Emily Ramshaw is building a political news site for women
7 min read

Emily Ramshaw is building a political news site for women

The co-founder and CEO of The 19th* discusses the challenges of launching an innovative, women-focused news company during a pandemic.
Emily Ramshaw is building a political news site for women

A song to read by: “Fill Me Up Anthem,” by Gus Dapperton

What I’m reading: “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

This week, I had the opportunity to speak with Emily Ramshaw, the former editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune and current co-founder and CEO of The 19th*. I first met Emily more than a year ago, when I was still working in Austin and she was organizing the 2019 Texas Tribune Festival.

Shortly after we spoke, I left Austin for Chicago and she left The Tribune to launch The 19th*, so it seemed fitting, in a cosmic sense, that she would be my final interview while in graduate school.

I have so much respect for her work and the mission of The 19th*, and I imagine that after reading about what her team has planned, you will too. Not only is The 19th* on the cutting edge of media innovation when it comes to its business model and content strategy, but the organization’s commitment to serving as a progressive work space, with generous paid leave for new parents, elder care and childcare, is a heartening indication of what the future of news media could look like.

Check out our conversation below, and make sure to follow The 19th* on Twitter and sign up for its newsletter.

***Editor’s Note: Emily and I spoke shortly before protests broke out across the country, so she and I didn’t discuss them in our Q&A. In a follow-up email, I invited her to comment on the events. Here is her response:

“One of our primary motivations in launching The 19th* is to elevate the voices of women of color in our coverage, to help level the playing field and advance equity in a nation that has been unequal since its founding. The 19th* is committed to a more just and equal society and democracy — and to asking tough questions about race and privilege in our reporting and in our newsroom.”

The interview

Who: Emily Ramshaw, co-founder and CEO of The 19th*

Twitter: https://twitter.com/eramshaw

Could you describe The 19th*?

The 19th* is the country’s first non-profit, non-partisan newsroom at the intersection of women, politics and policy.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced starting a media company in 2020?

Obviously, anybody who’s launching a new media venture in this media environment knows the challenges with simple sustainability, but I’d say we had the heightened challenge of launching in the middle of a global pandemic, which made all of those financial insecurities even trickier.

Beyond the content, which obviously has a different focus, how will The 19th* differ from your work at The Texas Tribune, if at all?

The journalism is obviously quite different, but I’m taking a lot of the lessons from The Texas Tribune that were so effective and extrapolating them onto a national stage for women, politics and policy.

So it’s actually more, “What are the similarities?”

There, we’re taking the business model and trying to extrapolate that onto a national stage. We’re taking our focus on audience and engagement and making our readers part of the conversation. We are taking the membership program — the way The Texas Tribune built this extraordinarily engaged community — and trying to extrapolate that.

And we’re taking the aspect of live events, that people like to be in the room together, not just engaging digitally, and banking that it’s a great way to build audience and engagement. Obviously we’re doing all of that virtually right now, but the lessons still stand.

The Texas Tribune had the advantage of drawing on the shared sense of identity that Texans feel. Do you worry that it might not translate when you try and scale up that sense of community on a nationwide level?

First, from the standpoint of scale, we are not starting at much bigger of a size than The Texas Tribune did, in terms of staff and budget. But I think from a standpoint of scaling an audience, I think that The Texas Tribune was so effective because Texans self-identify in many ways, regardless of their politics, as Texans.

And when I think about the similarities there in regard to women, the way in which women, regardless of their politics, identify as women and face many of the same challenges and share a lot of experiences, I absolutely think that this niche of women, politics and policy can scale.

Do you have a year-by-year roadmap for editorial growth? Like Year 1, launch website, newsletters and begin publishing content, then Year 2 launch podcast offerings, live-events, etc.? Or is it something you’re planning to just let grow organically?

Our vision is to let it evolve more organically. Interestingly, we didn’t expect to be publishing much of anything at this point; we aren’t officially launching until August. But the realities of the Covid pandemic meant that we needed to scramble and start producing meaningful journalism faster about the ways that women were being disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

We were supposed to be having a series of “Listening Tour” events, nationally, where we went to communities around the country to hear from women about the things they were most interested in having us cover. Instead, we’re hosting virtual events with national newsmakers, because it felt like a moment where we needed to hear from people on their responses.

