EIL: Everything I've Learned

Leah Sottile on Rethinking Your Mission in Journalism

September 15, 2021 Mark Armstrong Season 1 Episode 4
EIL: Everything I've Learned
Leah Sottile on Rethinking Your Mission in Journalism
Show Notes Transcript

"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? And I definitely was having that question a lot with journalism." 

Leah Sottile is 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. 

She talks about how the pandemic forced her to confront some bigger questions about her own mission in journalism, and what stories she wanted to cover going forward. 

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Support the show (https://www.eil.show/join)

Leah Sottile: Everyone in every part of the world was having a conversation with themselves about like, Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? And I definitely was having that question a lot with journalism. 

Mark Armstrong: Hi, everybody. This is Everything I've Learned, a podcast about lessons, mistakes, and turning points. I'm Mark Armstrong, founder of Longreads, and most recently a novice homeschool teacher. I hope you're all doing well, I hope you're safe and healthy during these uncertain times. It's been a while since I've released a podcast episode and I hate even saying that because I have always been annoyed by the "I haven't posted a blog post in a while" blog post. My feeling is, if you have something to say, feel free to publish it. If you don't have something to say, you do not have to explain your disappearance. You can show up when you'd like to show up. Anyway, earlier this year I hit a point where I just had to stop everything and focus on family. So last year Seattle schools were remote for most of the year. And I was lucky enough to be able to stop and help my kids navigate that. And I don't know how successful I was at that endeavor, but I was glad that I was able to try. I'm really proud of my kids and how the whole family has handled it. So things are still uncertain, the kids are back in school now in person, and now I'm back to work too.

So that includes some new projects that I'm really excited about. That includes this podcast. So expect more episodes in the near future. And in fact, we also have a new website for the podcast. So go to EIL.show, and go check that out. 

Today I'm super excited to chat with journalist Leah Sottile. For those of you follow Longreads, you'll remember Leah's work from the podcast, Bundyville, which 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, which is a really great nonprofit news organization based in Colorado focused on the American West, which is a big topic that Leah covers. She also has an awesome newsletter. There's a link down in the show notes, so go sign up for that too. We talked a lot about a lot of different things: her early days of advocacy journalism, the state of freelance amid so much change and budget-cutting and digital media, and also how one navigates social media as a quote, "personal brand." 

So anyway, I always love catching up with Leah. Thanks for giving it a listen. If you like this podcast and you'd like to support it, you can leave a rating and review at Apple Podcasts. Or you can support it directly by going to EIL.show/join. So without further ado, here's Leah. 

Mark Armstrong: Leah, it's great to have you here.

Leah Sottile: Yeah, thanks for having me.

Mark Armstrong: I want to go... Oh, by the way, also, I might have a dog barking, so I might pause... 

Leah Sottile: And let me know if you hear a dog barking or snoring, because I have Boston terriers and they're really loud and one is sleeping right here...

Mark Armstrong: In fact, I hear Chivvy right now, like right as I started talking, he was probably like, Oh, there must be a podcast going on. Let me just start in... do you hear that? 

Leah Sottile: I do. This is... Mark, this is always me. I was doing an interview last week that got to this like critical emotional point. And my cat, all of a sudden it's like super loud in the background. And it was great because it broke every, you know, everyone started laughing, but I was like, oh my God, like my animals are the death of me.

Mark Armstrong: So I want to go all the way back to the time that you started a newspaper in your twenties. Can you tell me a little bit about the time that you started a newspaper? 

Leah Sottile: Yeah. I mean, this is, this feels like ancient history, but I love it. So I was a junior at Gonzaga university in Spokane, Washington. I was a journalism major at the time. I think there were like 25 other journalism majors in my class. It's a very small program. Nobody, at that time at least, would go to Gonzaga for journalism.

I could have gotten in-state tuition at university of Oregon, which is like a great school of journalism. But for some reason I decided to go to Gonzaga up in Spokane. And, you know, I knew when I was, when I started as a freshmen that I wanted to be in journalism. And so I took all the classes I could take, but then I became the editor of the student newspaper and I got internships at the local, alt weekly and at the daily paper and my junior year, I really like an early influence in me wanting to be a journalist was picking up street newspapers.

