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theSkimm’s readers have grown up, but it refuses to evolve with them

The newsletter unapologetically targets millennial women, but its jokey tone reinforces the sexist idea that women must confront harsh realities with a smile.

theSkimm’s readers have grown up, but it refuses to evolve with them
[Photos: Alexander Krivitskiy/Unsplash; Ivana Cajina/Unsplash]

Most days, I wake up at the crack of dawn and instinctively grab my phone.  I’m a working mom, so these early-morning moments are a precious opportunity to get up to speed about what’s going on in the world.

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A little after 6 a.m., a daily email called theSkimm pops up in my inbox. On its website, theSkimm describes itself as a newsletter that serves millennial women–in other words, women just like me–by creating a newsletter that makes it “easier to live a smarter life.” In a few digestible paragraphs, theSkimm’s writers identify the top news stories of the day from politics, global events, sports, and pop culture. If an issue is complicated like, say, the Mueller investigation, the newsletter helps simplify and contextualize it. (Fast Company contacted theSkimm, but its founders declined to be interviewed or provide comment for this story.)

The newsletter stands out from others on the market because of its tone, which is full of cutesy, internet vernacular riddled with puns, memes, cheesy jokes, and pop cultural references including idioms like “side convo,” and “guac.” It’s apparent from reading theSkimm that the founders worked hard to carefully craft the newsletter’s tone. In no other newsletter, for example, would you see a writeup about Paul Manafort’s crimes with the words, “Naughty, naughty.”

But this voice, which has come to define theSkimm brand, may also be its undoing. This tone seems designed to make the news more accessible, like you’re hearing it from your smart best friend or funny older sister. But this tone has also been polarizing: While some women like it, others find it grating and infantilizing.  And over the years, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly found myself in the second camp.

theSkimm was founded in 2012 by Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg, former NBC news producers looking to create the millennials’ answer to the morning news briefing.  They were in their mid-twenties when they launched the newsletter, and wanted to connect with young, educated, professional women like themselves.

But the founders are now both 32, and their original readers–like myself–are now in their late twenties and early thirties. We’re getting married, buying homes, and having children. We’ve matured, so it begs the question: Why hasn’t theSkimm evolved with us? If the newsletter remains stuck forever sounding like a 25-year-old trying hard to seem funny and relevant, theSkimm risks losing a large chunk of its base.

Defining the female voice

I was an early subscriber to theSkimm and had an evangelical fervor for it when it first started to appear in my inbox. I got my friends to sign up. I even got my mom to read it for a couple of weeks before she unsubscribed because she thought the writing was too silly. And it didn’t take long for me to realize she had a point. Over the years, I’ve spoken to many other readers who, like me, value the content, but find the language aggravating and gimmicky.

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The email’s subject is a line from a song or a movie, and has little to do with the content of the letter. (One day it is “You speak Prada?” and the next it’s, “Love you like XO.”) There are bad jokes throughout. (“Next up on Mark Zuckerberg’s Kindle: ‘How to Make Friends and Not Influence Elections.'”) It has its own lexicon of nicknames, referring to Apple as The Fruit, and the Supreme Court Justices as The Supremes.

I get that it’s supposed to make the email more readable, but in practice, the writing seems to treat readers as if they are incapable of processing words written in straightforward adult language. And given that theSkimm is distinctly and unapologetically directed at millennial women, this voice is also gendered as female. In other words, the suggestion is that this is how women–at least some contingent of them–process the realities of life.

This flippant tone gets downright callous when theSkimm includes truly tragic news in the email. On October 29, theSkimm featured news about the political crisis in Sri Lanka in this way:

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is having some issues. The prez and prime minister duo that came into power in 2015 promised to end corruption and human rights abuses. Turns out it’s more like drama and more drama. The prez booted his PM–which people are calling unconstitutional. It’s led to political chaos and violence.

In fact, the violence described in this paragraph turned deadly, with at least one person killed in Sri Lanka’s capital. I don’t think that “drama and more drama” and “some issues” is the appropriate tone to discuss death, human rights abuses, and corruption. And even more problematically, the language here obscures the facts, making them seem more trivial than they were. Interestingly, when theSkimm described the Pittsburgh synagogue killing in this same email, the writers refrained from using cheesy language (like “prez” and “duo”).

