By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post
With canapés, cocktails and chatter, the gathering seemed like a typical Manhattan media party from the Before Times.
It was a kickoff for a nonprofit news site that would focus on gender politics and policy: The 19th*, named for the amendment that granted women the right to vote 100 years earlier. (An asterisk in The 19th’s logo acknowledges that the amendment initially affected only white women’s voting rights.)
High-profile women and a celebratory air filled the living room of Craigslist founder Craig Newmark’s 19th-century home in Greenwich Village that evening. Two major donors — Newmark and Kathryn Murdoch, whose husband, James, is the left-leaning son of Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch — gave eloquent speeches focusing on women’s issues and rights.
But the date was Feb. 20, 2020. Within weeks, swaths of the country were locked down due to a raging pandemic that hit communities of color especially hard. Parties began to seem like sepia-tinted memories, political and social anger exploded, and the fledgling 19th found itself inventing a new kind of reporting to confront a new kind of national turmoil.
On March 13, 2020, a 26-year-old Black woman, Breonna Taylor, was shot to death in her Louisville, Ky., apartment by white plainclothes police officers who forced their way in during a drug investigation. Several weeks later, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Worldwide protests broke out over racial discrimination, the 2020 presidential election and its violent aftermath, and Republican legislation in dozens of states intended to restrict transgender rights.
The site’s original focus on women became much broader. Soon, The 19th’s stories were about transgender rights, LGBTQ issues and the intersection of race, economic disparity and gender. This week, for example, a 19th story explored why Black women make only 63 cents for every dollar white men make.
“This is a markedly different nation than it was when we started, and by necessity, we’re a markedly different newsroom,” said Emily Ramshaw, the Austin-based site’s CEO and co-founder. Both Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, The 19th’s publisher and other founder, have roots at the Texas Tribune, an early nonprofit digital-first newsroom.
The site’s coverage of Breonna Taylor explored whether the national media initially showed little interest in her death because she was a woman.
“They’re killing our sisters just like they’re killing our brothers, but for whatever reason, we have not given our sisters the same attention that we have given to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Stephon Clark, Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald,” Taylor family attorney Ben Crump told 19th reporter Errin Haines.
Eighteen months after the kickoff party, The 19th can reasonably be called a success. It has raised $13 million, attracted 10,500 paying members, and hired more than 30 staffers.
Although it does not share audience numbers, it has landed scoopy interviews, including the first with Kamala Harris after Joe Biden named her as his running mate. Politico called The 19th the “the start-up scoring all the Biden admin. interviews,” noting that it has also interviewed prominent Republican women.
The outlet’s first virtual summit drew 180,000 viewers. And when it holds its second one this month, the speakers will include Michelle Obama, Demi Lovato, Billie Jean King and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
That success hasn’t happened by standing still. It’s required one adjustment after another.
The site has dropped some of what Ramshaw calls “the baggage of legacy news organizations,” including the media’s tendency to treat both sides of every controversy as respectable, even when one isn’t. Not long after President Trump and many Republican lawmakers provoked an insurrection at the Capitol in January, for example, The 19th changed its self-description from “nonpartisan” to “independent.”
And unlike many established news organizations, The 19th encourages its reporters to bring their own experiences to their work and writing, rather than attempt to present themselves as ideological blank slates for the sake of old-style objectivity.
Kate Sosin, for example, whose job title is “LGBTQ+ reporter,” and who is trans nonbinary, wrote a first-person piece in June titled “Why you won’t see splashy Pride stories at The 19th.” It began:
“I’ve never particularly enjoyed Pride. My inbox fills with brand messages for all kinds of deeply odd rainbow products (queer cannabis, gay mutual funds, ‘bisexual fragrance’). Plus, I’m shy in a crowd. Parades overwhelm me.” The piece argued that it’s far more important to do ongoing coverage of pressing issues, and for the site to have a diverse staff of reporters and editors.
Zamora and Ramshaw said they want to set the gold standard for an equitable and supportive newsroom culture. The 19th is doing a pay-equity audit, and unlike many small start-ups, it has a “chief people officer” who focuses in part on countering the employee burnout that has plagued many other news organizations.
As for what’s ahead, Zamora told me she wants to see The 19th as a presidential debate moderator, and to expand the organization enough to help with the decline of local newspapers.
The goals are ambitious. But given all that’s happened since that party at the end of the world, I wouldn’t bet against them. The 19th is an object lesson is how change demands change, and how to respond.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.