Examining the growing pains of The 19th*, a non-profit, non-partisan news agency founded right before COVID swept the United States in 2020, Breaking the News is an immersive documentary exploring the importance of and some problems in their work. Founded by former Texas Tribune writers Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora with their life savings as a digital-first, virtual enterprise, the outfit aims to address the gatekeeper problem in journalism: that most editors are still straight white men setting the agenda.
Kate Sosin, a nonbinary reporter who was an early hire, is tasked with covering all LGTQIA+ issues in the nation without much support. Candidly, Sosin speaks of feeling alienated by certain language used by Ramshaw and Zamora in staff emails touting the group as a “sisterhood,” while Ramshaw shares her concern over hiring a staff member that they fear they may not be able to properly support.
Another early hire, Errin Haines, a regular commentator on MSNBC, is one of the first national reporters to follow up and report on the killing of Breonna Taylor by the Louisville Metro Police Department. A former AP reporter, Haines one day dreamed of being that outfit’s national race reporter. Instead she continues this work at the 19th*, whose business model is not dissimilar to the AP, often licensing their content and expertise––first to the Washington Post and later to other newspapers across the nation.
Directed by Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston, and Chelsea Hernandez, and edited and written by Jamie Boyle, Breaking the News is one of those rare films that, like Citizenfour, might be seen as a major landmark in cinéma vérité documentaries about journalism. It’s strongest when observing the building of this organization and team, including Ramshaw’s husband David Hartstein, himself a professional DP. We get an inside look at The 19th* team at all levels, highlighting early Zoom calls as Ramshaw and Zamora build a national organization in the height of COVID from their homes in Austin to the more formal structure that is made from a mix of grants, subscribers, and license fees.
What emerges is a portrait of seasoned journalists doing the work and the toll that can take when an issue impacts one personally. In one passage, Sosin visits a clinic in rural Massachusetts that not only provides care for transgender individuals but is mostly run by trans practitioners. In another, Haines calls her mother after waiting for hours to vote in a mostly Black Philadelphia neighborhood, an experience that seems foreign to suburbanites who have never had to wait more than 20 minutes to cast a vote.
COVID and Trump loom large, as do the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade while the organization struggles to maintain its non-partisan aim. In the process of pivoting, The 19th* invites Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on right after the election, leading to tension in the newsroom as she provides a platform for debunked claims of election fraud right before January 6th.
Breaking the News is an immersive, crowd-pleasing, candid portrait of a start-up experiencing growing pains, roadblocks, and ultimately success in changing the paradigm and business model for news.
Breaking the News premiered at Tribeca Festival 2023.