So like in Seattle you have got Real Change. Here, we have Street Roots. Yeah. And they're these newspapers that are set up to tell the stories of the unhoused community in the respective cities. I mean, they're around the world and people who are experiencing homelessness, sell them and they keep the profits and in Portland, I would always see as like a teenager, there would be somebody selling them outside of Powell's when I would go there, Powell's 

So I was super familiar with that, that these papers existed. I was really kind of exploring this idea of like justice journalism, or, you know, advocacy journalism. As a junior, I met another student who was interested in these papers and he just said to me, We should just start one. We should, we should start our own. And it didn't like , a bad idea. We had an office on campus at Gonzaga that was all about activism and community service and things like that. And both of us worked there. And so we approached the person, the administrator that ran it and said, look, we want to start a street newspaper.

I'm a young journalist, he was kind of getting into marketing and the sort of business end of journalism. And so she sent us to a conference in San Francisco with the North American Street Newspaper Association. We learned from people who were doing it and we said, Hey, we're college kids and we're going to start this thing.

So we did. It was called the Rising Times. And we got a small grant from the university to do it and to produce it out of this office that we had. So it was our job as students, we got paid to do it. And, man, I learned a ton. I mean, it's just such a funny, like memory to think of myself, parading into shelters in Spokane and like sort of standing up and being like, Hi, I'm Leah. I want to offer you an opportunity to sell a newspaper, but here's why. We're going to tell people's stories. You know, all those people who are complaining about you panhandling, well it's not panhandling. If you're selling them something, so sell them your stories, make them read.

And it was really exciting. I mean, we had people that wrote for us, they would write poetry, they write fiction. We tried to really cover what was going on in the community and in the homeless community in Spokane. But you know, I was a student and I was not always concerned with like, journalism. I also wanted to have friends and be a kid. And so, after a couple of years we handed it off and it actually became an AmeriCorps position where somebody was hired to do that. And we let go of it. The student I was working with graduated and, it went on for like seven years after we weren't involved with it anymore.

But it was a great learning experience to kind of learn that, you know, this is journalism too, and that like journalism can really advocate for a whole population of people and maybe it should more often than it does. And I think it really solidified this thing that I think has kind of run as an undercurrent under my whole career is just, I am a person who has always sort of felt like a little bit on the fringe of things and of whatever population I'm immersed in at the time. And so I tend to write about people who are also feeling like they're on the fringe or pushed to the fringe. So that's kind of, when that started for me was I was writing this paper.

Mark Armstrong: What was the reception like when you went into those shelters and you showed them this? So this was obviously an issue in Spokane at the time... 

Leah Sottile: Yeah. Panhandling was like a big thing that people were complaining about. They, they hated it. You know, Spokane had really undergone this downtown revitalization. There was a new mall. It was a really trying to attract people to come down, go shopping, go out, to eat, and people didn't want to see homeless people.

You know, at that point I had been volunteering in shelters, you know, in Portland and in Spokane for a really long time. Sorting clothes or like making dinners and things like that was just something that I did for a long time. So, in some ways I was a little bit of a familiar face.

I think that people saw us a little bit as a curiosity too, like, Who the hell are these kids? We'll see if this thing works, you know? And there were definitely some people in the community that were...they just, they didn't get it. You know, there were, there were people in the wider community, beyond the unhoused community that were... They wrote about us in the newspaper. And I looked back at those stories about us starting it. And it was like, look at these cute, optimistic kids. And I think we were that a little bit, we're saying we're going to come in and we're going to change things and stuff. And, so I mean, it didn't last for us. It didn't last long. We had, I remember, we had one paper that we just couldn't move. Like people weren't buying it. And then we just had hundreds of extra copies, and the local paper wrote about that. The fact that we were just like, remember those kids with that good idea? Well, it didn't work out for them. And it was true. And I think that that was a little bit of a hard pill for us to swallow, but in the end it was the lesson. I mean, I learned that I didn't want to run a paper. I learned that before I was like 21 years old...

Mark Armstrong: What are you saying, that the local paper ran like, a hit piece on your project?

Leah Sottile: It wasn't necessarily a hit piece. It was just like, remember those kids that we told you about? Well, they're having a hard time selling it. I was like, yeah, of course we're having a hard time selling it. We're like 20 and 21 years old, we have no idea what we're doing. But like I said, it did become a more formalized program through the university for like seven more years after that. So it didn't quite go away, despite the fact that the local paper sort of was like, Look where optimism will get you.

