Leah Sottile on Rethinking Your Journalism Mission

Leah Sottile
Leah Sottile

Everyone, in every part of the world, was having a conversation with themselves. Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? I definitely was having that question with journalism.

Hi friends,

As promised, Everything I’ve Learned is back with another new episode (and a new website: EIL.show).

This week my guest is Leah Sottile, a journalist whose work you’ll remember from Bundyville, the Longreads podcast that ran for two seasons and explored domestic extremism in the United States. She also hosted the podcast Two Minutes Past Nine, produced with BBC Radio Four, which looked at the legacy of the Oklahoma City bombing 25 years later. And she’s written for many publications including the Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, and High Country News. 

Our conversation focused on something many people have grappled with: How the pandemic forced her to confront bigger questions about her own work, and what stories she wanted to cover going forward. 

Related links: 

You can also read a full transcript of the interview here.

On following her own curiosity vs. following the crowd:

Oftentimes I look at media and it feels like watching a youth soccer game. The crowd of kids runs in one direction in a crowd. And then they run in another direction in a crowd. I played soccer for a long time, and I was totally the kid that sat on the ground and picked dandelions. And I think that’s like my approach to journalism a little bit. Everybody’s doing this thing. What are we missing?

On the effects of covering domestic extremism:

It’s something I think I’d been developing in my head for a while, because I spent the majority of the last five years writing about far right extremism.

It was really sort of an accident that I ended up writing so much about the far right. And then really leaning into it the way that I did in the last five years. But it was kind of traumatic. I don’t think you hear people talk about that enough. It’s a difficult thing to spend all of your time, you know, watching patriot live streams and listening to wacky radio shows and speeches and attending rallies where people don’t want you there. So I really had a little bit of a reckoning. Is this what I really want to keep doing? And I think at the end of the day I have to be curious about what I’m doing to want to keep doing it.

On burning out:

At a certain point I wrote a Post-It on my wall: “I can only do as much work as I can do.” It’s the most basic thing in the world, but at a certain point, you have to realize you can’t do everything. I was sick of being behind. I was frankly just sick of not having a life. I thought at some point, if I just sacrificed myself to journalism, somehow some red carpet would get rolled out and I’d be fine. That is never real.

On the benefits of having a personal newsletter:

I think the most exciting thing about is that every month it is a blank page. A lot of times when I work with different publications, they’ll say, “I don’t know that this is a story for us,” because everybody has sort of parameters around what they’re doing. “I don’t know if this is an essay that would work for us, for our audience.”

I just kind of approach the Substack with that kind of blank—well, this can be anything. I’ve even asked people, paid subscribers, Hey, what do you want to see? And they’re like, If you want to write about bands, we’re up for it. If you want to talk about journalism, we’re up for it. And I appreciate that.

On whether young journalists should be on Twitter:

I’m at the point where I feel like any more than like a few swipes down on the Twitter timeline is about as much as I can handle. I try and spend like five minutes a day on it. And I know that there are ways you can curate your feed and have lists, but at the end of the day, for somebody in my position, Twitter is something that takes time away from other projects.

But that’s not how I always was. … I embraced it big time, it just allowed me to see that there was like a huge audience that was like ravenous for more information on the far right. … For a young person starting out, I do think that they should have a Twitter account. I think they should see the different varying ways to use the platform. I mean, there’s an argument that I was using the platform wrong, and that’s what burned me out on it.

Thanks for subscribing.

Tell Me Everything You’ve Learned.

Hi friends,

The kids returned to school today, so I thought I’d use this eerily quiet moment to send an email update.

The last several months have been focused on family, but I’ve also been working on a new company (more on that soon), and new episodes of Everything I’ve Learned (also coming soon).

This also seems like a perfect moment to ask you about everything you’ve learned — over the pandemic, or during your life and career. I’d like to feature your voices on an upcoming podcast episode, so leave me a voicemail and tell me about something you’ve learned.

It can be small, like a work hack or a morning or exercise routine, or something bigger that led to a change in your life, work, or relationships.

Be sure to include your name if you’d like to be credited on the podcast.

-Mark

Some things I recently read and loved:

  1. Land of Big Numbers, by Te-Ping Chen
  2. Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  3. How to Write One Song, by Jeff Tweedy
  4. “We Would’ve Been Princes!” by Anthony Veasna So (from the current issue of American Short Fiction).
Thanks for subscribing.

Making the Leap from Media Executive to Debut Novelist

Hi everyone, I’ve got a new episode of Everything I’ve Learned this week, an in-depth conversation with Dawnie Walton, author of The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

It’s her (excellent) debut novel — the story of a rock duo that rises to fame in 1970s New York City. Walton worked as a journalist and media executive before the story of Opal Jewel inspired her to go all-in on pursuing her dream:

I was working full-time, and I would wake up at like 5 a.m. and try to squeeze in some writing time before I had to get ready to go to work. If I wasn’t too tired at the end of the day, I would also write at the end of the day.

It was an idea that gripped me, more than any idea has ever gripped me. And that’s what kept me coming back to that computer. I probably shouldn’t admit this, I was thinking about while I was at meetings at my job, I was thinking about it when I was cooking dinner.

If you open the notes in my phone, they’re like a disaster of old notes and little ideas that I wanted to jot down. I was working on this novel around the edges of my day. Until it reached a point where I felt like, I’m ready to devote more to this. 

You can listen and subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.

Hope you’re all having a good week,

Mark

About this Newsletter and Podcast

Everything I've Learned podcast

Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads and producer/host of Everything I’ve Learned, a podcast about lessons, mistakes, and other turning points. You’ll receive this newsletter every couple weeks. You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.

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Seattle: Remote Work City

downtown Seattle
Photo: wonderlane, Flickr

I wrote an op-ed for this weekend’s Seattle Times about Seattle’s worsening traffic, and one very simple idea for cutting the number of cars on the road each day:

Let’s work from home.

Telecommuting is an inexpensive way to get single-occupancy vehicles off the freeways, but it’s going to take city, county, and state leadership to convince companies and CEOs to commit to it. (I would suggest federal, too, but well, you know.)Continue reading “Seattle: Remote Work City”

‘For eight years Barack Obama walked on ice and never fell.’

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Photo via barackobamadotcom

Obama was born into a country where laws barring his very conception—let alone his ascendancy to the presidency—had long stood in force. A black president would always be a contradiction for a government that, throughout most of its history, had oppressed black people. The attempt to resolve this contradiction through Obama—a black man with deep roots in the white world—was remarkable. The price it exacted, incredible. The world it gave way to, unthinkable.

-From Ta-Nehisi Coates’s history of the Obama presidency, in The Atlantic.