Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
March 3, 2017 by Eleanor J. Bader
The site is called Rewire and its goal is to “rewire the way we think about the news, especially when it comes to reproductive and sexual health, rights, and justice.” It’s obviously a huge mission.
Five days a week, 51 weeks a year (staff take a break in late December) the site publishes original news stories, analyses, cultural critiques, plus podcasts and interviews. On a recent Tuesday, for example, Rewire covered racial disparities in abortion access; the mistreatment of immigrants and refugees who have experienced domestic abuse; Title IX protections for transgender teens; a renewed Republican-led crusade against pornography; the links between the Trump administration and the private prison industry; and a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, A Book of American Martyrs.
This is intersectional feminism writ large.
At its helm is Editor in Chief Jodi Jacobson. She assumed this role in 2011, though her connection to the site began earlier, when she was hired to develop a strategic plan for the publication, then called RH Reality Check. As the former Director of Advocacy at the American Jewish World Service and the founder and former Executive Director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity, a Washington, D.C.-based organization working to empower women and girls, Jacobson came to Rewire well versed in the many obstacles facing proponents of feminism and reproductive and social justice.
She spoke to Eleanor J. Bader about the current state of journalism, the threat posed by the Trump administration, and the many ways in which Rewire is shining a spotlight on news and issues that other media outlets ignore.
Eleanor J. Bader: Let’s start with a little history. How did RH Reality Check begin?
Jodi Jacobson: Back in 2006, former Senator Tim Wirth from Colorado, then President of the United Nations Foundation, had the idea of establishing an online publication to push back against the misinformation about reproductive health, HIV and AIDS, and related issues being spread by the Bush administration. Tim thought that there needed to be a reality check to counter the lies that were being promulgated about abortion, birth control, and sexual health more generally. Initially, the site was fully funded by UNF. It launched in 2006 and was run in-house until January 1, 2012, when it became completely independent. Scott Swenson, a longtime progressive advocate, was the first editor.
EJB: How did you become involved?
JJ: After I left the American Jewish World Service, UNF contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in developing a strategic plan for the site. I’d known Tim, Scott and David Harwood, a Vice President of UNF from my previous work in international health and human rights.
Developing the strategic plan involved 58 intense interviews with different people in the field of reproductive health—policy makers, legislators, advocates, and researchers. We also did a survey of the readership and probed the state of the media at that time to determine what was needed. Furthermore, we studied the site to see if it was actually fulfilling its mission as a push-back to the far right. We then looked at how we could improve our coverage of the issues and how we might achieve a bigger, broader vision.
EJB: What did the study suggest was needed?
JJ: Among other things, it made clear that the publication needed to become independent, needed to hire professional journalists, and needed to be more forceful in its critique of other media. It also needed to cover the broad array of issues essential to the concept of reproductive justice. We got a tie-off grant from the UN Foundation and became independent on January 1, 2012. By that point I’d been Editor in Chief for about a year.
EJB: How did becoming independent impact RH Realty Check?
JJ: One of the first things I did was hire a financial person since it’s really critical that potential funders know that you’re getting clear audits and have your financial affairs in order. We then began working to build our visibility and audience. We now have a staff of 30 people—plus freelance reporters—and are read by other media, researchers, policy makers, legislators from all parties, and the broad public. We get six to eight million unique readers a year, and as our work has become better known, our credibility has grown. But even though our readership has increased, we’re never going to be BuzzFeed. We don’t and won’t do clickbait. Our growth is, and will continue to be, driven organically as we have a small budget relative to most other publications. Nevertheless, our reporting is routinely picked up by other outlets and is widely shared.
EJB: Has Rewire reporting had an impact on policy?
JJ: Absolutely. We were the first publication to get on the Center for Medical Progress and expose them. We’ve run more than 200 stories about their bogus claim that Planned Parenthood profits from the sale of the body parts of aborted fetuses.
Our immigration reporting has also been incredible. We were able to offer live-stream coverage on Facebook of the demonstrations that were happening at New York’s JFK Airport, something that brought a million-and-a-half-readers to our Facebook page during the first weeks of the Trump administration and increased our followers by about 4000. People relied on the page to learn what was happening.
We’ve had an impact at the state level, too. A while back we reported on the selection of someone to run for an open legislative seat in Kansas that was originally going to go to an anti-choice Democrat. We reported this and the article generated a lot of talk. In the end, a prochoice person was selected as the nominee. We are proud to have had a hand in that.
Furthermore, we’re able to critique shoddy or inaccurate reporting done by other media, pushing them to a better, more thorough, job. It’s exciting. We aim to be the publication of record on our issues, and as an evidence-based publication, we are able to take on the media when it allows falsehoods to be reported as fact, whether it’s anti-choice propaganda or the denial of climate change. A lot of media has been driven by the notion that you have to show both sides of a debate, even if one side has no facts or literally makes them up. This is especially important now and we are unapologetic about focusing our work on evidence and carrying out the work of journalists to speak truth to power and inform the public with facts…. We will not give space to false statements or distortions of truth. This is the ethical underpinning of our work. Corruption and the misdirection of resources impacts everything, which is why we focus on coverage of issues like growing autocracy and the lack of democracy in government. We connect these issues and highlight their impact on people at the local, state, and national levels.
EJB: How is Rewire funded?
JJ: Our budget is about $3.3 million. Most of it comes from foundations such as Ford, David and Lucile Packard, and Westwind. But we’re now trying to build a larger donor base and tap individuals as well.
EJB: Have anti-choicers harassed you or other Rewire staffers?
JJ: Yes. We’ve gotten harassing messages on Twitter and on our Facebook feed and I’ve received a few messages suggesting that I belong in an oven. Everyone approaches these things differently. Personally, I blow them off. The flip side is that we get a lot of positive feedback: “Thank you for walking the walk.” From time to time, however, we get asked why we’re covering issues like immigration or the environment, which a particular reader may see as separate from reproductive justice. This kind of feedback gives us a chance to explain the connectedness between issues.
EJB: Has the current Administration changed Rewire’s focus?
JJ: We are trying to focus more on story arcs about the administration and do more state and local reporting. The relentless BS of the anti-choicers is, well, relentless, but we are working to make sure we get people to cover ongoing attacks with fresh eyes so that the reporting does not fall into a rut or become predictable.
EJB: What about the rebranding that turned RH Reality Check into Rewire?
JJ: Even a modest rebranding is very expensive and the name change was the least of it. It took us a full year, working with Teal Media, to run focus groups and do a 2,000-plus respondent survey. The process involved a lot of conceptual work. We had to decide what we wanted the site to look like, what we saw as its main function, and what we wanted to convey in terms of messaging. It’s like the gut renovation of a house, a year of constant work and decision-making. We probably considered 150 names, but Rewire was the one that fit us. The change went into effect on March 14, 2016, almost a year ago, and we’ve gotten great feedback on the new look and redesign.
EJB: What do you see as Rewire’s biggest challenge?
JJ: We’re a publication, not an organization, and as such we have to move in the moment on many, many fronts. We’re feeling both energized and challenged by this administration. We want to be systematic about our reporting and, at the same time, be innovative, providing excellent coverage of issues that matter to people. In these times, evidence-based reporting is so important and no matter how many bells, whistles or apps there are, the bottom line is that it takes good, solid reporting, investigation and interviewing to get to the real stories. I’m happy to say that we’re ready.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.