By Katie Chambers
The new documentary Breaking the News, which just premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, follows the determined efforts of women and nonbinary journalists launching a news “startup,” The 19th*, to foreground voices omitted from mainstream news. Filmmakers Heather Courtney, Princess A. Hairston, and Chelsea Hernandez provide a deep look into bias and inclusion in the ever-shifting media landscape.
The powerful film is executive produced by NYWIFT Members Ruth Ann Harnisch and Lois Vossen, and will air on PBS’s Independent Lens. Vossen explained why the film is vital to this moment in our nation’s history and growth. “In early 2020, filmmaker Heather Courtney told me about a new documentary that was tracking a major disruption in the world of journalism. Women and LGBTQ+ journalists were laying claim to what qualifies as ‘the news’—and who reports it,” said Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer. “It was clear we needed to support this talented filmmaker team in their effort to profile what became The 19th* news site. If we’re going to hold on to our democracy, belief in the credibility of journalism is crucial; in Breaking the News, Heather, Chelsea, Princess and Diane explore one innovative blueprint in that effort.”
Harnisch was also proud to support the film – and had a special connection to the subject matter. “As one of the founding funders of The19th* newsroom itself, my interest in documenting its unique contribution to journalism met the perfect opportunity in Breaking The News. We made this movie so people could see, hear, and feel the work of telling stories through a more inclusive gender lens,” said Ruth Ann Harnisch.
We spoke to Courtney, Hairston, Hernandez, and producer Diane Quon about their communal approach to making this film, and the challenges and triumphs of building a news organization (and making a film about it) during a global pandemic, political strife, and social unrest.
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in the Tribeca Festival mean to you?
Chelsea Hernandez: For me, it’s a full circle moment to be able to premiere in New York City and at Tribeca Festival. I moved to NYC for college to study filmmaking back in 2005 and had to leave abruptly to care for my mother’s declining health in Austin (she’s doing better now). I have wonderful memories meeting, networking, and collaborating with indie filmmakers and artists in NY including working at DCTV. In 2018, I was selected to participate in the Tribeca/A&E Story Edit Lab and was awarded a Tribeca All Access Grant. That year I attended the festival for the first time, attending industry meetings with All Access. The experience was incredibly rewarding and memorable. I told myself then that I will come back here to premiere a film. I am thrilled this is the year and this is the film I get to share at the festival.
Princess A. Hairston: Tribeca is home to NYC, probably the most culturally diverse city in the U.S. Having our film premiere at Tribeca is incredible. Growing up in NY and having access to various ethnic groups, cultures, and languages – it makes Tribeca a meaningful place to premiere a film like ours that makes space for voices that are often left out of the newsroom.
Tell us about Breaking the News. You were right there from the very beginning of The 19th*. How did you first hear about it and what inspired you to make the film?
Heather Courtney: I had heard about The 19th* in January 2020, when The Washington Post wrote an article about The 19th* hoping to launch later that year. I had lived in Austin for 15 years and knew [CEO and Co-Founder] Emily Ramshaw, and so pitched the idea of a documentary about their first year, from prep and planning, through their launch, and continuing after to follow their coverage of the 2020 election. I loved what they were trying to do – to buck the white male status quo of U.S. newsrooms.
I was planning to travel to Austin in mid-March 2020 for a first shoot, and then everything changed, for everybody. So instead of filming those first months, I recorded Zoom meetings as The 19th* pivoted to figure out how best to cover the pandemic despite only having one reporter initially, and still raising funds to officially launch their news site. I was so inspired by how they kept at it despite the difficulties, both personally and professionally, and how they remained positive for each other. In many ways, those first few months of only recording Zoom meetings became not just a stopgap until I could film, but crucial in The 19th*’s narrative as they reported on how the pandemic laid bare the inequities that exist in our country, and had difficult internal discussions as the country faced a long overdue racial reckoning.
Once I made the two-day drive to Texas in August 2020 to film their official launch day, I was all in, and I knew that I had to keep filming and/or recording however that could happen during a pandemic.
