Gender, Politics, Policy

Medill alum launches nonprofit newsroom The 19th*

October 14, 2020

The Monthly

Emily Ramshaw (Medill ‘03) spent part of the 2016 election cycle on maternity leave. When she saw how conversations about female candidates revolved around “electability” and “likeability,” she wondered how the coverage would be different if someone created a newsroom truly representative of the nation’s gender diversity. 

Three years later, Ramshaw heard the same sexist and racist conversations circulating as part of the 2020 election cycle, and needed to find out for herself. 

“It was time for me to take the next step to try to build the nation’s first newsroom at the intersection of gender, politics and policy,” Ramshaw said, sitting in her office in Austin, Texas that’s currently empty because of the pandemic. 

She started The 19th*, a non-profit newsroom covering underrepresented and marginalized communities. The organization formally launched in August, the centennial month of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which granted women the right to vote. The asterisk acknowledges how the Amendment failed to provide the same rights for all women, in particular excluding women of color. 

The idea to include the asterisk came from Errin Haines, the 19th*’s editor at large. It has become the organization’s logo, and represents the newsroom’s mission to tell stories about all people who are treated unequally based on their gender, instead of focusing exclusively on stories about cisgender White women. 

“Our logo is a part of our newsroom, a part of our culture,” Haines said. “And it’s a part of our editorial philosophy, thinking about who is still not being seen and who is still not being heard in our democracy.”

The team considered setting the launch date back a year in light of the pandemic, but persevered. Ramshaw continued to fundraise in quarantine, trying to keep her 4-year-old daughter out of the screen during video calls, and built a team of 23 people, the majority of whom she has yet to meet in person.

The 19th* went live and held its first summit virtually in August. Meghan Markle (Communication ‘03) and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) were among the women who appeared at the event, marking Markle’s first major media appearance since returning to the U.S., and Harris’s first sit-down interview since receiving the Democratic vice presidential nomination. 

“Thank God we didn’t stop in our tracks,” Ramshaw said. “This is just a critical time for the issues the 19th* was envisioned to cover, and we’re really excited to be at that intersection.”

Ramshaw built a team representative of the people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals whose stories The 19th* strives to tell. About 70 percent of The 19th*’s newsroom members are people of color and around two thirds of the top managers are women of color. The staff is based all over the country, which diversifies the voices and perspectives the newsroom represents, Ramshaw said.

The team finds ways to connect virtually in non-work related settings, playing icebreakers and talking through video calls during their all-staff happy hours. 

“We try to do a really good job focusing on the mental health and well-being of our team,” Ramshaw said.

When she was recruiting members to join the team, Ramshaw messaged Haines, whom she had never met before, on Twitter asking to connect. Ramshaw called her to share her vision for The 19th*, telling Haines she was a fan of her work. 

At the time, Haines was an Associated Press journalist focused on covering race. She said she wanted the opportunity to change the way people talk about gender and politics. The opportunity to tell a different story appealed to her, so the two stayed in touch until the following fall when Haines became a founding member of The 19th*.

Ramshaw similarly left her editor in chief position at The Texas Tribune, a non-profit digital newsroom founded in 2009, where she worked for 10 years. She said her experiences at The Tribune helped

 inform the structure and models that helped form The 19th*. The Tribune uses a diversified business model that relies on multiple revenue streams, and The 19th* adopted a similar business model. Ramsh

aw said once the pandemic lifts, they hope to hold in-person events similar to The Tribune’s, putting the audience first in everything they do.

The CEO of The Tribune, Evan Smith (Medill MSJ ’98), said Ramshaw’s leadership, vision and strategic sensibility as editor in chief were essential to The Tribune’s success. He expects the skills she learned at The Tribune to help her at The 19th*.

He also said The 19th* has stayed true to the mission they put in front of people, which can be difficult for media startups.

“News organizations have good intentions… And then often, because things don’t go exactly the way they thought of, the environment changes,” Smith said. “(The 19th*) has done a great job of leaning completely into their mission.”

Ramshaw said fundraising was difficult due to the pandemic but her experience as a journalist was surprisingly helpful in this task.   

“I think (reporting skills) have translated into pretty good fundraising skills because you sort of get fearless asking people for what you need, or the information you want, (or) in this case, the funding you need,” Ramshaw said.

She considers herself something of a “dyed-in-the-wool” journalist. Ramshaw’s parents were journalists, and she reported for her high school newspaper before working for Northwestern Magazine and

 The Daily, where she caught the local news bug covering Evanston City Council meetings. 

Given the 19th*’s early success, Ramshaw said she feels an enormous responsibility to make sure The 19th* is doing its audience the best possible service in this historic moment, and is focused on doing work that is impactful to the largest number of people. 

She said it has been encouraging meeting these people by chance in her everyday life. Her mom’s realtor saw her 19th* mask over the weekend and asked if she worked there, reminding Ramshaw of when she thought, ‘Did I make it?’ the first time she saw someone with a Texas Tribune bumper sticker. 

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