Mark Armstrong: Cynical newsroom. Yeah

Leah Sottile: I know! It so was. It so was.  

Mark Armstrong: Well, and you mentioned this this being a piece of what drove you into journalism in the first place. Because I can draw the line between you starting this paper, and even your most recent piece for High Country News, about James Plymell.

So has your viewpoint changed in terms of how you do journalism and how you approach journalism? 

Leah Sottile: It's funny you bring up that James Plymell’s story because during the worst of the pandemic, I was sort of trying to figure out like, Okay, what am I doing? What do I want to do? I could’ve jumped on covering protests in Portland. That was huge, but there are like 30 other journalists doing it. So a lot of times, like my role as a freelancer I think is to figure out like, where the blind spots are. I make this comparison a lot that oftentimes I look at media and it feels like watching a youth soccer game.

There's like everyone -- the crowd of kids – and they all run in one direction in a crowd, and then they went in another direction in the crowd. And 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 my approach to journalism a little bit. Everybody's doing this thing. What are we missing? So, I had heard about what had happened with James Plymell in 2019 — he was tased by a small-town police department in Oregon and he died. And I really didn't hear anything else about it.

Well, I just started digging into it and, and in the process of doing so I sort of, I think kind of had a conversation with myself. Like the reason I got into journalism was like working with unhoused communities. It was like, that was my early inspiration. So like, in Portland and Seattle, I mean up and down the West Coast, there's this really, really big issue of unhoused people.

We need to be paying a lot of attention to that. So I'm going to start looking at that a little bit more. So that story was really a little bit of like getting back to that early inspiration. 

Mark Armstrong: So what happened with James Plymell? 

Leah Sottile: So, he was an interesting person in that he was a native of the city, Albany, Oregon. He'd lived there for a really long time -- guy in his forties. He had a lot of issues — he had mental health issues, he had a very unstable housing situation. He was also an alcoholic, he had used drugs. And so he would go into recovery homes and he would have a housing situation, but then sometimes he would choose to leave, even at the urging of people who he lived there with saying, Hang on, James. Keep hanging in here, and he would leave. And then he would get back into drugs or back into drinking and things like that.

So he was a very known quantity in this town of Albany. It's about, I don't know, about an hour south of Portland. And so on one day he was broken down in a car on the side of the road. It was about eight o'clock in the morning, and a community service officer with the Albany Police Department pulled over to help him.

This is somebody that doesn't have a gun. It's kind of like a intermediary, like helps with broken down cars or stray dogs and things like that. So this guy pulls over and, for some reason, he calls in an armed officer for backup to help with this stranded car, this stranded driver on the side of the road.

And the body camera footage rides along with the story that I wrote, and it's really disturbing to watch, but the officer arrives on scene and, in less than five minutes, James is dead. And he's tased for not getting out of the car. He's tased repeatedly. Eventually there’s four officers piled on top of him.

And he's saying, they're gonna kill me. They're gonna kill me. And I think that that was the question of the story, What actually happened? Why would an armed officer be called in? My reporting found out a lot of things that the department had hundreds, if not more, interactions with him over the years. They knew him. They knew his story. They knew he had a broken back and that he really struggled even to basically, you know, get out of a car. So to be able to get out of a car quickly was really difficult. He had also been the subject of force several years, about 10 years prior. He was beanbagged several times by that department.

So this is all to say the story really ended up being about Mr. Plymell and what happened to him and how that was sort of a symptom of the lack of affordable housing, the lack of housing for people that are unstable, whether that's with mental illness or with drugs or things like sex offenses and things like that.

There's, there's just this population of people that is just not being addressed, whose basic needs aren't being addressed. And he was one of them, he just sort of got lost in the system. It's a really sad story and it's really revealing, and, like a lot of stories I work on, I really hope that if I give it that longform narrative treatment, it's going to get some attention. I don't know that it did, I'm not sure that a lot of people would pay attention. I mean, there's so many other things competing for our attention in the news, but at the end of the day, that's fine. Because I felt like somebody needed to do justice to his story. So I felt like I was able to do that.

