This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S. It is published on Democracy Day 2023, a national collaboration where newsrooms “can come together to report on the threats to democracy that we’re facing.”
Emily Ramshaw is the CEO and co-founder of The 19th*, a non-profit newsroom founded in 2020 that aims to elevate the stories of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ communities.
As the previous editor of the Texas Tribune and as someone who sits on the Pulitzer Prize Board, Emily has a wealth of experience in journalism leadership and management. In a wide-ranging conversation, Uyiosa Elegon, one of The Objective’s Democracy Correspondents, asked Ramshaw why men in journalism aren’t asked the same questions about gender, journalism unions, and funding disparities that plague the journalism industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we even start this conversation about gender politics and the industry, I want to ask, why don’t journalists ask men about gender in the media? What’s in the way?
Oh, that’s a great question. Power, the patriarchy? We should be asking men about gender, race, and about all the ways that we’ve marginalized certain folks in the media. So I think the answer is that I don’t know why we don’t. I’ve certainly spent the last three years of my career trying to, and asking for those answers. But I think readership ought to be demanding it, too.
The 19th* has six months paid leave for all parents, four months caregiver leave, 100% coverage of health care premiums, fully remote and flexible workplace opportunities … That must have some effect on the newsroom and fundraising goals. How are these benefits impacting the organization overall?
I think those benefits, first of all, are what newsrooms ought to be offering. And they are certainly what our team deserves. When you have an organization that is aiming to center marginalized people, to center women and non-binary people, and you are asking people to bring their full lived experiences to work, I think we have an enormous responsibility to support those full lived experiences. And we know that caregiving duties still overwhelmingly fall to women. They shouldn’t, but they do. And I think, for our staff, in particular, those kinds of benefits have allowed members of our team to do their work more effectively, and to take care of their families and manage their personal lives in order to do extraordinary work at The 19th*.
It’s really exciting to see that The 19th* has these benefits, but unfortunately, we all can’t work for The 19th*.
That’s right, but I’m hoping that if a scrappy nonprofit newsroom can build it into the budget to provide those kinds of services, that other newsrooms that are far better resourced than we are can prioritize them as well.
Thinking about young women, trans and gender non-conforming reporters who are trying to get these benefits in their newsrooms: what’s your advice for them? Should they be unionizing?
I absolutely think that journalists should take whatever steps they need to take in their newsrooms to make sure that they have the benefits and policies that they need. And for some newsrooms, that means unionization. For other newsrooms, that means going directly to leadership and asking for what they need. But I absolutely support efforts by journalists across the country to unionize to get the benefits and resources they deserve.
Before launching The 19th*, you were editor-in-chief at the Texas Tribune. The Tribune is very successful at rallying attention to Texas politics. It seems measuring success is easier than it is for The 19th*. Whereas the Tribune may focus mostly on overall awareness and engagement, The 19th* also explicitly cares for gender equity, race equity, and human rights. How are you measuring the impact of the organization for those areas?
I honestly think all newsrooms struggle to measure “success” because there are so many definitions. Some people define success as the impact of taking down state agencies, or forcing resignations. Others define it purely by raw numbers, the scope of your reach.
At The 19th*, success is measured by a lot of factors: How well does our journalism reflect our values, which includes the advancement of gender equity, racial equity and human rights? How effectively are we reaching underserved audiences? Are we giving them the tools to be better informed and engaged, and to participate more fully in our democracy? Is our readership growing, not just on our platforms, but across partner publishers, across social, across newsletters? Success is also measured by how we care for our team — the benefits we provide and the culture we build. Because we truly believe that a strong culture leads to values-driven storytelling.
At The Objective, I published a piece regarding the poor level of support from philanthropy to Black media outlets after the 2020 uprisings. The majority of executives I spoke with were Black women, who are in different ways struggling to reach or maintain financial sustainability. What’s your advice for Black women media entrepreneurs who want their organization in a similar financial position as The 19th*?
First of all, I want to just acknowledge that, like the fundraising landscape, not all are created equal, and it has been incredibly challenging, both in the nonprofit space and the for-profit space for Black women to get access to capital, and to be able to fundraise, and build revenue in the same ways as their white peers. And that is outrageous and offensive. I think, you know, a lot of the major philanthropic foundations in this moment have recognized that disparity and are starting to pay closer attention to the work they need to do to reach greater racial and gender equity in their giving in their philanthropic and financial support.
