There was a break in the recent impeachment proceedings, which is why Matt Kiser could come out for coffee. He was temporarily free from the political news cycle for the first time in a very long time.
“It’s feels like it never stops,” Kiser said. “I have an abundance of information and a scarcity of time.”
It is a familiar refrain for anyone who tries to stay engaged with the news of the day out of Washington, D.C. Which is why Kiser, 36, started What the **** Just Happened Today, a website, Twitter handle and Facebook page that offer subscribers the day’s political happenings in one easy-to-digest sentence, then breaks down each event into manageable bites, including source material. (There’s a predictable profanity in the website’s actual title.)
The site’s subtitle: “Today’s essential guide to the daily shock and awe in national politics. Read in moderation.”
There was this, on Dec. 19 (Day 1,064 of the Trump presidency): ” 1/House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t commit to sending the articles of impeachment against Trump to the Senate until she sees ‘the process that is set forth’ to ensure a ‘fair’ trial. Democrats have questioned the impartiality of the Senate trial after Mitch McConnell said he’s coordinating with the White House to quickly acquit Trump.”
That was followed by a summary of the day’s events: A top State Department aide telling the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to step down and leave Kyiv before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits in January. The House passing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, now headed to the Senate; the Senate passing a a $1.4 trillion spending package to fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year. All of it sourced, and a three-minute read.
“If you’re a normal person, with a job and kids and errands and a life, it doesn’t leave you a lot of time to follow the news,” said Kiser, 36, a former programmer who left his job to run the site. “That’s what this was designed to solve.”
It started as a lark. In January 2017, Kiser was in Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington, held the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. He watched as then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer appeared on television for the first time to describe the inaugural crowd as “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” Spicer also accused The New York Times of printing a photograph showing “a misrepresentation” of the crowd.
Kiser knew then that he was going to have to watch what was coming out of the White House. So on the drive back to New York with friends, he scanned his Twitter feed for political stories. There were so many, he stored them into an Evernote file to read later.
“This was Day One of the Trump presidency,” he said, “and I’m already overwhelmed.”
Kiser decided to create a personal project where — for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency — he collated the news of the day into one readable, online package gleaned from reliable news sources.
“Politics have always been a difficult subject for regular people to follow,” Kiser said. “So many names and acronyms. It’s confusing. And in the time of Trump, it comes at you faster and has never stopped.”
He thought he would only do it for 100 days.
The Saturday after the inauguration, Kiser — who has worked as a product manager for newssites like Business Insider and Forbes — built a basic blog, then tweeted a link out to his 1,200 Twitter followers.
Then came Jan. 27 — the day of President Trump’s travel ban, which restricted travel to the United States for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The executive order affected 135 million people — a majority of them Muslim — and triggered protests and legal challenges.
When Kiser wrote up the day’s events, “The site just blew up overnight.”
When he created the website’s Facebook page, 3,600 people immediately followed. He now has 250,000 subscribers who receive a daily email; more than 56,000 followers on Facebook; 32,000 followers on Twitter and millions of views per day.
“It was supposed to be a personal project for myself,” Kiser said. “It’s grown beyond my expectations.”
Ninety days into the project, Kiser quit his job to do it full-time. Readers donate to the site to cover expenses like bandwidth and emails. (His wife works for Amazon, and they live on Seattle’s Capitol Hill).
His subscribers include Anthony DeRosa, the digital production manager for “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.”
“Matt’s newsletter is indispensable,” DeRosa said in an email. “There is a daily deluge of news regarding the current administration and Matt does a great job at giving me a concise digest of what I need to know.”
Kiser opens up home pages for every one of the websites he uses: national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. CNN. ABC. CBS. Politico and Axios. And The Guardian for the European perspective.
“I chose them not because they’re the mainstream media,” Kiser said, “These are organizations that actually break news and produce original reporting.”
He also sources to build trust with readers, and is sure not to include any adverbs or opinion.
“I don’t have an agenda,” he said. “This project is my trying to solve my own frustrations with the news.”
Here’s how he describes his thought process: “What is everyone leading with? Is it the same story? Then that’s the important story. And within that, there’s a hierarchy. You put all the stuff on the table, group and sort until you have a few small buckets.”
The site is also open-sourced, which means that anyone can go in and request to make an edit. There have been copy edits, but no big fixes.
“It makes it better and creates a sense of ownership,” Kiser said.
Seattle University political science professor Erik Olsen understands the need for Kiser’s website. Keeping up with the political events of the day, he said, is “quite overwhelming.”
“I have a good sense of that,” Olsen said, “and my students, who are political science majors.”
Olsen doesn’t read the site, “But what I read seemed pretty accurate to me,” he said. “What is ironic that it’s a straight reporting of facts. “
To prevent burn-out, Kiser spends his mornings “being a person away from the news,” drinking coffee, running and being outside. Then, at around 10 a.m., “It’s heads-down for a while.”
Not long ago, Kiser received a handwritten letter from a woman in her 30s who read each day’s posting to her grandmother, who was in hospice care. It captured exactly what he wanted for himself in the first place: A clear, concise, well-sourced handle on what was happening in national politics that day.
“Giving people that,” Kiser said, “is really important.”