Leah Sottile on Rethinking Your Mission in Journalism

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 like 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.

By Mark Armstrong

Founder of Longreads, creator of Everything I've Learned.