By Bryce Jones
When Andrea Valdez stepped off of the flight that brought her to San Francisco in March 2017, the first thing she noticed was the overcast sky and the chill in the air – after spending most of her life in her native state of Texas, that wasn’t something she was used to. In addition to leaving behind her home, she said goodbye her parents, Ray and Lydia, older brother, Philip, husband, Beau, and her job as web editor at Texas Monthly to make her first major career change in a decade, stepping into the role of editor at Wired.com. She packed two suitcases, thinking she would secure a real place to live in California, but ended up living out of those suitcases in various rentals for the two years she spent there. “The whole experience was strange,” Valdez said. “But I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
As a self-described person of routine and habit, Valdez was sad to leave Texas Monthly – her dream publication since graduate school – but she felt being there for so long had limited her worldview. The transition to Wired pushed Valdez out of her comfort zone in almost every aspect: the physical move, managing a large team, running the site for an international publication. All of this, combined with her desire to lead with grace, heightened the feelings of imposter syndrome she’d dealt with throughout her time as a journalist. Valdez would often ask herself, “Am I doing as well as I can?”
Almost four years later, Valdez, 37, opened up while Zooming me from her home in Austin, Texas, about how she still internally battles this anxiety. Some days are harder than others due to the pressure of working as a leader in such a high-intensity field. (Sometimes she even longs for the job she had in college where she made dog treats.) However, she has persisted with tenacity – graduating from Medill in 2006, working her way through editorial ranks and landing at one of the highest positions in the journalism world: editor in chief of a new newsroom called the 19th. Named after the amendment, its mission is right in line with her feminist values. And being a woman of color in an industry where white men dominate at the top speaks to the barriers she’s pushed through.
Abby Johnston, a three-time colleague of Valdez (whom she proudly referred to as her “work wife”) and deputy editor of the 19th, understands those feelings of insecurity, saying it’s common among women in the industry. She remembers Valdez calling a lot when she started at Wired, expressing how invested she was in proving she was the right person for the job. But Johnston has full confidence in Valdez’s abilities.
“For anyone who knows Andrea, it’s like whatever position she is given, she is going to be the right person for it because that’s the kind of person she is. She’s such a hard worker. If she’s given a task of any kind, she’s going to throw 1,000% into it.”
After just over two years in California, Valdez received an opportunity to make her way back home: an offer to be the editor in chief of the Texas Observer, a nonprofit news organization with a focus in local politics and culture. While she only stayed in that position for eight months, it was a role that in a way foreshadowed what was to come – telling stories of politics through the lens of gender.
In the fall of last year, former Texas Tribune editor in chief and CEO Emily Ramshaw (BSJ ’03) approached Valdez about starting a digital publication that would focus on gender, politics and policy. The more they discussed and planned, the more Valdez’s excitement grew. On Jan. 27, 2020, the website had its “soft launch.” A little over a year later, its Twitter account now has over 68,000 followers.
Because the 19th is so young, Valdez stepped into the position of not only leading a newsroom but also making it her own. There was no luxury of reading archives or asking previous editors for help or advice.
“One of the pros is you get to craft it yourself, and that’s really exciting and thrilling,” she said. “It’s not every day you get an opportunity to do that. But one of the challenges is you have to craft it yourself. The thing that makes this such a wonderful opportunity is also what makes it a challenge.”
And the pandemic posed another challenge: Valdez hasn’t met the bulk of the nine editors and reporters she manages in person yet. For her day to day, she focuses on creating a good culture and keeping morale high. She and her team get to know one another through Zoom happy hours and share recipes and photos of family on Slack.
The official launch date arrived in the midst of lockdown in August, something the 19th originally reassessed: Is now the right time? But eventually they came to the conclusion that it actually underscored their mission – COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women. And for Valdez, “every issue is a woman’s issue.”