I think the best news organizations can remain nimble for as long as possible. We are launching amid a fraught economic time, so there are things that are more expensive to produce that we will probably wait longer to tackle. But from the beginning you can expect robust daily journalism, newsletters and live events.

What aspects of The 19th* do you feel are its most innovative? Are you putting anything into practice that you think few other publishers are doing?

The one thing a lot of non-profit news organizations have played footsie with but haven’t gotten that close to is a truly diversified revenue stream. There are a lot of non-profit news organizations that focus on one aspect or another; they focus on philanthropy and foundation support, or they focus on membership.

For us, we are really trying to be a super entrepreneurial non-profit with a wide range of revenue streams that add up to sustainability. I think that’s a relatively innovative thing to attempt to do.

I also think there’s innovation in our aggressive pursuit of an audience that is very inclusive and that is demographically and politically diverse. That’s a big priority for us: Being a product that caters to all women, not just some women. Not just progressive women, not just conservative women, not just white women. Our goal is to draw in a varied and diverse audience, and make a go at creating a safe space where women can learn from each other.

The thing that I think is most innovative, though, is that we’re trying to prove the case that you can hire a newsroom that is almost exclusively female; provide six months of paid family leave for new parents; four months of fully paid caregiver leave; and an almost entirely remote and flexible work space, and still produce a world-class journalism product.

So a progressive employer, in addition to progressive coverage.

We’re living that out in real time. We knew that would be a challenge, but now suddenly we have a newsroom full of moms who are also homeschooling their kids, taking care of their parents and navigating Covid in their own families.

While certainly praiseworthy, creating a product that gives equal credence to liberal and conservative voices is no small feat. What is your strategy for bringing that to life?

I think the responsibility is to cover all women with empathy. This isn’t “both sides-ism.” We are a news organization that is rooted in facts and science and evidence, and our journalism will reflect that.

But I also think that women are not monolithic. There is a lot of nuance that often gets lost in the search for the flashiest headline or the SEO that will drive the most advertising dollars. As a non-profit, we have the flexibility and security to report deeply on that nuance.

Between Covid-19 and the implosion of the American economy, it’s easy to feel like the world is falling apart. Do you think there’s a key, women-centric story in all of this that’s going uncovered?

At the end of the day, I think we are going to look back at this pandemic and see that it had a disproportionate effect on women in virtually every arena except for mortality rates.

From the standpoint of: the gender that lost the majority of jobs; the overwhelmingly high percentage of frontline healthcare workers sickened who are women; the setbacks that may take years to recover from when women have been forced to choose their children’s care and schooling over their own professions.

And in particular, the disproportionate effect on women of color who have not had the luxury of being able to work from home as states reopen, as retail jobs reopen. That’s what we’re really trying to keep a super close eye on in this moment, so it doesn’t get lost in the bigger shuffle.

What’s one trend in media/journalism that you predict will gain popularity this year?

Virtual streaming of events, and — I’m hoping — the corporate underwriting of those events.

I’ve actually been working on a project centered around pivoting from live events to live-stream events, so I’m familiar with the challenges inherent in that transition. What has been your experience with moving to virtual?

The pros are that you can distribute the stream to so many more people than a couple hundred people in a room, so from that standpoint you have actually furthered your reach.

But I think it’s really hard to replace the in-person experience of getting to raise your hand and ask a question of your elected official. Putting your question in the Zoom chat box is just not the same.

What’s a project of yours that you were especially proud of?

Well since The 19th* is not technically launched yet, I can speak to what I’m proud of before it. And there, I’ve just been extraordinarily proud of my leadership at The Texas Tribune and the team we were able to build there.

We lived through and covered hurricanes, Speaker scandals, agencies falling apart; I’m extremely proud of our coverage covering the family-separation crisis at the border. It’s a lot of years, a lot of journalism and just an extraordinarily talented group of people.

Photo of Emily Ramshaw by Keith Trigaci, for Austin Woman Magazine