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Why presidential candidates are turning to TheSkimm

In an era when young people are increasingly staying home on Election Day, candidates are seeking new ways to engage female millennials.

In an era when it seems that young people are increasingly tuning out of politics, presidential candidates are seeking new ways to engage a potentially promising voting bloc: millennials--specifically female millennials. And to do it, they're turning to an unlikely source: TheSkimm.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton participated in a Q&A with the three-year old website and newsletter geared toward millennial women on Thursday. Half a dozen other candidate interviews have also been published -- including Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Republican former Gov. George Pataki of New York, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

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TheSkimm often handles weighty issues of national import — but it does so in a breezy way, almost as if its readership is sipping cocktails with the next generation of the "Sex and the City" gals. So while candidates are asked to weigh in on serious issues like education, the Iran nuclear deal and the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, the interviews are also handled in typical Skimm fashion -- which is entirely atypical for national politics. 

We now know, for example, how Clinton takes her coffee ("black, sometimes with cream or milk"), how many times she hits the snooze button in the mornings (well, it "depends") and what she’d ask the White House chef to make for her first meal if she’s elected (anything with "chocolate in it, on it, around it." )

In many ways, the platform makes a lot of sense. According to the two founders, Danielle Weisberg, 28, and Carly Zakin, 29 (two former associate producers at NBC News), there are more than 1.5 million people who subscribe to TheSkimm's morning newsletter that summarizes the day’s top headlines. The primary demographic is women between the ages of 22 and 34 who live in big cities throughout the U.S. The candidate interviews – which have their own vertical on the website called “SKIMM for 2016” -- also gives  candidates the opportunity to show their personal side, and cozy up to the cool youngsters who could help fuel their candidacies.

“We have a busy audience that’s looking to us for what they need to know to start the day,” said Weisberg. On the presidential candidate interviews specifically, Zakin said, “We allow the candidates to show their personalities. We look at this as a first round job interview,” pointing out how the two always ask what the White House hopefuls strengths and weaknesses are. “It’s more conversational, and they let their guard down a little bit,” Zakin added.

Pataki, for example, was asked who should be called as references for him -- and the former governor joked that his two dogs, Balto and Bradley, “think a great deal of me.” Chaffee recounted how he and his old high school dorm-mate and GOP competitor, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, played in some “spirited games of ping pong.” Sanders said his greatest weakness is that he’s “not as sociable as he could be.”

But for all the fanfare and obvious popularity of the newsletter and website, TheSkimm has also had its fair share of detractors, who argue that the chatty style and tone speaks down to women, and not-so-subtly suggests that they need a "for girls" version of the news. The logo of TheSkimm is a pearl-donning, high-heels-wearing woman with a purse and iPad. The newsletter often employs arguably regressive lead-ins like “What to say to your friend who won’t put her phone away at dinner,” “What to say when you show up in the same shirt as your co-worker,” and “What to say at the nail salon.”

Jennifer Pozner, the director of advocacy group Women in Media and News, argued that TheSkimm should have more respect for the demographic it’s trying to reach. “We shouldn’t need cutesy logos and dumbed-down language as our assumption for what we need to reach out to young women,” said Pozner, who noted Clinton, during her interview, was asked by TheSkimm about “this whole ISIS thing.”

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“I’m still waiting for the day when political news is presented to women as if we are thinkers and voters and active members of the citizenry first, rather than those people that need the pink legos instead of the blue ones,” she added. Ponzer said it doesn’t bother her – or surprise her -- that politicians are trying to get their message out to a wide variety of audiences. Nor is it unusual. Take for example, Obama’s 2014 interview with comedian Zach Galifianakis .

“What bothers me is the outlet’s attitude toward the reader ... My issue is with the founders who think this is the most productive, most interesting, most useful way to reach women,” said Pozner.

The criticism, however, is something Weisberg and Zakin have heard, and something they say they're not worried about. Weisberg said TheSkimm is “not a one size fits all news approach” and that at the end of the day, “we’ve introduced a product people like and are reading every day.”

The company, started by the two then-roommates on their couch in their New York apartment, has expanded to include 13 other full time employees and an office that’s not their apartment. While the newsletter has not yet been profitable, the founders said they recently received $6.25 million in venture capital funding. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and actress Reese Witherspoon are fans.

There's clearly a space for TheSkimm. Julie Burton, president of the Women’s Media Center, called news media “a buffet of sorts—you choose what you’re interested in .... There is a value in different formats of news presentation. Some of us love long-form journalism that provides an in-depth exploration of an issue ... and others just want a news brief — like TheSkimm — that is conversational and touches on news highlights.”