About a month ago, I sent an email to Emily Ramshaw, then editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune, to check on her during her last day. We’ve been friends for years, bonding over journalism and motherhood, and I wanted to see how she was faring after ten years at the Tribune. In November, she had announced that she was starting her own nonprofit news venture: the 19th*, a national outlet named after the Nineteenth Amendment that focuses on “the intersection of gender, politics, and policy.” (The asterisk in the logo is meant to acknowledge the Nineteenth Amendment’s original limited application to white women.)
Ramshaw responded by telling me that she had chewed her nails down to the nubs, and that she would be waiting for me at a bar at 5 p.m. There, New York Times Magazine/ProPublica reporter Pamela Colloff, and Andrea Valdez, then editor-in-chief of the Texas Observer (both formerly of Texas Monthly), joined us. As Valdez slid into a chair opposite Ramshaw, she told us that she’d just given notice at her post. My head swiveled as Valdez explained that she was leaving the Observer to become the 19th*’s founding editor.
While traditional for-profit media has been struggling in the past few years—seeing declining revenues, struggling newsstands, and layoffs—we are living in a boon time for nonprofit news organizations—not just in Texas with the Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer, but nationally, with the likes of ProPublica, the Marshall Project, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. (One study by Bill Birnbauer, author of The Rise of Nonprofit Investigative Journalism in the United States, found that the 20 largest nonprofit news organizations received $423.1 million in donations between 2009 and 2015.) We’re also living in an era of increasing interest in women’s issues—and it’s striking to imagine that focus covered through a nonprofit news lens for the first time.
Last Monday, on Valdez’s first day at the 19th*’s new office, I sat down with her and Ramshaw to discuss their journey thus far and their plans going forward as they prepare their official launch date this summer.
Texas Monthly: Can you tell me how this idea came to be?
Emily Ramshaw: So the real genesis of the idea was [several] years ago when I was on maternity leave, Donald Trump had just been inaugurated, and there were all these women’s marches, and the #MeToo movement was well under way. And it occurred to me, like, there’s now a nonprofit newsroom for virtually everything. Why has nobody taken this model and extended it to women, politics, and policy? Which was like the only thing I really cared about more deeply than Texas politics and policy. But for many reasons, it was not the right time for me to even begin to consider that.
And so I really put it on the back burner and just assumed I would look on excitedly when somebody else did it. And then about a year ago, I was at a conference and I probably had too many glasses of wine, and I sat up in the middle of the night and was like, “Oh, my God, wait, I still have this idea. And nobody has done it yet. Why has nobody done it? Maybe nobody’s done it because it’s a dumb idea, but it’s a dumb idea that I can’t get out of my head.” And at that moment, I just decided that I had to see if I could make it work.
TM: And that was when?
ER: That was in February—late February or early March of 2019.
TM: So it’s February 2020, a year later, and you’re already set up in the new office?
ER: I’m an exceedingly impulsive person. And when I get an idea in my head, I just don’t look, I just leap.
TM: Did you ever think of just doing more stories about women in the Texas Tribune?
ER: No. My vision was always national because I think the same way Texans really identify as Texans, women identify with other women. The vision for me was always national. The vision was that women make up more than half the population, the majority of the electorate. And they don’t have a community that’s just their own.
TM: Did you ever think that maybe there was a different approach besides nonprofit?
ER: I did for a hot second. I thought about it really hard, but then there were a handful of deal-breakers for me. I wanted the journalism to be free to consume. I wanted the journalism to be free to distribute to other news organizations. I didn’t want to load up a news product that took women and women’s voices seriously with trashy advertising. And therefore, I wanted the benefits to be extraordinary. And all of those things taken together made for what looked to be a highly sustainable nonprofit.
TM: Can you talk about the 19th*’s editorial vision?
Andrea Valdez: Emily and I have talked a lot about what that vision looks like. You know, broadly, as we’ve said, it is the intersection of gender, politics, and policy. And I think that that means looking at all issues through the lens of it being a women’s issue. And then as far as the tone: approachable, knowledgeable, not pretentious. That’s important to me as far as tone goes. As far as cadence goes, I want people to come and see us as a resource that they can look to and read several times a week. And we’re hiring right now so that we have more reporters who are writing. We’re thinking hopefully fifteen to eighteen times a week.
And then as far as who these voices are, it’s very important to me that it’s really representative of the country. So people that are geographically representative, socioeconomically representative, racially representative, those are kind of all the key things to me. And that starts with the story ideas. It starts with the writers.
