breaks. The first issue’s subtitle was, “Once a week, just some fun stuff, NO JOURNALISM.” Two thirds of that statement are no longer true.

In his first year, he built a subscriber list of around 2,000 — mostly fellow media types. Ryan told us, “I think it was just something being dropped in Slack rooms and stuff. Then, when I went full-time in August [2020] it tripled to 6,000. That was probably the biggest single-weekend growth.”

Look: Ryan is a talented writer and journalist. He’s a 30-something who’s been doing this professionally since he was a teenager. But you don’t have to have those qualifications to build a project like his. You just need to be interested in something, dig around, and share what you find:

“I once looked up the first journalist in America. Any historian reading can email me and correct me if I’m wrong, but it was a guy who got kicked out of Europe for committing libel. He essentially had a gossip newsletter about the European royals. So he left, went to Boston, and proceeded to commit more libel and keep writing his gossip newsletter.

So, when I think about the great historic importance of journalism in America, I just think of that guy, who was such an irrepressible asshole he couldn’t stop writing gossip about rich people in Europe. And that’s inspiring to me.

To answer your question, I think anyone in America can be a journalist if they want to. I mean, we’ve had cell phone footage win Pulitzer Prizes.”

What’s on Ryan’s horizon? He sees three possible outcomes:

  1. Stay the course. No astronomic growth; keep publishing at the same rate. “I become a well-respected blogger that people kind of read sometimes or a cranky old man who’s now insane.”

  2. Garbage Media. Go from creator-media-company to “Investment, viral growth, all of a sudden things change, and Garbage Day becomes Garbage Media.”

  3. Pack it in. “After a while, the grind just wears [me] down, and I get a desk job somewhere.”

The ideal outcome, Ryan says, is the second option — becoming a full-on media company. But for now, he’s just “trying to stay flexible.”

You can find Ryan on Twitter. Read on for his take on the rules of being a creator and for our breakdown of his best tactics.

The following interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

CS: Do you think the creator meta has shifted more towards growth marketing rather than pure creativity?

RB: What I'll say is, with the tools available on any platform for any content you're making, you can optimize it to the highest level you want. If you have enough time and money, and you want to, you can find the most stripped-down, growth-hacky version of your thing, and you can take it all the way. That's not to say that the people who do that are inherently cynical, but you can get really cynical with it.

You can also, I think, not do that. And you can take pieces from that mindset. So, for instance, recently my researcher Adam and I sat down and pulled the top posts for the top metrics that we cared about. Then we started to create a better template for Garbage Day.

Most recent issues of Garbage Day at the time of writing.

What goes where? How many words? How many embeds? We went really, really granular on it. And then we laid that all out, and I proceeded to ignore half of it, but, we have it. So we know the subject line should be this many words, give or take, and the word count should be this many words, give or take. And that can help you. It can also really hurt you because you might not take the risks you need to get to the next level.

So, one thing I like to do is create the rules and then break them as I see fit. And that seems to work pretty well.

But I do think it's important to know how your readers are reading you. I do a survey, usually once a year, just checking in with people. And I listen to some of it and I disregard some of it. 

It's about flexibility. That's the shortest answer. You should look at some data just to get a sense of what you're doing. But you should also be very comfortable just breaking your rules and doing something weird because the weird stuff is usually what grows you faster.

Want to hear more from Ryan? Listen to our full conversation in his episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast.

What’s the secret to staying ahead of the curve in the world of AI? Information. Luckily, you can join early adopters reading The Rundown– the free newsletter that makes you smarter on AI with just a 5-minute read per day.

You need a Simpsons couch gag

Nearly every episode of The Simpsons starts with a “couch gag.” As a viewer, all you know is that all five members of the Simpson family eventually gather on their couch — everything else is up in the air. The point is, as soon as you turn on an episode:

  1. You know something interesting is going to happen.

  2. You know it’ll be different from the last time.

  3. And you know it’ll be a quick hit.

Ryan does the same thing in his newsletter — a quick, always different, always interesting tidbit that helps instill in his readers the habit of opening issue after issue, and cleverly tests (with a click) whether or not they scrolled all the way to the end.

