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For-profit newsrooms can learn from their non-profit peers

By Peter Bale

INMA

New Zealand and the U.K.

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When The 19th launched just on three years ago, its founders were on a mission to write about and, through that writing, defend long-established rights of women, which to them seemed under threat.

Talk about grabbing a moment. Whether it is the U.S. Supreme Court decision to turn back the clock on abortion rights or the many attempts at the state level to constrict the rights of women, The 19th has found itself at the center of critical struggles many thought were won in the 1970s. It’s also now about the whole question of gender and marginalised communities plus voting rights. It added an asterisk to The 19th logo.

Emily Ramshaw (left) and Amanda Zamora (right) founded 19thnews.org.
Emily Ramshaw (left) and Amanda Zamora (right) founded 19thnews.org.

Emily Ramshaw, whom I first met when she was editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, started The 19th with her co-founder Amanda Zamora (another Texas Tribune alum), who’s now The 19th’s publisher. The site has grown into a fully fledged Texas-based newsroom with nearly 60 staff, having launched with 11.

(The site takes its name from the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. It was enacted in 1920. I write this from New Zealand, where women won the right to vote in 1893 — supposedly the first country in the world.)

The 19th, like most United States non-profit newsrooms, operates under the so-called 501(C)3 section of the tax code, which permits philanthropic tax-deductible giving for educational services that can be interpreted as non-partisan news. Ramshaw told me she and Zamora started with US$20,000 in the bank. Just under three years later, they’re running a US$10 million-a-year operation.

“It’s been a pretty dramatic transformation over the course of a very concentrated amount of time,” she said in an interview.

Journalism from The 19th team is syndicated — freely — to other news organisations, including PBS News HourMississippi Today, and Teen Vogue. Its mission statement is unambiguous about the centrality of high-quality journalism at its center and a determination that while passionate and informed and focused on under-reported subjects, it is journalism not activism.

“The 19th aims to be a source of news and information for those who have been underserved by and underrepresented in American media,” it says in its values statement. And, to address some of the big questions in U.S. journalism right now, it pledges not to do some things too: “Here’s what you won’t find at The 19th: cheap shots or cheerleading. Opinion or false equivalency. Partisanship. Horse-race politics. Turn-of-the-screw stories. Clickbait. (Sorry, not sorry.)”

In my view as the INMA Newsroom Initiative lead, sites and the non-profit principles that underpin The 19th and comparable non-profit journalism projects like The Marshall Project (which concentrates on incarceration and justice in the United States) have much to teach other organisations about commitment, trust, a sense of mission, and often journalistic quality.

To be transparent as well, I ran a 501(C)3 for a while as chief executive officer of The Center for Public Integrity, which at that time also incorporated the ICIJ, International Consortium of Investigative Journalism. I’m on the advisory board of the non-profit news site CodaStory.com and on the board of The Signals Network, which supports whistleblower journalism.

So, I have some idea of what it takes to convince philanthropists, philanthropic foundations, and ordinary people who give a damn to contribute large and small amounts to support journalism that matters and might not get done without their support. Some non-profit newsrooms, such as ProPublica — perhaps now the largest and best known — are at least as large and influential as some of the specialist commercial publishers and certainly just as impactful.

While there are some specific tax and societal factors that mean the United States has a particularly large non-profit news sector, it may be a model that can work elsewhere. The United Kingdom, for example, has The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and India has FactorDaily. Pankaj Mishra, a FactorDaily founder, is due to speak in the next Newsroom Initiative master class and did an interview with me for INMA sometime ago. There are many others.

The 19th has funding from some of the best-known U.S. journalism philanthropy groups, such as Craig Newmark Philanthropies, James and Kathryn Murdoch’s Quadrivium Foundation, the health-directed Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Ford Foundation. You can see, however, the depth of its support from individuals and smaller groups. It also gets corporate sponsorship, has a membership programme, and increasingly runs events.

Here’s part of my interview with Emily Ramshaw, in Q&A format, so you can read her views a little less mediated by me. It’s edited for clarity and brevity:

INMA: It’s nearly the three-year anniversary of you and Amanda setting up the 19th. The mission seemed clear, but the timing looks fortuitous now and the mission has also widened.

Emily Ramshaw: When we first launched The 19th, honestly, we were really thinking about women, politics, and policy. That germ of an idea very quickly morphed into gender, politics, and policy with a deep focus not just on women, specifically women of colour, but on women and the LGBTQ community. So anyone who was marginalised based on their gender or gender identity became a focus of the 19th.

INMA: Progressive has become a charged term in the United States — a partisan word when it might just be seen to suggest progress in rights and social change. Is that a label for The 19th?

Ramshaw: I would say lowercase “p” progressive in that the 19th stands for equity, we stand for human rights. We don’t think that those things prevent you from being accurate and informative journalists. We actually think they’re a benefit to the work.

INMA: Talk more about how you might separate activism from journalism or campaigners. How do you want to be perceived?

Ramshaw: We want to be perceived as educators and informers, and journalists who do rigorous work but don’t fall prey to misinformation, disinformation, or bothsidesism when one side is rooted in science and the other is not. 

If you look at the other news organisations that run The 19th’s work … I think if those organisations thought that The 19th’s journalism wasn’t top notch, they wouldn’t be running our journalism the way that they are.

INMA: How does your mission affect who you hire as journalists?

Ramshaw: We hire people with extraordinarily strong journalism backgrounds. We aren’t hiring activists. We are hiring journalists. We hire people who have track records of rigor and excellence and intellectual and ideological curiosity.

The 19th's newsroom is intentionally incredibly diverse.
The 19th's newsroom is intentionally incredibly diverse.

INMA: Other people talk about diversity in newsrooms, but you really have to live it. And your journalists write about topics that are challenging to them very personally?

Ramshaw: When you hire a newsroom like ours — which is 65% non-white, 30% LGBTQ+ identifying, and 19% people living with disabilities — so when you aim to build the most representative newsroom in America, and you encourage those journalists to bring their lived experiences to the work, these are obviously difficult times and difficult topics.

INMA: Where do you go from here? What’s coming in the fourth year of the 19th?

Ramshaw: The business ambition, honestly, first and foremost is sustainability… . You can’t be a start-up forever. You can’t be at breakneck speed forever. I think we are pretty exhausted from the last year. So, we’re really focused on mental health, we’re really focused on avoiding burnout, we’re focused on caring for and supporting our team. We’re (also) focused on building up the back of house, the infrastructure, the developers, the Web security, all of those things.

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About Peter Bale

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