TM: When you’re hiring, what are you hearing from journalists who are out in geographic areas that aren’t as well represented? Are there frustrations that led them to want to come on board? “Nobody will let me write about topic X?”
AV: I haven’t heard that. I mean, I’ll let Emily answer, too. But what I have really heard more of is people that are very excited at the notion because it is something where once you hear it, you wonder to yourself, why doesn’t it exist? Why hasn’t it existed? And people are really eager to have their voices represented. And so it hasn’t been so much a frustration. It’s just an opportunity, and people are seizing on that idea.
ER: There are two things I’ve heard. The first is that we’re hearing from a ton of women who either left the industry or are feeling like they have to leave the industry because the industry doesn’t work for them and their families—so we’re hearing from a ton of women who were sort of on the rise in their professional trajectories, had kids, and felt like the pace and the lifestyle and the leave policies and the benefits in journalism were not conducive to striking the balance they needed to strike. You’ve seen what our plans are for six months of paid family leave, four months of paid caregiver leave—you know, flexible work.
TM: I actually gasped, I think, when I first read that. In a good way.
ER: I could be wrong about this, but I don’t know any other news organization in the country that has a more generous policy than that. And our goal is not just to transform journalism, but to transform the industry, and the way it works for women and for working parents more broadly. I’ve also heard from a lot of women who said the lines of storytelling that they were pursuing around gender, around equity, were not the top priority for their news organizations. And that when there were jobs and beats on the chopping block that were pushed to the side, they were the first to go. I think it’s why you see so many women in the freelance market in this space.
We all have peers who fall into this category—or they’ve decided, you know, they try to freelance after having a kid because it’s more flexible, but then they don’t have the benefits. I say this a lot, but in the breaking news space, the worst time of the day is 5 to 8 p.m. And that’s also truly the only time of day you get to spend with your kid. Beyond fleeting moments—rushing them out the door in the morning for school—those two things just are not conducive to any kind of work-life balance.
TM: And it seems like framing and focus can be more liberating than restrictive. Are there stories you feel like you weren’t seeing or that you couldn’t see as well before you started thinking in these terms?
AV: Yeah. For me, I feel like it’s permission to think about those things fully and not have to think of it as the kind of “oh yeah” part of your job, you know? I think we are so trained to look at things globally or not focus through that particular lens. So, for instance, today I was reading a story that Lyz Lenz wrote for the Iowa paper about childcare for people going to the caucuses. And it was one of those things where it’s an important story. It’s an obvious story in a lot of ways, but didn’t get a lot of coverage. It’s getting passed around a lot because it’s affecting 50 percent of the caucus-goers in Iowa, 50 percent of the electorate.
TM: We’re just accustomed to everything from taxes on tampons to the maternal mortality rates. Prioritizing those things can feel alien. Have you gotten much feedback from women about how that’s striking them? Like, “Well, yeah. That does actually piss me off quite a lot”?
ER: I mean, you forget that these things piss you off. Right? I mean, I was talking to somebody the other day about a first-world problem: the fact that when my husband and I both go to a concert and we both have to go to the bathroom, that he misses maybe half of one song, and I miss three songs. This is design bias. There are so many things like that. The tax on feminine products, feminine hygiene products. We don’t remember to stop and be angry over how unfair that is. And then when you get down into the balancing act between childcare and the school day and minimum wage jobs, the unfairness of it all is staggering. And I think there isn’t enough storytelling where the emphasis is on exposing disparities and advancing equity through storytelling.
TM: I was looking around for any news outlets in this sphere right now. There were some popular websites like the now-defunct Hairpin that addressed women’s issues. Jezebel and Ms. are still around, but those outlets consider themselves feminist outlets. How do you think about that?
ER: Do we identify as feminists?
TM: I just noticed the word wasn’t on your website, whereas it was always a flag for Ms.
ER: The actual dictionary definition of feminism is around advocating for equality of the sexes, and that’s fundamental to everything we’re doing. Equity is a question of parity. Look, we’re standing on the shoulders of the women-focused news organizations that have come before us and the women-focused news organizations that are already in the field, and we will be adding to the dialogue. I feel very strongly on this that more is more is more. We have not, even with existing organizations, we have not made a dent in advancing true parity in our industry or nationally. I think you see a whole wide range of business models. I do think that one of the big reasons we’re advocating for ours is because I believe in a highly diversified nonprofit model from the standpoint of funding that ranges from philanthropic and foundation support to corporate underwriting. I do think you see struggles of a space where it is either-or. So I’m excited to bring this model to this space, acknowledging that this is a total experiment.
