Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Amanda: We launched The 19th almost a month ago now. Our goal is to create a new nonpartisan news platform dedicated to covering the intersection of gender politics and policy. Our target audience is women, but also those who identify with and as women.
And basically the gap that we see that we’re attempting to fill is just a dedicated platform that is examining these issues, policy issues, as it impacts women, and that seeks to elevate the voices of women at the margins, sort of off the coasts; women of colour, communities of colour, just the voices that we’re not hearing enough of in mainstream coverage. That’s really the long and the short of it.
Esther: You launched this with Emily Ramshaw, and you both left the Texas Tribune to launch this. How did that happen? Did you both see something at the same time that needed to happen?
This is really Emily’s brainchild. And I think she would say that the seeds of this were really planted for her as she became a new mother, a first time mother around the time of the 2016 election. And I think that had a profound impact on the way that she reevaluated not only the journalism and the stories that she was reading, but also the way that they were being produced frankly. How do we assign stories? What do we even conceive of as worthy of a story? Whose bylines are we seeing on a day to day basis? Are those bylines that we can identify ourselves in and with? Who’s making these decisions? I think the seed for her was planted then.
And about a year ago now she came to me just from a conference really where she was kicking around revisiting this idea with others, and just I think it snowballed for her in realising we’re coming up upon another election cycle and imagining that someone would have thought, given all of the coverage around the Me Too movement, given the fact that we have more women running for president now than ever before, that someone would think of this idea, but no one else had.
And so I think she is the catalyst really for The 19th, and taking that germ of an idea and raising it as a question to me, like, do you think that we could actually make this a reality? And about a year later the answer is yes.
And we are so thrilled to be in a position where The 19th, the beginnings of The 19th are here. We have the website up and running, we have the mission out into the world, we’re beginning to hire. And the next step for us is creating what we hope is one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse newsrooms in the country, to really reimagine how we tackle politics and policy coverage.
And touching on that. I mean, women is a huge – well, it’s a 50% of the country demographic in theory -and you’ve already touched a bit that you want to make it diverse. I mean, this is aimed at women at all ends of the spectrum? What does that women-focused news lens look like?
Sure. I mean, first of all, it starts with not treating women as a monolithic voting bloc and acknowledging that women are in and of themselves a diverse voting bloc, whether it comes to where you live, whether it comes to your race, your socioeconomic status, your ideology.
I can tell you, I am a Mexican American, I’m the daughter of an immigrant, and I think oftentimes the way that I see Latinos portrayed in the mainstream media, or even just observing how things play out in Texas, it’s always way more nuanced than I feel is represented in mainstream media.
And so trying to hire a newsroom, who’s primary objective is to really put their selves in the shoes of the audience that we’re serving, and who can draw on their own lived experiences and in community as well as reaching out to our audience and trying to understand more about what they are living through as it comes to how policy impacts their lives day to day.
I think it’s just a fundamentally different way of approaching political journalism, which we can see here in an election year, a lot of it is so much of the rise and fall of candidates and the horse race. And it’s really just a different tack.
We’ve got a rule about not mentioning Trump’s name, but I can’t when you’re talking about something like this! You’ve got characters like Trump, and you’ve got the coverage of him that is so polarised. And I know you said you want The 19th to kind of try and be a bit more nonpartisan, but from the women’s perspective, sometimes it feels like there almost isn’t a balance you can provide on that kind of thing. So how are you going to approach if Trump makes comments about women and things like that?
I mean, we’re going to approach it the same way that we approach all of our coverage, which is to stick to the facts and the facts of what we’re seeing, in terms of what women are saying matters to them, what issues matter to them most. The barriers or obstacles that women who are running for elected office face.
I mean, equity is going to be sort of a through line in all of our coverage, whether that’s access to the voting booth, access to elected office, access to executive ranks in corporate America or frankly, those who are showing up at work day to day and not realising the wages that they necessarily deserve.
So I think there’s plenty of room for us to cover some of these thornier issues by simply opening up our notebooks, making ourselves accessible to our audience and inviting their tips, their stories, their perspectives, and covering using the same kind of data-driven, fact based approach to journalism that we’ve done.
I was at the Texas Tribune for four years, Emily for the better part of a decade. I come from ProPublica and The Washington Post, and both of us have a long history of really high quality, credible fact-based journalism. And that’s what we’re planning on replicating here in The 19th newsroom.
Are there lessons are going to be taking from your time at the Texas Tribune? Because you were Chief Audience Officer?
Most certainly, I think the revenue model is going to be one thing that we carry with us, we’re going to be a nonprofit. But we feel like a diverse revenue model is the way to go.
So we’re going to be leaning on a mix of foundation and major philanthropy funds. We’re going to be leaning on corporate revenue through some digital advertising and sponsorship. We’re also going to have events as a key ingredient, not only in the revenue mix, but also in something that differentiates the journalism.
We think that events are an opportunity to engage in acts of live journalism, and bringing our audience together in conversation with newsmakers, elected officials, with each other, with us. So there’s so much that we are going to be bringing with us in terms of what we learned at the Texas Tribune and bringing it to a national platform, and seeing what more there is to learn, and how we can scale it for a national audience.
We think we have all the right ingredients, and we’re really eager to get started.
And at the moment, you’ve got some articles running on the Washington Post, haven’t you? Will that partnership continue past August?