Mark Armstrong: What was the reaction locally? To the story… 

Leah Sottile: It was, I think some people it surprised them. You know, it was a thing in that town where they'd heard about it, and they heard somebody died, but that was kind of it. It was never addressed again. So they forgot about it. So there was a lot of people who had reactions of like, Oh my God, that's what really happened. This is crazy. You know, a lot of people came out of the woodwork and said, Yeah, I knew him. He was the nicest guy, he had problems, but he was a great guy. And then I think there was the expected pushback to like, well, he should have gotten out of the car. It was all those same things that you would expect when you do a story about law enforcement.

I did hear, like we got a letter to the editor at High Country News that people in the community saw it as a great place for them to get started on changing things. So, one thing that I found to be a delight is that the local paper reran the story that I wrote. And to me, that's the best thing that can happen, because that means that the people who make the decisions in that community are empowered with the information they're owning as something as their own.

And they're seeing it and the people who can make change are reading it. So that was great to me.

Mark Armstrong: Did you report this entirely remote or did you end up being able to go out?

Leah Sottile: Yeah, it was mostly remote. I mean, I did all interviews remotely. At that time you sort of had a little bit of a mandate at High Country News that we were not supposed to be doing face-to-face interviews and things like that. So I was working on this story, the bulk of it was like last summer.

So we were not able to do that, but you know, it's really close to where I live. I had been pretty cooped up. So I would go down there and kind of drive around, like, I'd make little maps for myself. Like, okay, here's a place. He was arrested. Here's another place he was arrested. Well, how far apart are those?

And I go sit in my car and take notes and, you know, try and understand, okay. The shelter in town is really close to this place he lived. And so I tried to do what I could to build sort of scenes and narrative, by going down and being there in person. I also didn't want to helicopter in. I think that was a really big concern during the pandemic is like, how do you report remotely without helicoptering?

So I just did tons and tons of interviews with people who live there remotely and then kind of went and gathered the details in person.

Mark Armstrong: And a big piece of this is also records requests, right? 

Leah Sottile: Huge. Yeah. I mean, there, it was a tons and tons of records and I got, I got a grant for the Fund for Investigative Journalism for that reason to just pay for the insane amount of records that I needed, because once I started realizing that he had so many interactions with police, like I wanted to figure out what, what those other interactions would tell about his final interaction with police.

Like had he been violent? Had they been violent? Like what had happened? And so the more I reported, the more records I ended up requesting. So, yeah, I mean, it was, it was a combination of those things and being able to take interviews in person, scenic details, and then those records and bring it all together into one cohesive narrative. 

Mark Armstrong: So was that sort of your first time sort of going back in terms of the issues around homelessness?

Leah Sottile: I think it kind of was – it’s been a very, very long time. It's been probably 10 plus years since I've written anything about homelessness. So there was some education that I had to do for myself in reporting that story. Let's think about the language that we use around this. I think when I started writing about this stuff, even as somebody who spent a lot of time volunteering in shelters and stuff, there was still an othering that was happening through the things that I was writing.

I think the Plymell story really offered me an opportunity to talk about how ordinary this is -- this idea of people getting killed by police and the world sort of continuing on. And adjusting the types of language I was using too, maybe not saying homeless, but saying someone experiencing homelessness… 

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. And so you mentioned that this was sort of at a point early in the pandemic where you were sort of questioning what you wanted to do with journalism going forward. Like, tell me a little bit about how that developed in your head.

Leah Sottile: 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, you know. The other thing I have to say is early in my career, yes, I started this newspaper about homelessness, but I became a music writer.

So like I wrote about bands, I got in vans and went to shows, and you know, I was an arts reporter. I had a journalism degree, I sort of have a love for all things journalism. But 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, you know, 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 and stuff.

So I really kind of had a little bit of a reckoning of like, 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. And with the trauma I think we're all feeling from the pandemic. But also this question is like, do I want to keep covering the far right, I was just sort of having to, to really like, answer that, like, am I curious about this still? You know, to an extent yes. But like, there's a lot of other things that I'm curious about. So the Plymell story I think, was a result of that of just saying like, you know, there are other things I can do really well and it's not, it doesn't always have to be about the far right. I don't always have to be traumatizing myself. What's crazy Mark though, is that after I worked on the Plymell story, I had to watch the body cam footage of that so much that that actually ended up being so much more traumatic than anything I had done on the far right.  

