On the morning of Oct. 20, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and pretty much every other major U.S. publication led with the previous night’s big story: the final presidential debate in Las Vegas.
At the Skimm, which sends a newsletter called Daily Skimm to the in-boxes of more than 4 million young professionals each morning, the debate was the main event, too. But the tenor of the Skimm’s coverage was, uh, less formal: “Trump and Hillz had a night out in Vegas,” the summary began. In Skimm parlance, “Hillz” is Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump doesn’t get a nickname, though during the 2012 election Mitt Romney was known as Mittens.
Given the Skimm’s chatty tone—and that the Oct. 20 edition also featured a story about a chain-smoking chimp—its take on the debate was surprisingly sober. It didn’t declare either candidate a winner, and their arguments were summarized faithfully. Trump and Hillz, the Skimm wrote, “brought their A-game.” Special praise was reserved only for moderator Chris Wallace, who handled the candidates “like a boss.”
It might be helpful to think of the Skimm as a millennial-friendly update to Henry Luce’s original Time magazine, combining an earnest journalistic comprehensiveness with in-jokes. As the name implies, the Skimm won’t satisfy any deep intellectual curiosity; it will help you avoid seeming uninformed at a cocktail party, though. Each blast consists of news summaries and links about politics, business, culture, and sometimes sports (under the heading “Balls”). It’s a throwback, especially at a time when new-media outlets such as BuzzFeed are tailoring content to readers based on interests or identities in the hope that it goes viral on Facebook and Twitter. The Skimm has a website and Facebook page, too, but the vast majority of readers consume it as an e-mail. There is no customization. There are no hot takes.
Founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin, both 30 and former NBC News producers, started the company in 2012 while sharing an apartment in New York. The idea arose from seeing most of their friends avidly consuming media, including lifestyle blogs, Instagram, and Netflix, while often remaining woefully underinformed about world events. “There was no news source geared to them,” Weisberg says, sitting on a sofa at Skimm headquarters in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. “There was such a trend toward personalizing the news with Twitter.” Zakin nods, finishing the thought: “Personalization was limiting the well-roundedness of people.”
Today, Weisberg and Zakin are co-chief executive officers and co-edit the newsletter. “The Skimm girl,” Weisberg says, “is that friend everyone has who’s sarcastic but always knows what’s going on.” Weisberg and Zakin argue that millennials value conventional news and aspire to a basic level of civic competence. The Skimm’s success suggests that what’s broken about the news isn’t the news, but the delivery mechanism.
Weisberg and Zakin met during a college study-abroad program in Rome and spent about three years as roommates. When they started at NBC after graduating in 2008—Weisberg from Tufts University, Zakin from the University of Pennsylvania—they thought they’d landed dream jobs. “We were both in love with news,” Weisberg says. “We wanted to be Katie Couric.”
They assumed they’d be promoted and eventually become anchors or executive producers. Then the recession hit, complicating an already grim picture for the networks. Older viewers were turning to opinion-driven cable channels such as Fox News; younger viewers weren’t watching TV at all. Weisberg and Zakin saw their careers going sideways. “That upwards trajectory just didn’t feel like it was there,” Weisberg says. “We saw our bosses taking buyouts.”
The friends chose to deliver their newsletter by e-mail partly to fit into the daily routines of their readers—twenty- and thirtysomethings check e-mail before getting out of bed—and also because e-mailing seemed easier than launching a website. They started the Skimm in July 2012, leading with a story about a bus bombing in Bulgaria.
Every night around dinnertime, Weisberg and Zakin would sit down to write, often working past midnight. To ensure timeliness, they slept in shifts, waking up once an hour to check that nothing new had happened in the world until they published at 6 a.m. Then they’d get a few hours of real sleep and begin their workday at about 10, meeting with potential investors, pitching friends in the press to cover their startup, and collecting e-mail addresses outside Equinox gyms and Starbucks coffee shops. “It was crazy,” Weisberg says. After six months, they refined their schedule: no editorial work before 4 p.m. and nothing related to the business after that.
Their approach, however, didn’t inspire confidence among the venture capitalists they pitched in 2013. Sites focused on video and social media sharing were the rage; the scuttlebutt in Silicon Valley was that young people were abandoning e-mail. “Everyone told us e-mail was dead,” Weisberg says. Zakin remembers people saying, “No one wants to invest in content.” “Basically,” Weisberg continues, “anything about the Skimm that today people celebrate, when we started, people hated.”
After more than 100 rejections, they landed $1.1 million in an investment round led by Homebrew, an early-stage venture capital firm founded by two former Google executives. “We thought this could be big, not just the DailyCandy of news,” says Homebrew’s Satya Patel, referring to the shopping newsletter popular in the mid-2000s. (NBC purchased it in 2008 and shut it down in 2014.) “Carly and Danielle can build the Skimm into the Oprah of their generation.”
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. The Skimm transitioned from a do-it-yourself guerrilla media property to a company employing 35, including software developers, ad salespeople, and full-time writers. “The first time someone asked, ‘What’s your ESP?’ ” Zakin recalls, using the acronym for e-mail service provider, “I was like, ‘Oh my God. They know I am psychic.’ We had no idea what these platforms were.”
Today, the Skimm’s audience may be modest compared with that of BuzzFeed, which attracts more than 200 million visitors a month, but it represents a coveted demographic. Eighty percent of its readers are women, most from 22 to 34. And the company boasts open rates—the percentage of e-mails actually read—of 35 percent, compared with typical rates, which, according to software provider MailChimp, are 21.5 percent. That means each day more than 1 million people read Daily Skimm. “They’re able to reach an audience that’s particularly hard to get to—young, successful women,” says Molly Peck, director of marketing for Buick, which has been advertising within Skimm e-mails since the beginning of 2016.