Getting a nonprofit news agency off the ground under any conditions is difficult. Doing so during a global pandemic and sociopolitical upheaval, however, is that much more challenging.
The same can be said for assembling a team of filmmakers — all from different parts of the country — to properly document the process.
The 99-minute documentary chronicles the rise of The 19th*, a startup digital news organization founded by a group of women and LGBTQ+ journalists to cover politics and policy through the lens of race and gender.
Founded by former Texas Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw and former Washington Post editor Amanda Zamora, the organization takes its name from the 19th Amendment and its right of women’s suffrage. The asterisk in its title acknowledges the women of color who were long omitted from that right, and the desire to tell American stories not being told by traditionally white-male-dominated newsrooms.
The documentary, directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston and Chelsea Hernandez, showcases the struggles and triumphs of the startup’s rise to national recognition, which took it from an initial budget of five people and $20,000 to a staff of over 50, with funds in excess of $35 million.
Forming a film team
Courtney lives in Los Angeles, and knew Ramshaw and her husband — also a filmmaker — from living in Austin for over a decade. The documentary’s initial premise, she told Salish Current, was to detail the startup’s coverage of the 2020 election through the lens of their reporters.
In March 2020, two days before Courtney was to travel to Austin for filming, COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns set in. Ramshaw’s husband was able to film her angle of things, but Courtney was otherwise reduced to recording The 19th*’s Zoom meetings from afar as they sought funding and stories.
That August, Courtney was able to drive to Austin and film the official launch of the startup at its headquarters. It was at this point, she said, that she decided the film had legs.
She reached out to Hernandez, a Latina filmmaker based in Austin, adding her as co-director. The duo eventually reached out to Hairston — an African-American filmmaker based in Brooklyn — to round things out in 2021.
“I … wanted to build a team that was diverse, sort of in the same way that The 19th* was trying to do that,” Courtney said.
The trio split filming duties based on geography, as the reporters and editors were spread out across the country, Hairston said.
Courtney filmed reporter Kate Sosin in Los Angeles and Massachusetts and split Austin trips with Hernandez, who also followed reporter Chabeli Carrazana in Florida. Hairston tackled much of the East Coast-related filming. Occasionally, they relied on a camera person they knew in a respective state.
“It really was a team effort,” Hairston said.
The three directors took great care not to get or spread COVID-19, quarantining for a week prior to filming reporters and acting as sole director, producer, camera and sound person each time they travelled. Since their subjects were mostly working in personal, at-home work spaces, Courtney said, they didn’t want to take any chances.
Transgender healthcare and reporting
One particularly powerful section of the documentary follows transgender reporter Kate Sosin as they travel to central Massachusetts to report on a trans healthcare clinic.
Courtney said being there with Sosin opened her eyes to how hard it can be for trans people to find healthcare providers appropriately sensitive and understanding of their issues and concerns. Sosin’s reporting was also a positive moment in their trans reporting, much of which focused on anti-trans attacks and legislation.
“Breaking the News” also takes care to show the internal struggles that trans employees and their employers face in ensuring that hiring inclusivity is as inclusive as it can be. Many new companies focus heavily on race and two traditional genders and less so on those outside those bubbles, Hairston said.
“Nonbinary and LGBTQ+ folks are often left out of the discussion,” she added. “Organizations can really change their language and discussion around gender, and how to be truly inclusive.”
She hopes that those who see the documentary will recognize that it’s okay to listen, discuss and speak honestly when it comes to matters of race and gender.
“It’s a great film for other organizations and newsrooms to kind of see how you can affect change through listening to the people who really keep you going,” Hairston said.
Awards and impact
Although Courtney’s plan was to follow the news gathering through the 2020 election, the documentary continues following The 19th* and its coverage through the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol riot, as well as the summer 2022 repeal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.
The organization’s coverage on abortion rights was especially powerful given its Texas-based headquarters, and subsequently received Online Journalism Awards recognition, Hairston said.
“They totally honed in on (it) and reported from angles that we have never really seen in journalism,” she said. “How they engaged with their sources to tell those stories, how they gained trust with those sources, how they… told a lot of the abortion stories just spoke nationally.”
Each director took away their own lessons and hopes for both the future of The 19th* and journalism in general.
Mistrust and fake news
Hernandez said one reason she wanted to be part of the documentary was due to the often commonplace mistrust of media and proliferation of fake news. What The 19th* is doing, she said, is providing a chance to uncover true stories of historically underreported groups of Americans.
“I think our story (is) a fresh take on what journalism looks like,” Hernandez said. “I think our film is a great look at a potential model that other news organizations — no matter how big or small — can take and use to think about inclusivity and diversity within their workplace … but also in their journalism.”
Courtney concurs, adding that she hopes the film inspires more women, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals to consider pursuing journalism at a time when it’s very-much needed.
“A lot of people do think journalism’s dead,” she said. “But I hope they all realize that it’s very important for our democracy and, particularly, bringing your own lived experience to the reporting.”
With the 2024 presidential election on the horizon, all three directors are excited to see The 19th* provide coverage with a larger staff and more on-the-ground access than they had during the pandemic.
“It’ll be exciting to see how many people they reach now, with the amount of journalists that they have,” Hairston said. “People are starting to recognize them as a national platform where they can find truthful news.”
“Breaking the News” will play twice during Doctober — on Sunday, Oct. 15, and Saturday, Oct. 21.
In other news …
The Pickford’s other journalism-centric Doctober 2023 selection is “Rather,” which provides an in-depth look into the life and legacy of former CBS anchorman Dan Rather. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film offers unfiltered, unrestricted access to Rather and the biggest moments of his more than 60 years in journalism.
“Rather” shows Friday, Oct. 13 at 5:15 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 22 at 11 a.m.
— Reported by Matt Benoit
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