Four years ago, Emily Ramshaw was on maternity leave from her job as editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune. Hillary Clinton was running for president. Two questions followed Clinton.
Is she electable? Is she likable?
“That felt so unfairly narrowly tailored to women candidates,” Ramshaw said. “That was the moment it first occurred to me that it would be incredible to have a storytelling platform that was by women for women.”
Fast forward to this election cycle. Women ran for president. A woman almost assuredly will be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. But, once again, little has changed — the same questions of likeability and electability are a part of the national conversation.
This time, however, Ramshaw’s dream of a website by women for women is a reality. Launching Sunday, The 19th* is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on the intersection of gender, politics and policy. It is funded by a mix of membership, philanthropy and corporate underwriting.
The name says it all, right down the asterisk. The 19th part comes from the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made voting a right regardless of gender. The asterisk shows the work left to be done.
“It did not extend the right to vote to every woman,” Ramshaw said. “There are still women who still struggle to get access to the polls in this country.”
And women’s voices are still muted. As The 19th* notes, only 23.7% of Congress is female. Only 7.4% of state legislators are women of color. This November, 320,000 transgender people could be turned away at the polls because they lack an ID to vote.
“Our editorial mission and vision is to elevate the voices of underserved, underrepresented women,” Ramshaw said. “It’s inclusive. It’s gender inclusive.”
This site has been highly anticipated in media circles ever since the well-respected Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, the chief audience officer at The Texas Tribune, announced last November that they were leaving the Tribune. (Disclosure: Emily Ramshaw is on Poynter’s advisory board.)
“Obviously, leaving The Texas Tribune was the hardest decision of my life,” said Ramshaw, who is CEO of The 19th*. “It was the best place I had ever worked with the best and most talented people that I had ever worked with. It was truly a dream job in nonprofit media. When you have an itch like this, you have to scratch it. And, obviously, the one thing I cared about more deeply than Texas politics and policies was women politics and policies. I felt really like I had an obligation in this moment to take a stab at this and try it.”
She just never imagined it would all happen like this.
“We certainly never expected to be launching amid a global pandemic,” Ramshaw said. “That was not in the Day One plans by any stretch of the imagination.”
The coronavirus threw a curve into everything, from hiring to web design to story planning. The staff is made up of 22 people, including eight reporters. Many were hired over Zoom.
“A totally surreal way to hire someone,” Ramshaw said.
Meantime, planning and launching such an ambitious project is hard enough in normal circumstances. Try it when you can’t be in the same room with colleagues, working to come to a consensus on every little letter, punctuation mark and, well, asterisk.
“The degree of difficulty in building a website entirely remote is super high,” Ramshaw said. “To not be able to sit shoulder to shoulder and look at different fonts and colors and say, ‘I like this, I don’t like this, this doesn’t look the way I want it to.’ … To do all of that by a shared screen, it just makes things so much more difficult than we ever imagined it would be.”
Yet, Ramshaw described the “silver lining” of it all, such as a recent Zoom meeting that featured a toddler, a baby drinking a bottle and at least three pets sitting on laps.
“It’s having a really empathic team, a team that really understands those obligations and those challenges, and seeing it as an asset instead of something that gets in the way is really beautiful,” Ramshaw said.
Leading The 19th* newsroom is Andrea Valdez, the former editor-in-chief of The Texas Observer. She said she was immediately sold on Ramshaw and Zamora’s vision.
“One of the few things that is more important to me than being a Texan is being a woman,” Valdez said, adding she wanted to be at a place that told stories about women with “depth and nuance.”
In other words, to tell a story that only The 19th* can tell. That’s where the asterisk comes in.
“The asterisk has also been a way for us to talk about, internally editorially, what it is we think makes a 19th* story,” Valdez said. “And so when we are thinking about, ‘is this a 19th* story?’ it’s simply enough that the main character is a woman, that the main person we’re talking about is a woman. And oftentimes, yes, that can be sufficient. But what we’re really looking for is what we call the asterisk.”
So what is “the asterisk?”
“Another way of thinking about it is context, it’s analysis,” Valdez explained. “It’s not just the who, what, when, where. It’s the how and the why. And that’s what we are really keyed in on. We’re trying to provide the context for something: why gender is impacting a story. Why is gender impacting whether a story is or isn’t being told?”
That’s where The 19th hopes to carve out a distinctive voice in an already crowded space online, providing what it calls “deep-dive, evidence-based reporting that exposes gender inequity and injustice” and covering the types of stories that most impact women, from health care to the economy.
“There are a lot of terrific news organizations out there doing extraordinary work in and around the gender sphere,” Ramshaw said. “But a lot of it is siloed. A lot of it is created as a side dish and not the main course. We really want to create a community, a place where we are giving women and people who care about them the tools and information and engagement they need to be more deeply involved in their democracy.”
The plan, for now, is to publish two or three stories a day, and perhaps as many as 16 or 17 a week, depending on the news. Valdez said that’s “not a ton,” but she hopes it is enough to get a sense for the kind of stories The 19th* believes are important to tell. (Already the site has published stories on “America’s First Female Recession” and “The Outsize Importance of Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick.”) The 19th* also has reached an agreement with USA Today, which will republishing The 19th* stories in more than 250 news markets.
It’s what Ramshaw dreamed of four years ago.
“I’m just ready,” Ramshaw said. “This has been a labor of love. This has been a lot of exceedingly difficult work, the toughest work of our careers. And we’re so ready to get to begin building this community in full.”
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.