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.

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How Have You Devalued Professional Writing Today?

This week’s discussion about paying writers has led some to argue that publishers, by asking for free or cheap work, and writers, by accepting little to no wages, are devaluing the work of professional writers. 

What else is devaluing the work of professional writing on the web? 

1. By having this debate, for free, on Twitter.com, Branch.com and Tumblr.com, are we devaluing the work of professional writers who might write about it for a publisher that is paying them? 

2. If you wrote a print magazine story for a publisher, then asked that publisher to “unlock it on the web for free,” are you undercutting or devaluing the work of those who write exclusively for the web? 

3. If you only share free content on Twitter and Facebook, versus paywalled content or ebooks, are you undercutting or devaluing the work of publishers who paywall their content? 

4. If you publish free content on the web, are you killing the ancillary revenue that a writer could bring in from future reprint rights for those stories, or the ability to repurpose those stories into a book? 

5. If you pay freelancers, are you killing the opportunity to provide healthcare and stability to a full-time writer instead?

I’m not trying to be flip, but I think we, the Internet, are all somewhat responsible for the sorry state of freelance writing. I hope we can take steps to improve it. 

For what it’s worth, Longreads is trying to do its small part: We currently set aside ~30% of our Member dues to pay writers and publishers for reprint rights to our weekly Member Picks. 

And last night, Pocket‘s founder Nate Weiner spoke at the SF Hacks/Hackers journalism panel and asserted our commitment to publishers and how we can help solve the bigger problem of supporting high-quality content on the web. I’m excited for what’s to come on this front. 

What’s a Better Metric for the ‘Health’ of Longform?

Dean StarkmanMathew Ingram and Gangrey are all continuing the conversation about whether there is a “Longform Meltdown” at the major newspapers. 

Since I don’t think the data shows anything as dramatic as what Starkman and CJR’s headline suggests—and putting aside the question of whether “longform” means narrative or investigative or both—I thought I’d ask a new question: Is there a better way to gauge how longform stories and the people who publish them are faring in 2013? I’d personally love to track the following: 

1. Total # of publishers who produce more than 6 longform stories per year—and pay writers for them.

2. Total # of longform writers who have healthcare.

3. Total # of freelance longform writers whose number of assignments and revenue from those pieces is growing year over year.

4. Diversity of bylines

5. Total # of publishers who hire and train new reporters with a focus on narrative / investigative journalism.

Here Is What Happens When You Leave Lindsay Lohan Out of Your ‘Longform Meltdown’ Story

Dean Starkman’s piece feels oddly timed, especially when you think about the number of outstanding stories being shared in the Longreads community every day and the popularity of long-form content in Pocket.

1. Starkman is examining just four newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times), leaving out papers like the Tampa Bay Times, who are dedicated to great storytelling.

2. It appears the number of long-form stories are actually on the upswing at the NYT and Washington Post since 2011—just as tablet and smartphone adoption was growing. That leaves the Los Angeles Times (which still does great work) and the Wall Street Journal. The latter has been quite clear about its desire to go shorter.

3. As a commenter noted on Romenesko, is there a correlation with the drop in overall space in the print edition of these newspapers?

4. Even if newspapers are cutting their long-form content, it’s a missed opportunity, because they’d be the only ones doing so. Online publishers like Deadspin, The Awl and The Verge and niche magazine publishers are only deepening their commitment to this storytelling.

Here Is What Happens When You Leave Lindsay Lohan Out of Your ‘Longform Meltdown’ Story

Serials: So Hot Right Now

Still lost in the ongoing discussion about long-form storytelling being “back” is one (of many!) important questions we should ask: What should long-form storytelling look like when it is native to the web?

For Longreads, the vast majority of stories shared within our community were first created for (and funded by) print publications—then, later, they’re posted online. So these stories are what they are because of rules and formats and budgets dictated by print magazines.

Now, we’re starting to see that mix change dramatically, as more online publishers embrace long-form content. What started with publishers like The Morning News, The Awl and The Rumpus has now expanded to Gawker Media, The Verge, SB Nation, BuzzFeed, Narratively, Grantland, Pitchfork, The Onion A.V. Club and the recently Kickstarted Matter

Across both print and online-native publications, we’re seeing beautiful experimentation with layouts and multimedia—check out Pitchfork’s latest feature on Bat for Lashes, or The Verge’s story and documentary on “basement body hackers”—but I think the most underrated advantage to online storytelling is the ability to serialize.

Two of my favorite long-form franchises over the past few years could be described as serials: “Scandals of Classic Hollywood,” by Anne Helen Petersen for The Hairpin, and 2010’s “Whatever Happened to Alternative Nation?”, by Steven Hyden for The AV Club. They’re not classic long-form narratives—maybe they’re just columns?—but the effect is the same. Writers commit themselves to exploring a topic, then they construct the larger story over the course of many weeks and months, allowing time to build an audience. If you miss a chapter, or come in late, you can always go back. It’s great for marketing, because the installments give writers and publishers new reasons to promote their series across Twitter and Facebook over a longer period of time. 

Maybe this approach is obvious to everybody else, but I think there’s a lot more to explore here.

This past week we’ve seen a few more serialized (print-first) stories grab readers’ attention: There was chapter one of Pamela Colloff’s crime story, “The Innocent Man, Part One,” in Texas Monthly; Austin Carr’s three-part series on the rise and fall of Hipstamatic in Fast Company; and Dan Barry’s 5-part New York Times series on Elyria, Ohio

If I were a writer with a great idea for a 15,000-word ebook or an 8,000-word magazine feature, I would consider serializing them—one chapter and one cliffhanger at a time.

In my next installment, I’ll explore who’s going to pay for all this. Stay tuned!