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May 11, 2020, 9:23 a.m.
Business Models

Retrench? Nah: How women and politics site The 19th is forging ahead with a launch in a pandemic

“The primary obsession this summer and into the fall will be the politics of the pandemic and what that means for women — deeply exploring the ways in which women are disproportionately affected by this moment, which may be a heck of a lot longer than a moment.”

Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora had not planned to launch The 19th during a pandemic. Their national nonprofit news site, officially announced at the end of January as a nonpartisan look at women and politics, was supposed to kick off with a six-city “listening tour” at the end of April. Reporters, several of whom would be based far from The 19th’s hub in Austin, were supposed to be traveling for stories. A list of possible topics for coverage included female politicians’ role in Trump’s impeachment and the future of female work in the gig economy.

Things have, uh, changed. But The 19th is still planning to launch this summer and has started doing some reporting earlier than planned.

“We had a moment in early March where we took stock of where we were,” Ramshaw, cofounder and CEO of The 19th and former editor of the Texas Tribune, told me this week. “We have money in the bank, but not much more is gonna come in any time soon. Should we just hunker down, delay the launch, and ride out this storm? For a hot second, that was our plan. But then it became abundantly clear that in virtually every arena except for mortality rates, women were going to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic…We had to stay engaged and, in some ways, speed up our plans.”

My conversation with Ramshaw, lightly condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: I last talked with you and Amanda [Zamora, cofounder and publisher of The 19th cofounder and former audience and engagement editor at the Texas Tribune] in late January, which now seems like a million years ago. How are you thinking about the launch now?

Emily Ramshaw: Everything feels like it’s on thin ice right now. I never imagined I would be launching a nonprofit news startup in midst of a global pandemic.

We had a moment early in March where we took stock of where we were. We have money in the bank, but not much more is gonna come in any time soon. Should we just hunker down, delay the launch, and ride out this storm? For a hot second, that was our plan.

But then it became abundantly clear that in virtually every arena except for mortality rates, women were going to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic — whether it’s the fact that they are losing jobs at higher rates at men, or that they are the primary caregivers, or the majority of frontline healthcare workers. Nine out of 10 elementary school teachers are women and they’re navigating trying to keep track of their students and care for their own kids. it just became obvious to us that the story of this moment, in particular when it comes to women of color, was so pronounced that, if covering disparities was our bread and butter, we had to stay engaged and, in some ways, we had to speed up our plans.

We’d delayed some of our hiring, but then pretty quickly decided we had to move on that too, so we anticipate having 21 people aboard by August. We are currently approaching 14. That’s not as many people as we hoped to have, by the way — we thought we were going to be close to 24, but we’ve had to make some strategic choices.

We’re intending to launch late this summer. I don’t have an exact launch date yet, but we’re moving full speed ahead toward developing and producing our platform so we have a place for our original journalism to live.

Owen: How are you thinking about topics to cover right now? Is COVID-19 overshadowing everything else?

Ramshaw: In many ways, that’s the only beat right now. Errin Haines, our primary political reporter, is grounded in Philadelphia and writing stories with and for The Philadelphia Inquirer about ways women are being affected by this pandemic.

For us, the primary obsession this summer and into the fall will be the politics of the pandemic and what that means for women — deeply exploring the ways in which women are disproportionately affected by this moment, which may be a heck of a lot longer than a moment, and deeply exploring what a political cycle and critical presidential election means for women at a time when they are unable to campaign in the usual ways, fundraise in the usual ways, vote in the usual ways. It’s a really fascinating time to cover all the issues that we cared about before, through a slightly different lens. Our journalism today doesn’t very closely resemble our journalism of three months ago, because we’re living in a totally different time.

Owen: You obviously had to cancel the in-person, six-city “listening tour” that you’d planned — but what other things are you looking at right now before the website launches?

Ramshaw: In lieu of the regional listening tour, we’re rolling out a virtual live events series called Live With The 19th that will kick off on Monday. [It’s at noon ET today; you can register here. The first guest is Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and Biden VP possibility.]

We have the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer relationships.

Then we have the newsletters. We had launched a once-weekly newsletter that was going to be a sort of marketing email and recruitment tool, but we turned it into full-fledged journalism — and now it’s anywhere from 3 to 4 days a week, soon to be 5 days a week. We have nearly 7,000 newsletter subscribers and a 41 percent average open rate, without having a website up or doing virtually any promotion beyond a little social. It’s been all things pandemic. We did do one about women in the WNBA, and it had insane readership and insane open rates — which was a reminder to me that the intersection of women and the economy of sports is something I really want us to explore down the road.

Owen: From the beginning, one of the tenets of The 19th was flexible work — a lot of your jobs could be done from anywhere, and you talked about parental leave from the start. Now, suddenly, a lot more people are working this way, outside an office, and the work/life conflicts are really obvious. I’m wondering how you’re thinking about that — and also how you’re thinking about the hub you’ve planned to have in Austin.

Ramshaw: It feels creepily prescient that we were espousing the virtues of allowing your staff to work from wherever they have the best childcare and elder care, because now so many people are working that way. We still anticipate that we will have a home base of people in Austin down the road, but even our early hires who intend to be in Austin eventually won’t be in Austin anytime soon. It’s working fine. Weirdly, we’d be fine if we stayed completely remote.

I do miss the camaraderie of having a bunch of people in a newsroom together. With a startup, I think being able to read the room is sometimes important, but we’re navigating the ups and downs and confusion and emotions of this weird, weird startup environment. And candidly, I feel really lucky to be doing it with such extraordinary women. And men! We have one man on our staff now.

I’m finding very quickly that we have an extraordinary amount of empathy for each other’s experiences and home lives. When you hear someone’s kids screaming in the background, you understand why they have to jump off a call. I think we are all more productive because nobody’s sitting in traffic.

Everybody is managing this balancing act. I do see a lot more of, like, popping back online between 8 and 11 p.m., and that’s not necessarily healthy, but I also respect the members of my team to work whenever it feels right for them. People take breaks in the middle of the day to go for a run. They’re managing virtual school with their kids. These were all the things The 19th launched in order to accommodate, on steroids. We wanted to prove the case that you could provide an extraordinarily accommodating environment for women, for moms, for parents, and that nothing broke. The reality is that we’re doing this in a far more excruciating circumstance than we could ever have imagined, and surprise surprise, it’s working.

Owen: You’d also mentioned in January that you were going to have pretty robust travel budgets — but now nobody can travel anywhere. Does that affect how you’re thinking about hiring?

Ramshaw: From the standpoint of what our staff looks like, we’re in recruiting and hiring mode big time right now. Regional diversity is really factoring into our thinking, because it may be that we can travel regionally but we can’t travel farther than that — local communities may open up before there’s [safe] air travel nationally. Errin Haines is a perfect example: She’s based in Philly, was supposed to be our roving national political reporter, and is obviously grounded, so we’ve put her to extraordinary use producing stories on the ground in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in America.

We’re going to make some decisions based on the applicants in our field, but we are going to be making several more hires over the next eight weeks. We’ve hired Amanda Becker as our Washington correspondent, and then in relatively short order you’ll see the hires for our economics reporter and our women’s health reporter, which feel to us like the most critical in this moment.

Photo, taken pre–social distancing times, courtesy The 19th.

POSTED     May 11, 2020, 9:23 a.m.
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