I most certainly hope that we will continue to partner with the Washington Post and many other news organisations. I think, the other ingredient I forgot to mention in terms of what we’re bringing with us from the Texas Tribune is our distribution model, which is that, unlike commercial media people, we are not expecting to put our content behind a paywall ever.
Our content will be free to read, but also free to republish, and one of the ways that we feel that we meet our mission in terms of providing a public service and making this journalism as accessible as possible to the women who we hope to reach, is to make it as easy as possible for publishers around the country, whether they’re daily newspapers, regional newspapers, community publishers, to pick up our content and republish it.
So, yes, I hope that we continue to publish through the Washington Post. We have a lot of good relationships with newsrooms around the country, and we think we’re going to continue to carry that spirit of collaboration forward in a way that hopefully helps us reach more of the women that we are hoping to reach
You mentioned it a little bit, but you’ve worked in a number of really prestigious legacy newsrooms in the past; Washington Post, ProPublica. But running a startup newsroom is going to be a completely different kettle of fish. So what are some of the things you’re maybe looking forward to tackling, or challenges that you’re anticipating?
Oh, actually I will confess that I have a tiny bit of experience in startup mode. I had a brief stint at the Huffington Post, I think 2009 right after the financial crash. There was a short lived but very instructive experience for me, in any case, starting up the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which was also meant to be an investigative nonprofit.
And I think that was a nice bit of trial by fire, in terms of having a sober understanding of how much work it would be! I mean really when you go into startup mode, I mean, it’s all hands on deck, you’re wearing so many hats. And so we’re totally in that mode right now, in firehose mode. It’s so overwhelming, it’s also so much fun!
And I think one of the things that is the most exciting is that we really do get to create something from scratch, and not just the words on a page. But again, it’s the newsroom that we are hiring, and the culture that we are creating, embracing the idea that women deserve to have a strong…the opportunity to take the time to have a child or to take care of a family member.
Our paid leave policy was created and designed with that in mind, and just all of those details that go into, not just again, not just putting the stories out day to day, but really creating the environment that we feel like is going to be conducive to creating the journalism that we feel like we want to see more of in the world, but also creating the kind of newsroom culture that we feel like will be conducive to that journalism.
So you’ve really got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. What does that team like at the moment, who have you got on board?
Sure. Well, we have, let’s see, there are six of us now. We have Andrea Valdez, who is our Editor in Chief. She came to us from the Texas Observer.
And we have Errin Haynes, who is just an incredible force of a journalist who is covering the 2020 campaign trail for us. It’s Errin’s stories that you will find if you sign up for our newsletter, we send a roundup of her stories every Friday, but they’re also in the Washington Post.
We have Johanna Derlega who is leading up our corporate revenue operation and helping us gather the sponsors to our products that we are looking to sustain the business with the corporate revenue side of things.
And of course, Emily Ramshaw, who’s our CEO and my co founder and partner in crime in all of this.
We also have a lovely CFO, his name is Jeff Dean, and he is helping us with all of our running the numbers and making sure that what we have planned is sustainable, and that we’re being as smart as we can about all the day to day decisions that we’re making.
And so it’s a really solid team so far, and right now we’re really focused on hiring up the journalists in the newsroom, hiring up all of the product roles, the design, audience engineering roles that we need to create the platform now that we have dreamed of creating.
When the site goes live in August, which will come up quite quickly, what’s top of your to do list? What do you want to achieve in those first couple of months?
Well, we certainly want to have the kind of journalism around the 2020 race that serves our audience and that we feel like helps our readers evaluate what’s happening in a new way.
We’re also going to have someone based in Congress helping to look at the races, the women candidates who are running there, we’re going to have reporters embedded in the women’s electorate, with their ear to the ground with Latina voters, with black voters, with voters and different communities. We’re going to have reporters focused on health, the economy, looking at policy that’s burbling up in state houses that affects women.
So, I mean, we have a fairly ambitious coverage plan, we certainly are going to continue to focus on how the presidential election is playing out. We also have a listening tour that kicks off in April, actually, and that will continue right up through the election, where we’re asking women what issues matter most to you as we head into November. And we will expect to be reporting out on some of what we learned over the course of that six month period, as we get geared up for November.
So, yeah, I think we really are excited about just getting our journalism on the line and understanding actually, that we’re going to constantly be learning; every day that we publish is an opportunity to learn more about our audience and hear from our audience, and I think that’s going to be another key ingredient to doing what we do. And engagement is a big part of our strategy.
We want to not only be reporting the news, but engaging our audience in the news, and that means listening, creating opportunities for us to listen to them, whether it’s at our events or through online channels or the newsletter, and reporting back based on what we learned.
And a big question, if we’re looking five years down the line, what will success look like to you for The 19th?
Oh, gosh, tough question! I’m just trying to get through the end of year one, but I mean, I hope that we are a mainstream name that people, when they are thinking about what’s happening on the political landscape, on the national landscape when it comes to news, that we’re a household name, that people know what The 19th is, and that we have really moved the needle on driving change within the news industry and helping to remake what we think of when we think of political journalism.
That we have moved the needle when it comes to equitable coverage, and that by extension, having an impact with coverage that draws attention to areas, whether it’s in politics or beyond, where women are not necessarily having the opportunities that they should. So, yeah, that’s sort of a long and roundabout answer.
But we want to be a household name. And we want to be known for strong journalism that’s all about helping level the playing field for for women when it comes to politics and policy.