That statement is at the core of the 19th and Valdez’s vision for it. She wants to tell stories readers wouldn’t find anywhere else but are sitting in plain view, with a sharp focus on gender. “America’s first female recession” was the first story published after the August launch, a fact Valdez easily recalled. She explained with genuine passion that the pandemic has led to the first time women have had a larger economic downturn than men since 1948.
To tell these stories, Valdez focuses on being human-centric. Having grown up in the magazine world and being part of the specialization at Medill, Valdez believes it’s important for everyone to see themselves reflected in journalism, especially those from underrepresented or underserved communities. Being Latina, she’s able to bring that value to the 19th, and being a Texan makes it even more meaningful to her. “The only thing more important than being a Texan,” she said, “is being a woman.”
When she was younger, Valdez didn’t know what she wanted to be. She just knew she wanted to read. Encouraged by her dad, who she deemed a “champion of reading,” throughout her childhood she frequented her neighborhood library in Houston. It smelled like books, and her mom had to laminate her brown-and-white library card because she used it so much. Eventually, she was old enough to graduate from the children’s section to the bookshelves that held the young adult novels. Later on, that passion led her to major in English at the University of Texas at Austin.
Valdez’s interest in women’s rights has always been in the back of her mind, but it likely bloomed during her time in undergrad, spurred by “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. In addition to learning about feminism and gender equality, taking a class in Chicana studies while at UT – seeing women represented in Mexican culture and how they’ve been written and talked about – was also formative for her as a Latina, opening her eyes to the importance of intersectionality.
Although she had a love-hate relationship with Texas growing up (as teenagers usually do with their home state), Valdez didn’t leave until after she got her bachelor’s degree in 2005, when she decided her passion for telling stories was leading her to journalism. So she applied to Medill.
The morning Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Valdez packed her car and put 1,100 miles between her and her hometown. As she drove north toward Evanston with her parents, gas prices rose and traffic thickened. It felt ominous, and leaving her new fiancée was hard, but Valdez felt ready to tackle the year. And she had a clear goal in mind.
“She was a girl from Texas,” said Patti Wolter, one of Valdez’s professors at Medill. “She wanted to work for Texas Monthly magazine, and she definitely had a sense of what the path to the job is.”
However, Wolter didn’t meet her until her third quarter; Valdez said the only thing she knew upon arriving at Northwestern University was that she wanted to find a way back to Texas. Her transition to graduate school was also a transition to journalism – she worked at a small magazine during undergrad, but even with that experience, it was hard not to feel like an imposter. Throughout her time at Medill though, Valdez found her niche and a group of friends. She recalls the way the professors in her selected specialization of Magazine, such as Wolter and now-Dean Charles Whitaker, talked to her was one of the first times she was treated like a full-fledged adult.
During Quarter 3, she and 18 other students worked together to develop a publication, which they named Hyperlink Magazine, for their Magazine Publishing Project. Valdez took over the role of the marketing research head, and Wolter said that although there were always conflicts during that project, she was respected by her classmates and was “the adult in the room.” Looking back, Valdez said that experience taught her the importance of a good concept and understanding your audience. Overall, being a graduate student strengthened her resolve in journalism.
The year went by quickly, Valdez referring to it as a “nice adventure.” She graduated in 2006 and secured a job as a fact checker at Texas Monthly, headquartered in Austin – just two and a half hours from her hometown. Wolter recommended Valdez to Evan Smith (MSJ ’88), the editor at the time, something she doesn’t do unless she truly means it. “Here’s someone I think will hit the ball out of the park,” she remembers thinking.
“I was elated,” Valdez said. “I felt very fortunate and very happy that not only did I get a job in journalism, but that I got a job that brought me back to Texas.”
Texas Monthly defined Valdez’s early career, as she worked her way from editorial assistant to editor of texasmonthly.com over the course of about 10 years. But at the start, she wanted to try writing.
It’s evident how thankful Valdez is to her previous editors for giving her the chance to do so; she expressed more than once how generous they were to her. Titled “The Manual,” Valdez began a column about none other than how to dress, walk and talk like a Texan. She wrote her first story about how to buy boots.