COVID-19 plays an enormous part in this story, given that The 19th was launched just as the pandemic hit, so we see the journalists both covering the story and also dealing with its impact themselves. In turn, how did COVID impact your making of the film and how you collaborated with one another?
Chelsea Hernandez: COVID played a huge role in the making of Breaking the News. We knew we didn’t want to make a “Zoom” documentary right off the bat. So, we were constantly looking for opportunities to film in person. Our directing team was also strategically selected based on geography so that we could divide and conquer filming nearby. [For] myself, based in Austin where The 19th* is headquartered, I could capture some of the leadership scenes. I also drove to Florida twice to film with Orlando-based reporter Chabeli Carrazana, because I wasn’t comfortable flying during the first year of COVID. And as we awaited vaccines and anticipated following reporters out in the field in 2021, new variants surged and held us back from filming again. It was challenging to film consistently, but with some patience and collaboration with the film participants we were able to capture some moving moments.
Diane Quon: As Chelsea mentioned, the directing team was based across the country which made it more efficient/safe when we were able to film during the height of the pandemic. Heather, who is based in LA, could cover Kate, who was also based in LA. Princess, who is based in NY, could cover shoots on the East Coast. Because of COVID, just like the journalists, our team had to rely on Zoom to meet. Even though we started the project in 2020, I actually did not meet the team in person until the summer of 2022.
Heather Courtney: Also, in the early months of the pandemic, before we had a full team of directors/producers, I sometimes hired camerapeople in Austin, where The 19th* was based, and in Philadelphia where [The The 19th* Editor-at-Large] Errin Haines was based. I would often be on Zoom as the cameraperson was filming, directing remotely. Eventually, I traveled to Philadelphia to film Errin during the 2020 election, and again in January, shortly after Jan.6th. This required flying to Philadelphia from LA, and then quarantining for a week after traveling. It was a lot of extra expense to do that, but necessary to ensure everyone felt safe during filming. As Diane mentioned, once we had our team, we were able to film more often without having to travel.
It’s unusual to see a film with three co-directors. Why did you choose this approach? What were some of the benefits and how did you have to adjust your work process (if at all) to accommodate this creative set up?
Heather Courtney: Although I started filming on my own in March 2020, I always had the idea working with collaborators on this project, though because of COVID, the search for collaborators was a little delayed. Seeing what The 19th* was trying to do to create a diverse and inclusive newsroom, I knew that I needed to build a diverse film team, in the spirit of what The 19th* was trying to do. I knew the film would be a much better film with directors and producers who could bring their different lived experiences to the filmmaking in a collaborative process.
Chelsea Hernandez: In the spirit of The 19th*, we each bring our lived experiences to the directing and producing chair. This allows for a bolder and truer story. As I mentioned earlier, we also strategically selected our team based on geography due to COVID travel restraints. We each are cinematographers and own our own equipment. With reporters based in Los Angeles, D.C., Philly and NY, and staff in Austin, we could each film with participants in the areas we are based: Chelsea in Austin, Princess in NYC, and Heather in L.A.
Diane Quon: As a producer, working with three directors had many benefits and many challenges. As Chelsea mentioned, we all brought our lived experiences and creative ideas, which along with our editors, made for a powerful film. Having multiple voices and input, however, meant we had to work differently than I’m used to in making decisions. Ideally, I always want everyone to be on the same page, but in our case, sometimes it meant that even if someone disagreed, we had to go with the majority decision. We all had to learn to let go at times and trust the decision.
The 19th* was founded to ensure women’s voices were heard in news media – especially when reporting on topics that directly impact their lives and identities. In turn, your film takes an honest look at how The 19th* itself struggled internally with some issues of racial bias and lack of LGBTQIA+ representation – while also showing how generally grateful the journalists were to be in an open-minded, progressive, women-led space.
What do you think other news agencies can learn about how The 19th* addressed diversity, equity, and inclusion internally? And how is the organization doing today? By the end of the film, the team seemed committed to making sure its internal structure matched its external values.
