The staff of The 19th*

Photo: Noemi González

How this startup newsroom has worked to build a ‘culture of care’

Amanda Zamora of The 19th* on creating a new work culture

Amanda Zamora, publisher of The 19th*, often talks about the team’s commitment to understanding each others’ different perspectives and lived experiences: “One of the biggest ways that commitment shows up concretely is in a culture of care,” Zamora told me over Zoom last month. Named after the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the “independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy” was established to provide women with information to help them engage with politics and civic affairs. Emily Ramshaw, who cofounded The 19th* with Zamora, told Poynter in early 2020 that The 19th*’s “editorial mission and vision is to elevate the voices of underserved, underrepresented women.” 

Amanda Zamora. Photo: Vanessa Cerday
Amanda Zamora.
Photo: Vanessa Cerday

I have followed the story of The 19th* since Zamora and Ramshaw announced in late 2019 that they would leave the Texas Tribune to build what I saw as a different kind of newsroom — one that is not only thinking about who the journalism is for, but also how the team approaches the news and each other. Creating a new organization gave Zamora and Ramshaw the unique opportunity to build something that reflected their values — on their terms. They did not inherit a storied institution with a history of established practices that needed to change. They could set new expectations, without the baggage of course correcting how things had been done in the past.  

The 19th* has invested significant time, energy and money in their work culture. There is training, coaching and workshops for staff. They created the Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Fellowship, which provides “recent graduates and mid-career alums of Historically Black Colleges and Universities with full-year, salaried and benefit-laden fellowships.” The 19th*’s leadership thinks about how they model collaboration and power sharing. Across the organization, the team collects feedback to inform strategy. And while doing all of this, The 19th* has grown significantly. In 2020, The 19th* had a staff of 22. Now, the organization has 57 staff across 21 states. 

“The 19th* cares just as much about how we go about working together as we do with the work we are putting out in the world,” Zamora explained.

At the end of this year, Zamora will step down as publisher, shifting to an advisory position with The 19th* News Network and on The 19th*’s board. This interview, where she reflects on her experience building the culture at The 19th*, been edited for clarity and brevity. 

MIZGATA: Early on, the 19th* pledged to be the most representative and diverse newsroom in the country. How much has that pledge informed the work culture? 

ZAMORA: As you know, we have the asterisk as a part of our brand. We’re named after the 19th Amendment, but the asterisk is a very important aspect of our visual identity. It denotes that the 19th Amendment did not immediately grant all women the right to vote—that Black women, people of color, transgender Americans and so many folks are still disenfranchised and still face all of these barriers to entry when it comes to our democratic process. So, the asterisk is sort of like this visual symbol of who was left out of the process or the story. We are seeking to build this representative newsroom and the first step was gathering those folks, those voices, those perspectives, who had historically been left out. 

MIZGATA: Specifically, how does The 19th*’s commitment to including a range of perspectives and experiences impact how you approach the work as a team? 

ZAMORA: Now that we’ve gathered this diverse and increasingly representative group, we’re very much focused on how we work together to take advantage of all of these different lived experiences. The group we’ve assembled comes with implicit bias and baggage from the jobs that we’ve had before, including the personal experiences or the harm that we have experienced in this industry. We want to create a constructive space to really lean into the intersectionality of the asterisk. As a news industry, the response is always like, “We’re here to hold people to account in the reporting.” But God forbid, people want to hold folks to account within the newsroom. There’s usually a knee-jerk response against that introspection. But that’s what we actually need in order to make progress. That’s where growth comes from. We’re working on building resiliency and a shared understanding of what our equity practice looks like. We’re looking at  the responsibility each of us has—in particular, white folks on staff—to really understand where people of color or gender-diverse folks are coming from in terms of the burdens that they have faced in other workplaces to do a disproportionate share of that work. And to figure out “What does it look like for us to support each other better in this work?” 

MIZGATA: Practically, how has including people in the work made an impact?    

ZAMORA: We’re creating space for a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences and one of the biggest ways that commitment shows up is in a culture of care. Early on, we really tried to be intentional about the culture and being transparent. This was something I personally felt really strongly about, coming from a lot of news organizations where everything was chaos. Oftentimes, and at least in my past experience, there’s been resistance in creating processes around reporting and editing workflows—and that limits people’s ability to participate. So, one thing we tried to do early on was build out systems for Google Docs to Slack. Systems that were transparent, so that people understood the spaces we were working in and how they accessed information was not a mystery to the staff. In our Slack, for instance, there’s also a norm of a lot of open spaces where people can come together to either participate, observe or know that they have access to the work. We have core channels where everyone in the company operates. We have team channels for members of specific teams, but they’re visible to the whole team, not closed.

MIZGATA: How do you and others in leadership model the values that are important to The 19th*? 

ZAMORA: We’ve worked to try to figure out what more inclusive decision making looks like. Emily and I started out as partners, but we were not necessarily equals in leadership. That was a shift that we made together—to figure out how to embody power sharing from the top, so that it was something that we could imbue across the org. That’s a total work in progress but it’s something that we’ve been trying to do a lot more of as we have gotten bigger. Before we make big decisions or when we set goals, we make sure that we’re collecting feedback, up and down the org. That feedback loop has been present from the very get go. But making that loop more structured, and coming up with more of a methodology, is something that we’ve tried to do more as the team has gotten bigger. 