TM: I know there are plenty of topics that bring all women together, like equal pay for equal work. But what is your thinking when it comes to more divisive issues? I know how Ms. would cover abortion. How are y’all planning to cover that?
AV: Facts. Evidence-based, scientific reporting is the way that we’re thinking about it. Just like you would report any story—fully and completely.
ER: And I think acknowledging that women aren’t monolithic, that there are a lot of women and men with very nuanced and complicated views on nuanced and complicated subjects. And I think it’s really critical to me that we cover all women with empathy and make a great effort to understand where they’re coming from and why they believe what they believe.
TM: Can you talk about any issues you plan to hit hard straight out of the gate when you launch in August?
AV: We’re hiring a women-in-statehouses reporter, and I think that will help us get some geographic diversity. I think oftentimes you see legislation that happens on the local and state level that bubbles up to the national level, and so we’ll be looking at different statehouses across the country to seeing what trends and what legislation is happening there. We’ll have a women-in-the-economy reporter. I am very interested in what women in the workplace look like. I think we talk a lot about women as CEOs and women representation in leadership, and those are really important stories, but I’m equally interested in women in everyday industries. Let’s see; what else? We’ll have someone who’s looking at the congressional level and then right now our editor at large is Errin Haines, and she is on the campaign right now.
TM: What does success look like in a year?
ER: Well, we’re far exceeding our early membership goals. We’re exceeding our early fund-raising goals.
TM: Are you surprised?
ER: Yeah, totally … you never know how these things are going to play. I think something’s a great idea, but that doesn’t mean that the world thinks something’s a great idea. And the week of our launch, we’d raised almost a hundred thousand dollars, most of that in nineteen-dollar increments. We had 3,000 newsletter subscribers, 14,000 Twitter followers, and just an outpouring of excitement and job applications and thank-yous. And it was super reaffirming. So, yeah, we feel even more mobilized and energized to make this what women hope and believe it will be.
AV: Editorially, I think what success looks like is that people are reading our stuff, that they’re passing it around, they’re talking about it, that they’re pushing us to cover more and they’re interacting with our stories, commenting on them. I mean, to me, it’s a matter of generating conversation and being a part of that.
TM: Besides the fund-raising, what has been the biggest challenge?
ER: For me, it’s been that so much of the fund-raising is outside of Austin. I’m traveling a lot, away from my four-year-old, more than I imagined I would be. And so I’m trying to jam as many of these trips into first flight out, last flight back. I am a road warrior right now. And I foolishly didn’t assume that that would be the case. I was trying to build a lifestyle that was even more conducive to mine. That’s been tricky. I’m navigating things that I hope we’re able to think about and write about. That’s been the most challenging piece for me, but also the most energizing because—
TM: It’s the whole mission, right.
ER: Yeah, and the overwhelming majority of our big funders thus far are women who are totally jazzed about this. And so it’s also thrilling, as hard as it is. And I’m a first-time CEO. I had no idea. Andrea and I both worked for [Texas Tribune founder and former Texas Monthly editor in chief and president] Evan Smith, who is an incredible model in this space. But it’s totally terrifying to jump off of that cliff and suddenly have 22 people dependent on you to make sure their salaries get paid.
TM: Are you writing for women or is it everybody?
AV: I mean, I want my husband to read the work that we’re doing and understand these stories and be just as compelled by them as anybody else.
ER: We’re writing for anyone who identifies as or identifies with women. And that should be 100 percent of the population.
AV: Right. I mean, I was actually talking to a young reporter about this the other day. Like, what are the things that I want to do thematically with my life? And that’s grow as a person, build things, and be a support system for the people that are in my life. So making sure that I’m hitting my thematic goals for my life. In terms of my week to week, am I putting all of the new applications into a system so I can make phone calls? Reading cover letters? I mean, those things. So that’s the challenge. But, you know, that’s just a matter of wanting it and feeling, like Emily said, energized by it. I love to build things. And so the next six months is going to be a challenge. But for me, it’s just a lot more exciting because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
ER: My husband always quotes David Lynch. He listens to these weird, meditative David Lynch things, and there’s a line that David Lynch says, “Enjoy the doing.” And that’s my mantra right now. On the hardest days, I’m trying to remember to enjoy the doing, because we only get to build this one time. And there is something so incredibly fun about pulling together your dream team of women, them all saying yes and then getting to build this thing together. It is just fucking dreamy. It’s the most fun. And so we really have to enjoy the doing because we’re doing this with the coolest women in journalism.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.