The PEN Pod: Elevating Women’s Voices with Emily Ramshaw
This August, the country celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment, securing the right to vote for all regardless of gender. The 19th* also happens to be the name of a new reporting outlet that launched around the same time, covering gender politics and policy. Emily Ramshaw, cofounder and CEO of The 19th*, joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss helping women advance in journalism; launching the country’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom; and telling the stories of people on the fringes. She was previously editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, an award-winning nonpartisan digital news startup, and serves on the board of the Pulitzer Prize. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Emily is up until the 10:20 mark).
Why The 19th*, and why now?
Sure. This all started for me, honestly four years ago, during the last presidential election, when we had Hillary Clinton on the ticket and there were so many headlines around electability and likability and questions like “Was she too shrill? And was she soft enough? And was she compassionate enough?” I was on maternity leave with a baby girl at that moment. It might’ve been the hormones talking, but I just felt an enormous amount of rage at the fact that in 2016, we were still having those types of conversations. And I thought to myself, “God, wouldn’t it be amazing if we had a news organization that really put women’s voices front and center and eliminated all of this other noise?” And then I went back to sort of the mundane life of trying to raise a newborn.
“I wanted to build a newsroom where our journalists were really well-compensated for their work and where we could provide the kind of benefits that I think all too often keep women from really advancing to the highest levels of this field. Things like six months of fully paid family leave, four months of fully paid caregiver leave, so you can spend the last four months at your mom or dad’s bedside.”
Three years later, the conversation just sort of popped back up for me—we were seeing these exact same sort of stereotypical headlines facing an electorate, where we had more women than ever on the 2020 campaign stage. And it just felt like a moment. I thought to myself, “My gosh, if I don’t do this right now, four more years are gonna pass and this dialogue is going to be even worse.” So this year, we launched The 19th*, the country’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, aimed at elevating the voices of women and in particular, the women’s electorate.
At PEN America, we’ve actually been tracking the state of local journalism and journalism at large, which of course has been facing these incredible economic pressures—shattering newspapers and making communities devoid of much-needed news and news coverage. Why the nonprofit model, and why did you see it was the right approach to covering these issues?
I spent the last 10 years as the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, which truly has established the gold standard business model for sustainability in local news. As we all know, local news is the area where the business models are being the hardest hit. I sort of drink the nonprofit Kool-Aid—I believe that it’s the cool way to go. But we weren’t sure we were going to build a nonprofit when we started thinking about The 19th*, and then there were some deal breakers for us. And those deal breakers were: I believe that journalism ought to be free, that it’s a public service, and I don’t want anyone to face a barrier to entry to access it. I also believe that journalism should be free to distribute and free to republish. So, that was a deal breaker for us.
As you may have heard, all of the Gannett newspapers can run our journalism for free, so 260 regional markets are already running The 19th*’s work. Univision is translating our work into Spanish and distributing it. For us, it was critically important that our journalism be as widely distributed as possible to the most diverse audience possible, and that was another reason our business model needed to be a nonprofit.
“We realized that for us, what was front and center to our mission and our journalism and our storytelling was the asterisk—it’s people who are on the fringes. It’s people who have been kept out of our democracy. All of our storytelling, if you’ve noticed it at all, focuses on the asterisk—the people, the women, the other underserved minorities that are on the fringes.”
But the third piece I would say, for me particularly, is that I wanted to build a newsroom where our journalists were really well-compensated for their work and where we could provide the kind of benefits that I think all too often keep women from really advancing to the highest levels of this field. Things like six months of fully paid family leave, four months of fully paid caregiver leave, so you can spend the last four months at your mom or dad’s bedside. We know that the “sandwich generation” hits women the hardest. And something that was novel until a few weeks ago, which is fully remote workspaces—fully remote flexible opportunities for our staff members to work, wherever they had the best childcare or eldercare set up. Those things combined, at the end of the day, made the business model look like a nonprofit to us. None of us are going to get rich doing this, but we’re going to provide what we hope is the gold standard for an American newsroom.
It just so happens that you’re launching at a moment when there’s a real reckoning happening in journalism—not just on the economic side, but also about who’s telling what stories, who has a platform, and who doesn’t. How are you all confronting the big changes that are happening in journalism, and in particular, for women of color?
We’re tackling this head-on, but to be honest, we were tackling this actually before this current sort of national reckoning that’s happening in newsrooms. A year ago, when we first sort of assembled our dream team for The 19th*, we didn’t even know we were going to call this The 19th*. We knew we liked the name The 19th*, but as we batted it around, we kept saying, “But the 19th Amendment didn’t extend really to women of color. It took another 40 years, well into the Civil Rights Movement. How does that work if we want to call ourselves The 19th?” One of our colleagues, Errin Haines, piped up right away and said, “It’s like the 19th Amendment, but with an asterisk,” and suddenly all of us—it was like a light bulb went off. We realized that for us, what was front and center to our mission and our journalism and our storytelling was the asterisk—it’s people who are on the fringes. It’s people who have been kept out of our democracy. All of our storytelling, if you’ve noticed it at all, focuses on the asterisk—the people, the women, the other underserved minorities that are on the fringes.
But beyond that, our journalism and our newsroom highly reflects the diversity of the nation’s women, the gender diversity of America. Our newsroom is overwhelmingly women of color. I’d say 75 percent of our editorial staff is women of color. We also have people who don’t identify as women on our team—we have men and gender nonbinary folks on our team, and that sort of diversity is really important to us. So that’s a long-winded way of saying, before this national moment, this was critical to us. It has been really incredible to get to build a newsroom from scratch without sort of that institutional baggage, and to do it right from day one.
“70 percent of politics and policy editors and reporters are men. The overwhelming majority are white men. This is no offense to white men, but those are the people deciding what’s news and what isn’t, whose voices are elevated, which experts are quoted, whether those stories play on the front page or the homepage. We’re working to level that playing field by providing a place where the stories that most deeply affect women’s lives are the main course and not a side dish.”
Speaking of the fringes, what is the void that you all see in the current reporting landscape that you think The 19th* can fill? What are some stories that you’ve already been reporting on or that we can expect to see from The 19th* in the months ahead?
For us, it is storytelling that aims to elevate voices that we don’t hear enough, and that’s not “The day’s news, but pink.” That is a really serious take on the way that women and other underserved minorities are disproportionately affected by so many of our country’s institutions. I mean, just look at COVID for example, and we know that COVID has led to what is truly the first female recession ever. This pandemic is disproportionately affecting women’s economic abilities, their livelihoods, their ability to stay in or out of the workforce.
If you look at the way that women are presented in elective office, we know that women are still far underrepresented in those arenas where the biggest decisions get made—the COVID task forces that have next to no women in the room—and newsrooms still remain gendered. 70 percent of politics and policy editors and reporters are men. The overwhelming majority are white men. This is no offense to white men, but those are the people deciding what’s news and what isn’t, whose voices are elevated, which experts are quoted, whether those stories play on the front page or the homepage. We’re working to level that playing field by providing a place where the stories that most deeply affect women’s lives are the main course and not a side dish.
Finally, what are you reading right now?
I am reading so many things right now that we have finally gotten through this crazy week. I’m reading an incredible book by Elaine Weiss that is on suffrage, the suffrage centennial in this moment. I highly recommend you all check it out. It’s almost a thriller on how the 19th Amendment was ratified. It really takes on the way that race played into those conversations and that white women had achieved the vote in many ways at the expense of Black women. I recommend tuning into it. It’s called The Women’s Hour by Elaine Weiss, and it’s just a phenomenal, nuanced, and thrilling look at the way that the 19th Amendment was ratified in this country.