I’d say hold those major foundations to account. Go after them for philanthropic and foundation grants. Demand that they put their money where their mouth is around racial equity and fundraising. I’m also hoping that, this major initiative toward putting hundreds of millions of dollars into local news that a lot of the major foundations are discussing right now, I’m really hoping that a large percentage of that giving will be aimed at marginalized communities, underserved communities, Black press, for example.
Your mission says “the 19th Amendment remains unfinished business” and “Our goal is to empower those we serve — particularly women, women of color and the LGBTQ+ community.” This is in stark contrast to how many major news publications think about and cover the LGBTQ+ community. How do you think The 19th*’s coverage of trans Americans differs from mainstream publications?
We’re starting from a baseline of human rights being central to our journalism. So, we aren’t playing a both-sides-ism game when it comes to trans rights, when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and the way that those rights are under attack across the nation. So I think our starting point is different from a lot of news organizations that, I’d argue, are trying to split the baby on this issue.
Do you have any hope that the coverage of 2024 elections are going to resemble some of The 19th*’s practices around covering trans Americans, especially considering election coverage is really a for-profit-induced space?
Honestly, I hope that The 19th* is a trailblazer in a whole lot of ways with legacy media. I have hope in some areas and less hope in others. But my goal, whether it’s our journalism, or our values, or our benefits, is that The 19th* really can set a gold standard for legacy newsrooms to follow.
In a similar vein of thought, we have several Republican woman candidates. How is The 19th* thinking through covering issues that Republican women are particularly interested in amidst your mission and the 2024 candidate pool?
I think the great thing about The 19th* is that we cover everybody without fear or favor, regardless of their politics or their political affiliation. As I said, we don’t play the both-sided game around science, evidence, facts, and data. So you’re not going to see that under the veil of “objectivity.”
But I do think we aim to cover everybody with empathy and explain why Americans believe what they believe. If you were to look at our editorial vision, ideological curiosity is one of our big tenets. And so we really aim to cover everybody in our orbit. And that includes conservative women with the same amount of rigor and empathy with which we cover everyone else.
Well, that sounds like a beloved community, but we’re also not living in a beloved community at the moment. So I’m wondering if there has been any sort of struggle? I mean, you’re even based in Texas, so you have a certain purview of folks who may want your coverage to take a certain positioning. Has it been difficult to keep that standard at the forefront of the newsroom in a climate that’s not necessarily as beloved as you’re describing?
Our journalists are extraordinary professionals. And as I said, regardless of people’s political affiliation, we hold people to account for the things they say they’re going to do, or the policies they put to the forefront. Obviously, there are a lot of conservative candidates out there who push policies that may seem counter to the audiences we’re seeking to serve. We cover those deeply. We do the exact same thing for folks on other sides of the aisle who may be pushing legislation or policies that don’t share the values that we share.
There aren’t many young women who start out in the kind of positioning that you started out in journalism. I know you entered the space quite early and showed a certain interest. The landscape is different from when you even came in — probably not too different, since you’re very young —
I’m not very young. But unfortunately, the same layoffs that we were seeing when I started the industry, unfortunately, have only gotten worse.
So what’s your advice for young woman reporters who are in school watching all these layoffs? What should they be doing in order to prepare themselves for an industry that doesn’t seem settled in so many different ways? What should they be thinking or doing at this moment?
A couple of things, but the first would be getting comfortable exploring alternative business models for news and recognizing [that] the first place they land may be a startup — and that’s okay.
The other thing that I’m really vocal about is making sure that they understand not just how to do journalism, but the business of news. Understanding where revenue comes from how to make an organization sustainable, what budgets mean and look like. Because I think more and more, many of us are going to need to start becoming news entrepreneurs — you know this firsthand. We may not be able to trust that the legacy institutions are going to have our best interests at heart or jobs available to us in the long term. So how do we figure out how to sustain the business and produce the news? We may all be starting our own news organizations.
The Center for Ethical Leadership in the Media and McKinsey & Co. conducted a Women in the Workplace study and found that across the news industry, women are under-represented at the executive level. What do you think men in journalism need to do so we see more women, especially women of minoritized backgrounds, represented at the executive level?
Promote them, advocate for them, step aside, when it’s your time to step aside, and clear the path for one of those women or non-binary people to show the world what they’re made of. Women are standing by and ready to lead. In many cases, it’s their turn. And I think there needs to be an acknowledgment of how far we still have left to go. I also think adding more women to the boardroom will speed up this process in newsrooms.
This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy edits by Janelle Salanga.
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