Posted Thursday, July 19, 2012, at 2:17 PM
Photograph by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.
News aggregation is nothing new, but a newsletter startup called theSkimm has garnered unusual, mostly negative attention in recent days. Some of the attention is due to pedigree: TheSkimm is the brainchild of two women in their 20s who left NBC News, where they were producers, to launch the newsletter. And some of it is due to the tone and purpose: TheSkimm is meant to be a general-interest news briefing to prep women for dates, brunches, or the office, so that they will always be up to date on the events of the day. As Nitasha Tiku wrote at BetaBeat:
The idea of turning current events into cocktail party chit-chat sounds like fodder for an Aaron Sorkin diatribe on The Newsroom. But Ms. Weisberg says theSkimm’s target audience, female professionals in their 20s and 30s, don’t necessarily have the time or interest to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle. “For us, news has not only been our career, but it is our hobby and passion,” she said. “We don’t expect everyone else to share that but as journalists, it’s our job to keep people informed,” she added, couching theSkimm as a public good. “We’ve seen a lot of room for theSkimm in this demographic because women in this age range are out-earning men in degrees and paychecks. But women almost always score lower than men on current events tests.”
The critical reaction against theSkimm is perplexing. It's true that it could use fewer Jeremy Lin puns and more of the kind of content it puts at the top of the newsletters—concise summaries of big stories, breakdowns of the concepts involved, and explanations of why the stories matter. But there's really nothing weird or lazy about wanting a concise briefing on current events, something powerful people get in the form of news roundups from underlings and reports from experts, all of the time. And it's not as if women need theSkimm because we're too busy filling our heads with celebrity gossip or makeup tips to actually absorb hard news. In a world where women are supposed to stay on top of so-called "pink" topics that lots of men feel free to ignore, as well as being up to speed on general interest news, there's no shame in wanting a rundown that helps us be better, more active conversationalists, even if it doesn't make us experts.
Our suspicion of condensed news has some justification: There's nothing more irritating than someone making loud claims of half-baked expertise to dominate a conversation or to pontificate online. And many important stories these days do get reduced to TV soundbites. But, while it's possible to criticize the early iterations of theSkimm for being thin, I think its goal is also undervalued: helping people make good conversation. Having a basic sense of events—whether it be Jeremy Lin's move to the Houston Rockets or the news that the security contractors who are supposed to be handling the London Olympics spent $450 million and now say it wasn't enough—sets women up to know what they might expect when they walk into an exchange, and the ability to ask decent questions and make small talk on topics they might otherwise have not been fluent on. There's no reason why any of us should be ashamed of getting a general lay of the land that gives us time to focus on the things we are passionate and deeply informed about.
It's not only busy professional women who could stand to get breakdowns of issues and downloads of gossip. theSkimm may be oriented toward women, but it's just a repackaging of the gender-neutral act of headline scanning that most people do every day. If we all looked at our quick reads not as a way to pretend we're polymaths, but as tools to engage with people who know more about any given issue than we do, and to get more out of our conversations with them, we'd be better off. Whether you're a man or woman, being smart isn't always about knowing the answer. Often, it's about identifying the right question.