MIZGATA: For those who aren’t at the very top of the organization, how can they participate in more inclusive decision making? 

ZAMORA: You don’t need to be high up at The 19th* to build momentum, a sense of collaboration, or buy-in across the organization. A great example of that is how our product team has been evolving as the team has gotten a little bit bigger and has a little bit more bandwidth. Whether it’s from interviews with readers, our surveys, an ad hoc input from email or social—they are logging all of that user feedback. We have thousands of data points in an Airtable and they regularly analyze it. Is the sentiment positive or negative? When we’re having brainstorms at the org, we have a way to make sure that we’re not just in a vacuum as a news brand. We can go back and gut check ourselves, based on what the audience has actually told us. We’re focused on our audiences: serving them and meeting their needs. We want to be more data driven. When you can create a culture to enable that kind of work, it protects against “you have to be in a high up position of power in order to get anything done.” Data is power and anyone at the organization can make a really strong case for why we should or shouldn’t do something. 

MIZGATA: Who thinks about culture and how do you approach that as a team? 

ZAMORA: I think everyone, up and down the org, thinks about it. We probably all have different ideas about what we need, either barriers that we need to overcome or how we go about doing it better. And we all have our unique lived experiences and expertise with regard to the work functions. Emily and I are both very committed to trying to make sure that our values, as we state them, align with how people experience us. And when you come to work at The 19th, you are fired up about the mission. You are passionate about the mission. 

Our people operations team is probably the backbone — Jayo Miko Macasaquit in particular has been such an incredible pioneer. In a lot of places, HR is about compliance; it’s about protecting the business. If you talk to Jayo, he will say, it’s not just about protection of business, but about protecting and caring for our people. 

By the time someone is hired by The 19th*, they’ve already experienced a very participatory process. They talk with the hiring manager and the executive team. Also, anyone across the organization can volunteer to participate in a panel that interviews a candidate, whether they’re on the business side, technology or the newsroom. Staff wants to participate in that because they get to know who is going to join the team. We ask tough questions in those conversations, not just about people’s skills or their ability to get the job done, but what their values are and what how they see themselves contributing to the overall mission of The 19th*. Those are conversations we’re having, literally, from the very beginning.

MIZGATA: Can you share examples of policies, programs or practices that make an impact on the work environment? 

ZAMORA: Every morning, everyone checks in on a core Slack channel. They talk about what they’re working on that day, how they can be supported—and what their availability is. The best part is that people are also sharing how they’re arriving at the work in a personal sense. It’s not just about the work. We’re also creating an expectation among staff that people are going to be receptive and hold space for the team’s full selves.

Everyone has a professional development stipend. We’ve got a management training coming up. At the end of the year, we’ll do workshops on trauma-informed news gathering. The fellowship program is another really great example. Director of Fellowships Kari Cobham has done such an incredible job. That begins with a retreat for the fellows. Part of that is on mental wellness. It’s not just about the function of the work. It’s about how to arrive at the work in the best possible and most supported ways you can. We feel a responsibility to do as much as we can to recognize the impacts of this type of journalism for a newsroom like ours, which consists of some of the most vulnerable folks in the industry. And what it is to constantly be reporting on other people’s trauma, especially when you relate to that trauma in a personal way. 

And we’re working with this group called the Equity Lab. The leadership team is in a 10 month engagement with them. In addition to getting together as a team to talk, everyone who manages people has a workshop once a month and one-on-one coaching. We did a staff wide survey, again, to collect feedback. So we’re constantly trying to figure out how we can be honing these skills and doing our best to be as responsive to the people that we’ve gathered to The 19th*, whether it’s employees, readers or whomever.

MIZGATA: What advice do you have for news leaders who want to know where to start working on their culture? 

ZAMORA: To the extent that you can, invest in your management practice. A very, very small percentage of folks in the industry are getting any kind of support, direction or guidance with how to manage in a way that is not just handling tasks and outcomes. Seek out opportunities to be more curious about management, what is possible and what kind of a leader you want to be. 

If you are in a position where you can allocate resources, invest in work culture and your teams. It can only benefit the journalism. It can only benefit retention. There’s so many great benefits. 

For people who are in positions of leadership, ask your teams what they need. Start having a lot more conversations. Try to get a handle on where you where your team thinks the culture is, where it should be, and to really sit with that. Ask yourself, “What did I perceive the culture to be versus what they perceived the culture to be?” 

If you’re not in leadership, but you have big ideas about the culture, voice those questions or concerns. And if you’re not in a place where you can, think about where you feel you could fit in. I think we discount values alignment. At least in my first two decades in this industry, that was such an afterthought. It’s more and more important to feel like we deserve to belong in spaces that align with our personal values. We don’t need to compartmentalize, to pretend to be one person at work to “succeed” and then go live our values in our personal lives. To the extent that we have opportunities to explore how we might align our values and our work better, that is very much worth it.


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