“It was the first time I was published in a magazine where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe they published my name!’” she said with a laugh. “I will admit, I didn’t know what I was doing, and the story was really cruddy, and it needed a lot of editing. But I learned a lot from that first experience. The second one I turned in was ‘How to brand a calf,’ and I remember I just felt so much more comfortable. I felt just much more equipped to write a second piece.”
Just going through the process once, working through it with her editor, helped raise her confidence enough to keep going with the column. Eventually, Valdez turned it into a book of the same name. Despite her anxiety, she did something not many people can say they’ve done.
In the summer of 2011, Valdez was running the Texas Monthly website, and Johnston was 21 years old and working at the publication as a web editor intern. Although they didn’t work together much, she looked up to Valdez – her first impression was that she “was a badass.”
Valdez describes falling into the position of editor of Texasmonthly.com – she wanted to edit, and that was the only editing job open she felt qualified for. “I wasn’t good at it, that’s for sure,” she said.
But Katy Vine, the executive editor at Texas Monthly, was able to watch Valdez move through the ranks and always thought she was a fantastic talent. “I [was able] to see her in that capacity [as web editor], and that was really interesting to watch her just grow and come up with more ideas and start to run the show,” she said.
Determined to excel, Valdez worked long hours to figure out what it takes to run a publication’s website and essentially built the foundation for everything she knows now – editing, leading a team, building a website, navigating the inner workings of digital platforms. Being at a smaller newsroom gave her the luxury of trying different things and doing it all, which gave her the ability to take those skills to a larger publication.
Being at Wired.com was the most formative professional experience Valdez had. The Conde Nast publication garners 64.5 million unique users on its website worldwide. After being at Texas Monthly for 10 years, Valdez felt challenged in her role of editor and sometimes even overwhelmed. But she was able to learn tech policy while managing a digital team of 30 people, and she only left when she found an opportunity to, once again, return to Texas.
Despite her tendency to doubt herself, Valdez has the ability to make those around her feel comfortable. In the opinion of Vine, it’s not the fact that she’s good with copy that sets her apart. It’s her enthusiasm, grace, calming nature and the way she obviously loves being around other people (you can tell by the way she greets her writers with a smile and genuine excitement, Vine said) that make her special.
When Valdez started at Texas Monthly in 2006 as a fact checker, she and Vine worked on a few stories together that got intense. Once they were reporting for an article about sex education, and right before deadline they got a call from a source wanting to retract some of his quotes, claiming he didn’t say them. They had to go back through the audio to prove he did, and throughout the whole situation, Valdez remained chill, simply letting out a laugh and assuring Vine that everything would be OK. “She was a trouper,” Vine said. “She thrived on that adrenaline without getting grouchy.”
“She’s always the person you can call and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through right now,’” Johnston said. “She’s [that person] for me more than she needs to be. A lot of editors in chief are not as accessible as [Valdez]; there’s sort of this separation – you can’t have your meltdown to the editor in chief. But with [Valdez], no matter what she’s doing, she makes room to talk things through and be there for her people.”
As editor in chief of the 19th, Valdez employs these values. “Writers need help and need you [the editor] to be a partner,” she said. The team has plans to expand coverage to areas like education after focusing on the election and its aftermath. But the overarching focus and goal will always be to champion gender equity in political journalism. More specifically, to tell stories that ask: Does policy champion equity, or does it disrupt equity? Valdez’s passion empowers this work, and her graciousness and work ethic make her a leader to others.
She may not admit it, but Johnston will: Everyone who has worked with Valdez anticipated she would end up somewhere she would call the shots.
“She has just been able to prove everyone at the 19th what an incredible person she is, and what an incredible editor and leader she is,” she said. “Getting to watch everyone else learn about her and understand how she is reminded me that she’s a very special person. It reminded me how lucky I am to know her.”
Bryce is in the magazine specialization at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @BryceKJones.