“From the very first issue, I wanted people to have that experience of clicking on a link and discovering something cool. That's why the tagline for every issue is like, ‘read to the end for…’“

“That's like my little Simpsons couch gag. But it was also initially a hack to see how many people got to the bottom of the newsletter because I could look at the click-through there and know, okay, this many people made the bottom. I think everything needs to have something like that.”

Another classic example of this is Morning Brew having a puzzle section at the end of every issue. I’d say a traditional newspaper’s comic section serves the same purpose.

All of these things are interesting every time, different every time, and take very little of the consumer’s time. What’s your Simpsons couch gag?

How to distribute your content across all the platforms without losing your mind: superformats

To grow an audience from scratch, it’s not enough to just write a newsletter; email isn’t an algorithmic platform that puts your content in front of audiences for you. You need to be on Twitter. You need to be on LinkedIn. TikTok. Instagram. YouTube. Spotify. Apple Podcasts. Et cetera.

But that’s really, really exhausting, especially for solo creators. For Ryan, all that matters is Garbage Day itself; everything he puts out on the other platforms is an afterthought. This approach is clearly working, given his subscriber count and estimated revenue.

Here’s the tactic, or rather framework, to take away. Ryan taught me about a concept I was unfamiliar with: superformats. The idea comes from an article in On_Discourse. Their argument is about LLMs dissecting and redistributing existing content into user-personalized content packages: “If the traditional article page is a glass, the superformat is the water in it. Internet 2025 is when the glass breaks and the water spills out.”

That’s a fun metaphor, but Ryan’s explanation of the concept is more helpful:

The argument is that the current internet landscape requires one giant unit of content that can be cut up into smaller units. So the super format would be like this interview. You record this and it becomes a written piece, it becomes videos, and it becomes audio. And it seems like that’s the game plan for everyone right now.

I’ve started to think of the newsletter itself as a superformat. The point is to cut up as much of it as possible and put it places, rather than the opposite, which is investing time and energy into these specific platforms.

I think it’s in the creator’s best interest to spend all of their time on the thing that has an audience they control, distribute to directly, and monetize. That should be your focus.”

Here’s a basic example of how a superformat works, using what we do at Creator Spotlight.

In other words, you should always have a priority content format that you invest most of your time into, and all your other content work should be downstream of that. That said, you should be building clever cut-up opportunities into your superformat. Back to Ryan:

I do write the top essay specifically as a way to grab people from social, which used to work really well when Twitter was very active. I also just think it's a good exercise for a writer to be like, okay, can this one paragraph from this long essay be read on its own, make sense and get people interested in reading the rest?”

Summing up a few lessons from Ryan and his work on Garbage Day.

  1. Just do it. Go Nike-mode. Ryan only sent 45 issues in his first year. His first anniversary post shares a bunch of interesting stats like 2,564 subscribers and 65% average open rate at the time of writing. Today, his premium subscriber list alone is larger than that total. TL;DR: Be consistent and iterate. The only way to find a path forward is to move forward.

  2. Find your superformat. Don’t worry about creating anything else. Especially if you’re a solo creator, you simply will not have time to do everything for every channel. Focus on one thing, on one channel. Your actions on other channels should be downstream of that one thing.

  3. Find your Simpsons couch gag. What's your fun little thing that requires less than a minute of your readers' time and becomes an itch they scratch every time you send a newsletter? Honestly, you could just steal exactly what Ryan does but customize it for your niche. Put a link teaser in your preview line and put that link at the bottom of your newsletter. Sorted!

Further reading on some of the topics we touched on in this issue.

  • If one hour of Ryan on our pod wasn’t enough for you, check out his recent episode of Ben Dietz’s [SIC] Talks pod. Great conversation.

  • Speaking of journalist-creators, investigative reporter Ken Klippenstein resigned from The Intercept this week to build his own indie newsletter. He wrote a long, fiery piece about it. It’s a fascinating read about the relationship between a journalist and his publisher, sources, and audience.

  • For the TL;DR and analysis on the Klippenstein piece, check out Rusty Foster’s “Ken Klippenstein Announces Plan To Lose His Mind.”

Thank you for taking the time to read today's issue. If you liked this one, I highly recommend listening to the podcast version.

On to next week's issue, featuring a creator who “avoided social media like the plague” until his early 40s. Starting with absolutely zero online footprint in late 2021, he now has a following of over 200k across social media — and 16k newsletter subscribers.

Talk soon,
Francis Zierer, Editor

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