Expecting women to face tragedy with a smile

Many have criticized the founders for suggesting that women need the news dumbed down for them. This might be true, but it also taps into several sexist stereotypes about how women should relate to the world. theSkimm seems to think that a female-friendly approach to the news must be unrelentingly cheery and fun, even in the face of violence and tragedy. It is arguably tied to a larger narrative in which society expects women to face the world with a smile, a concept that many people have called out for being sexist. Or another sexist narrative is that women are not strong enough to face ugly realities without someone lightening the mood.

In practice, I don’t like going from meaningless yammering to true horror in the next breath. Take the way theSkimm handles child abuse on November 13.

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What to say when you’re tired of hearing the same problems . . . Fix your sh*t already. Yesterday, the Vatican told U.S. bishops to hit pause on taking action to address the Catholic Church’s decades-old sexual abuse problems.

And even in less tragic events like mass layoffs, for instance, the jokey, lighthearted language seems out of place. Take this section on November 30, which described how the media company Mic had to lay off much of its staff: “After the layoffs were announced, Bustle Digital Group said it’s snatching Mic up. Mic drop.”

theSkimm may be calculating that this breezy tone will help the reader “skim” through the newsletter more quickly, rather than stopping to dwell on ugly, horrible realities first thing in the morning. But it also minimizes injustice and tragedy, and makes it easy for the reader not to empathize with other people’s pain.

Compare this to The Hustle, another millennial-oriented current events newsletter that is gender neutral. This email presents the news in bite-sized pieces with some millennial phrases sprinkled in (“WTF,” “batshit”) but without the bubbly gloss. It reads like a straightforward news briefing, rather than an awkward standup comedy set. (“As dollar stores continue to move in, their low-income market is finding they’re not as much of a steal as the packaging advertises.”)

Or alternatively, The Broadsheet, which is written in the grownup voice of a mainstream media outlet and holds the reader’s attention with sharp analysis and a comprehensive overview of stories related to gender. (“Theresa May presses pause on Brexit, SoftBank adds the first female partner on its $100 billion Vision Fund, and big names converge in California for Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit.”)

The Power of theSkimm

Some writers have criticized theSkimm for encouraging young women to take a superficial approach to the news–to know just enough to sound intelligent at a cocktail party or in the elevator with their boss. A Slate writer called it “the Ivanka Trump of newsletters” because of its superficial and apolitical qualities.

I see where they are coming from, but I don’t agree. For some women, theSkimm is an important starting point to stay informed that will lead to a desire to delve deeper into topics they care about. And for others, it is one among several tools to stay on top of the news. I read theSkimm everyday, but I also listen to the New York Times Daily podcast, which goes into some depth about a big news story, and The Broadsheet, which highlights news relating to women.

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And importantly, theSkimm is well-researched and thorough. theSkimm is a reliable source of news for millions of young women, which is no small feat at a time when news overload is a real problem, and many people struggle to distinguish real news from fake.

Today, the newsletter has a whopping 7 million subscribers, 80% of whom are women, and 90% of whom are college-educated. This captive audience is attractive to advertisers. The brand raised a $12 million Series C round this summer and sought a valuation of $100 million. It now has 75 staff, and is growing quickly.

And there is evidence that theSkimm is leveraging its powerful platform to change readers’ behavior. theSkimm is nonpartisan–unlike other millennial-oriented companies like Crooked Media, which produces Pod Save America–which means it can engage young women across the political spectrum. theSkimm’s founders encourage readers to become more politically engaged by helping them register to vote, and navigate the issues around an election, from the candidates to initiatives on the ballot. In the lead-up to the midterm elections, theSkimm partnered with Rock The Vote to register 110,000 Skimm Readers–95,000 of whom were women–in a campaign called No Excuses.

theSkimm has evolved beyond its roots as a scrappy little newsletter with a gimmicky voice into a full-blown media company. It’s worked hard to grow its audience and it is now in the powerful position of influencing how millions of people think about current events. theSkimm is helping to launch a bloc of new voters into the world, many of whom are young women who could influence the outcome of the next presidential election. It has earned its powerful reach, but I would make the case that it needs to wield this power carefully.

theSkimm is helping to define what female-oriented news looks like. It might be time to start treating women like adults who are fully capable of facing the harsh realities of the world without a joke and a laugh. Otherwise, to use a phrase theSkimm drops on a weekly basis, some of us might just feel compelled to say, “Bye, Felicia.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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