Yesterday I had the pleasure of a two hour trek on Metro North Railroad, so I decided to catch up on podcasts. I listened to the wonderful Another Round with Tracy & Heben (which I highly, highly recommend!) and then I caught up on Note to Self, the WNYC podcast about life in the digital age. (That is my very brief and probably inadequate description of it – it is a hard-to-describe show.) I do not always agree with Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi’s take on digital life, but that’s part of the reason I keep listening. She’s a Gen X’er, I’m a millennial, and I like comparing and contrasting our world views and trying to think about things a little differently, through her perspective.
The episode I listened to yesterday was about The Skimm, a news digest for millennial women that I had honestly only heard of in passing. I am out of the loop, apparently, because according to Zomorodi, millions of women my age subscribe to this daily newsletter and a whopping 40% actually open it on a regular basis. (And yes, 40% is a lot for an email newsletter.) A lot of episodes of Note to Self are crafted around the concerns or hesitations that Zomorodi has about different types of, or new uses for, technology. She is clearly not a big fan of The Skimm. She uses phrases like “dumbing down” and “disrespectful” to describe the way The Skimm writes about serious news topics in a conversational tone aimed at millennial women. The big example: a blurb about President Obama’s recent trip to Hiroshima that referenced Justin Bieber when explaining why some critics didn’t want the president to say “sorry” for the WWII bombings.
I get it. If you’re a classically trained journalist (in either the J School or hard news reporter sense of the term), I can see why you might cringe at seeing such dense, important topics shrunk down to a paragraph and delivered with levity. (Disclosure: I went to J School and am a journalist.) But most such journalists didn’t come of age during a time of intense competition for attention anything like what we have today. This is what The Skimm’s founders, Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, say is their real battleground. They are not trying to replace publications that take deeper dives into issues, and they aren’t claiming to be a one-stop destination for a full education on the news of the day. (They link to longer stories in each of their blurbs.) They understand something that I think can be hard for folks who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s to grasp, even if they have committed themselves to the new digital world: most people now have so much grabbing for their attention from every angle, and millennial women in particular are stretched so thin, are so close all the time to burnout, we literally do not have the time to be as well-read as our older colleagues may have been when they were our age.
My point isn’t that people like Zomorodi are just old fogies who don’t understand how the new world works. My point is that many of them grew up understanding the importance of media literacy and, more importantly, having it emphasized to them by parents or teachers or bosses or friends, or all of the above. I believe it was easier to learn how to work deep news reading into your daily life a few years ago, before Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat and Slack and Tinder and Instagram etc etc etc etc started competing for the new hottest commodity: attention.
On the Note to Self podcast, media reporter John Herrman suggested that the revulsion to bite-sized news like The Skimm might have more to do with the fact that it has identified and directly targeted a specific group. That’s necessarily exclusionary, and by speaking to (or “pandering to,” depending on your view) that group, The Skimm highlights the characteristics (or “stereotypes,” depending on your view) of that group that people love to hate. When Herrman asked what Zomorodi wanted from The Skimm regarding the Hiroshima blurb, she admitted that she wanted them to essentially break character, to tone it down.
But isn’t this what so many other news organizations do? Don’t Fox and MSNBC and even the New York Times, in its own way, “pander” to a specific audience, dog whistle and wink at a certain set of insiders at times? Isn’t that part of what makes a media brand unique?
And what about other newsletter digests? I read Quartz’s daily briefQuartz’s daily brief every day, at the suggestion of my own editor, and while it’s mostly straightforward blurbs with links, there is definitely some occasional snarking and joking in there. The Times itself has a morning email it calls the Briefing.
Blurbing the news isn’t new, so Zomorodi’s issue with The Skimm seems mostly to be with tone. But she also laments the fact that people reading news digests will form opinions based on only part of the picture. She doesn’t want to go to a dinner party where everyone has only read a paragraph about everything going on in the world, she’d rather “stay at home with her stacks of magazines.”
I think this is a limiting view. I read the New Yorker religiously, and I often find myself referring to things I’ve read in its pages that have opened my eyes to new ideas or new ways of looking at things that I never thought to dig into. But when someone I’m talking to at a party or dinner or meeting has no idea what I’m talking about, I relish the opportunity to share my knowledge — and often the magazine or link itself — with them. I think when we imply to people 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. As Weisberg and Zakin explain, the way news is presented and talked about often makes people feel stupid. That’s not going to encourage most people to dig deeper and try harder to understand things, it’s going to turn them off.
My point, essentially, is that it’s a privilege to poo-poo publications like The Skimm and their readers. Not everyone has time or energy to read stacks of magazines, and not everyone even knows what kind of reporting is available to them. As journalists, I think we need to do a better job of realizing that folks outside our circles can’t always be held to the same extremely high standards to which we often hold ourselves. We can’t expect people to have the same thirst for knowledge that we do, especially when we don’t have a good system, in the U.S. at least, for teaching media literacy. As The Skimm’s founders say, people who don’t eat, sleep and breathe news are still voting and communicating and choosing where to spend their very limited and highly coveted time and attention. What makes them less important?
I do understand, to a point, the worry that reading digests will make many people feel as if they’ve covered all they need to cover and don’t need to read deeper to truly understand issues. But the truth is that for a lot of people in this country — doctors, lawyers, fast food workers, single moms, cab drivers, anyone who works long hours or has a lot going on in their personal life, including myself at times — a blurb is the best they 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 can afford to consume. But isn’t that better than nothing?