In defense of The Skimm

June 6, 2017

Every weekday around 6:45 am, I get an email with a subject line that manages to allude to both a major news item and a pop-culture meme. Sometimes the latter goes over my head, but the former is always a pretty good indication of what I’ll find in the email, known as The Skimm. It’s a newsletter created by two 20-something women who left their jobs as NBC News producers in 2012 to create something a little more accessible. They claim to have an open rate of more than 40-percent, and during the 2016 US presidential election they helped register 110,000 people to vote. Some critics aren’t happy about either of those things.

Last month, Christina Cauterucci of Slate became the latest vocal critic of The Skimm, lambasting its twee style and colloquial voice as effectively a training tool for an army of ill-informed Ivanka Trumps. “Imagine if Politico’s Playbook were translated by a chatbot that learned the English language from The Simple Life, Daily Mail headlines, and Nick Jr.,” Cauterucci wrote. The Skimm is scary, according to Cauterucci, but the most terrifying part is that “those people can vote.”

What’s scarier to me as a journalist is the rejection of an entire group of news consumers. Yes, the news is often complicated. Yes, we should encourage readers to pay attention for more than a few minutes each day. But when we imply that there is only one “right” way to consume the news, or to be informed, we exclude people who don’t—or can’t—fit that mold. And that’s not something we have the luxury of doing right now. Nor should it be our goal.

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As The Skimm’s founders (and many Trump voters, including in my own family) have explained, the way news is presented often makes people feel stupid. They feel talked down to, or chastened for not already having a certain level of knowledge. Calling a news digest’s readers, as Slate did, “people who don’t take pride in their ignorance, per se, but who also don’t particularly care about gaining a nuanced understanding of politics and policy” is not just presumptuous. It plays into claims of elitism that have lost us the trust of much of the American public.

Since the election, journalists have been doing a lot of soul searching, and much has been written about how reporters and editors need to work harder to connect with swaths of the country they’ve long ignored, especially the rural poor. That isn’t necessarily The Skimm’s demographic: The company didn’t respond to a request for demographic information, and the only publicly available number is that 80 percent of its social media followers are women. But the newsletter is reaching out to a group, millennial women, that is underserved in other ways, regularly underestimated, and written off at times as entitled and uninterested. What we as journalists haven’t yet seemed to grasp is that to reach more people—whether in a factory in Kentucky or at a cocktail party in Manhattan—our approach may need to change. The goal can’t be to turn everyone into a newshound. If we want people to get more comfortable with the news, we have to get more comfortable meeting them where they are.

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I first heard about The Skimm on the WNYC podcast about digital life, Note to Self. In the episode, “What Happens When We Skimm The News,” host Manoush Zomorodi expressed similar concerns to those later voiced (more snarkily) by Cauterucci. They both use phrases like “dumbing down” and “verbal eye-rolls” to describe the way The Skimm writes about serious news topics. Zomorodi’s example: a blurb about then-President Obama’s trip to Hiroshima that referenced Justin Bieber when explaining why some critics didn’t want the president to say “sorry” for the WWII bombings. One of the things that seemed most “dangerous” to Cauterucci was introducing a story about Chelsea Manning like this: “What to say when your friend asks what time you can get drinks after work… I’ll be free earlier than expected. Just like Chelsea Manning.”

The Skimm’s editors understand something folks who are constantly steeped in news struggle to grasp: Not everyone is like us. News consumers contain multitudes.

I’ve been reading The Skimm almost daily for about a year as part of a broader media diet, and I understand some of the criticism. I sometimes find the language cringe-worthy, or the reach for a pop-culture connection awkward. But there’s a lot of overlap between The Skimm and what The New York Times and Washington Post cover in their own daily digests. It’s mainly the tone that’s different. And even when I don’t relate to the tone of The Skimm, I also appreciate that, as a journalist—even one who’s a millennial woman—I’m not its target audience. And ultimately, my desire for more people to read and trust the news outweighs any concern about how it’s delivered, as long as it’s accurate and well-sourced (as The Skimm appears to be). Tone, language, and strategy can be adjusted, but none of that matters if no one is paying attention.

Critics like Cauterucci and Zomorodi say they are most concerned that Skimm readers will do only that—skim, and never truly understand the news they’re reading. But the newsletter doesn’t claim to be a one-stop destination for a full education on the news of the day. It links to longer stories from wire services and major news publications in each of its blurbs, and curates longer packages about important issues like immigration and the investigation into the Trump administration’s potential ties to Russia.

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The Skimm’s editors understand something folks who are constantly steeped in news struggle to grasp: Not everyone is like us. News consumers contain multitudes. I read The Skimm, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker religiously. (And I confidently vote!) I also have many well-educated, hardworking friends, including fellow journalists and photographers, students, new mothers, nonprofit employees, and service workers, who look to The Skimm for an accessible news digest on the way to work or on their lunch breaks. They vote, too, and why shouldn’t they?

The truth is a blurb is the best many people can do. Sometimes a blurb leads to clicking a link and diving down a rabbit hole of stories and videos on a new subject. A lot of the time, a few sentences are all someone will consume. But that’s a start. And if we want to broaden the scope of people who trust us, if we want to shake off the label of “elitism,” we need to get comfortable breaking some of our old rules.

“Some stories weren’t meant to be viewed through a lens of bottomless sangria,” Cauterucci writes. Maybe. But if sangria gets someone interested in a topic they may not have felt smart enough—or respected enough—to understand before, it just might be worth it.

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Kaitlin Ugolik is a journalist based in New York who covers the law, health, technology, and the media.