Chelsea Hernandez: I believe other news agencies can learn that it is possible to have tough conversations on race and gender in the workplace. Even though it’s uncomfortable and challenging, conversations can help move the needle toward progress in diversifying and being more inclusive in a newsroom. The DEI role has existed for a long time, and yet, workplaces in general still lack inclusivity and diverse voices. Our film showcases that more can be done to address these obstacles and it’s not perfect nor the right answer, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Princess A. Hairston: News agencies, corporations, and organizations can learn a great deal from The 19th* newsroom model. The 19th* took a bold stand and faced many internal challenges in creating this new newsroom highlighting women and LGBTQ+ voices in journalism. This work is not easy, however, The 19th* shows how an organization can do the work to address diversity, equity and inclusivity within a work space, make mistakes and course correct after each obstacle.
Heather Courtney: I think The 19th* can be a model, not only for other news organizations, but other workplaces in general, on how to walk the talk. A lot of organizations and companies are having “diversity” workshops or trainings in the wake of 2020, but often that’s just paying lip service. The 19th* shows what it means to make real change, and that it’s ok to mess up, as long as you keep working at it.
What was your favorite moment working on the film? And the biggest challenge?
Chelsea Hernandez: My favorite moment: Seeing the entire 19th* staff gather in person for the first time. I was fortunate enough to film their first in-person retreat where many had met for the first time. It was a truly special moment to see them gathered after working remotely in various parts of the country for two years. My biggest challenge: Working remotely with our film team in three different time zones.
Diane Quon: My favorite moment working on the film was seeing the response when we first showed the film beyond our team. People came away with hope- to me that had been our goal. My biggest challenge: Scheduling meetings and making decisions with three different directors!
Heather Courtney: I have two favorite moments: One was filming The 19th*’s official launch in August 2020. They had been through so much in five short months, not knowing if they would even survive, and yet here they were. They made it happen. And it was such a privilege to be able to be there that day filming and seeing just how excited and proud they were of what they had been able to accomplish. It was a deciding moment for me to keep making the film. The other favorite moment: Filming Kate on their Massachusetts reporting trip, where I was able to film them interviewing the amazing staff at Transhealth, and also film their trip to their alma mater Hampshire College, where Kate shared how much college helped them realize who they were and the kind of work they wanted to do.
My biggest challenge: Going through chemotherapy for the last five months of post-production. It was an unexpected additional challenge to an already challenging project. But I was lucky to have a team to lean on. Feel grateful for that (and for the chemotherapy that did its job, no more cancer!).
What do you hope audiences take away from Breaking the News?
Princess A. Hairston: I hope audiences take away the necessary work that needs to happen within organizations and newsrooms. People in leadership roles need to be more conscious of how they listen and respond to folks within their work environments who may not have the same lived experience. How can we all think about our actions and change behavior to support a better outcome?
Heather Courtney: I think people are often afraid to make mistakes or confront their blind spots. But if change is really going to happen, in a workplace or on a personal level, difficult discussions need to happen, and the work needs to be done. It won’t be perfect, but that’s part of the process.
What’s next for each of you?
Chelsea Hernandez: I am currently in development on a scripted anthology feature, directing alongside four other Texas Latina directors. It’s currently titled the Untitled Texas Latina Project and was awarded a Warner Media 150 Artist Grant and Fellowship. I also co-founded and help lead a group in Texas called Tejanas in Film, which is a collective that aims to empower Latinx filmmakers who identify as Tejanas/é/x in order to cultivate community and creativity, improve visibility, and increase our representation on-screen and within the industry. A group of us will be present at Tribeca and look forward to sharing more about the collective to others.
Diane Quon: I am producing multiple feature documentaries, plus executive producing many docs as well (most by first-time directors). I am also producing a scripted feature film based on a New York Times best-seller. I am also moving part-time from Chicago to San Francisco to be closer to my family!
Princess A. Hairston: I am working on building out my digital film agency. I have multiple projects in development. I recently completed two doc series with major streaming networks.
Heather Courtney: I really need some paid work – is anyone out there hiring? I’m also in the research stage of a feature documentary that is close to my experience of growing up in rural America. Also, spending more time with my husband, my 14-year-old pit bull rescue, and my 85-year-old mom.
And connect with the filmmaking team:
Princess A. Hairston:
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