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. 

Leah Sottile: And so I had to really seek -- I sought out the Dart Center and like, started to be really real about the effects of difficult reporting. I always thought, unless you're like in Afghanistan being a war reporter, you're not going to be traumatized by journalism. And I was wrong. I was really wrong. And so in a way, I think I did feel like if I'm going to put myself in a really difficult situation, then I want it to be for useful ends, where a community like Albany, Oregon can say, Okay, now we understand a little bit better about what's going on here because this reporter took the time to care. 

Mark Armstrong: And is it, is it purely about the subject matter as well? There's obviously been a lot of coverage recently about content creators burning out and, you know, just the larger exhaustion of being freelance or, being your own business or your own personal brand. Is that a piece of it as well? Or is that a different thing? 

Leah Sottile: No, I think that's definitely a piece of it. I mean, I feel that I have worked so, so, so hard in freelancing and I definitely, like, I feel like I'm just, you know, I'm a portrait of burnout. So I think that that's part of it. But I also know, I really love journalism. I've loved journalism forever. I like what it's about. I like what it represents. I want to be a part of it. So it's about realizing that I don't have to quite do it the way everyone else does it. You know, a lot of times for a really long time, I saw freelancing like a detriment. You know, people didn't want to pay me on time. I was sort of like this second class citizen within journalism. I didn't have a press badge, like things like that. But now I kind of see it as a little bit of an asset, because I get to choose what I want to work on. So yeah, I just want to make sure that I do everything that I do in journalism thoughtfully.

And I think if I start becoming opinionated about something or angry about something that I probably need to take a pause on it and not cover it for a little bit. 

Mark Armstrong: Well, one thing that you had talked to me, we had discussed previously, was that approach that you had really very specifically set out to do, and I'm thinking about obviously Bundyville, but your BBC podcast, you tend to take on, big projects and that you have been very focused on doing that versus sort of doing everything constantly.

Leah Sottile: Yeah. I mean that's sort of where I arrived as a freelancer, kind of between, I think Bundyville season one and season two is like, I used to crank out fiction. I would crank out essays. I would do breaking news for the Washington Post. I would do criticism. I was doing everything — longform stories. It was just too much. At a certain point I wrote a post-it on my wall that was so silly. 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 that somehow some red carpet would get rolled out and I'd be fine. And it's like, I don't know. That is never real. Like, that was something -- I came up in journalism when there was still the possibility of becoming like a staff writer at Esquire or GQ -- the things that led you to start Longreads this beautiful, awesome magazine longform journalism about everything under the sun. That went away by the time, during the time I was a freelancer.

So I was kind of scrapping my way for a little while. And then, and then just kind of had to just say, Okay, it's way better for me to just try and sell big projects, whether that's a big story or a big  podcast. I mean, Bundyville was not supposed to be a big podcast. I don't think. I mean, it was great that it became what it became, but I was supposed to write like one story and it just turned into its own thing. 

Mark Armstrong: How do you sort of figure out what's going to be a podcast versus, and you're still doing written features as well…versus doing sort of a traditional narrative piece. How do you figure that out? 

Leah Sottile: I mean, it's a really good question. I make my income, from a few different streams, like I write print, I do podcasts. Occasionally I teach, I have a Substack newsletter, every now and then someone will want me to do a lecture, but like, all of my income is from like, I don't copywrite, I don't do non-writing work. I just can’t, I'm broken. I can't do other things. So, I have pitched podcasts to big studios post-Bundyville and never heard a thing. You know, I've had conversations with people about making larger podcasts for larger places and gotten totally ghosted.

So I actually have no idea how to sell a podcast. But I think that there is this essential part on the craft side of things, when you can recognize something as a podcast and I learned this during making Bundyville is that some stories just kind of need to be heard.

Like there's a sound that's essential to their understanding – to somebody understanding it — in a way that they wouldn't be able to in print. So, that can come down to, you know, how the gravel sounds on someone's driveway, and it just makes it like very interesting to listen to or whatever.

But, you know, for me it's a full combination of, there's a story here that can be rolled out in a way that's really interesting. I use like a Russian nesting doll analogy, like where you listen to one podcast, you open it and there's something, each episode reveals something cooler and cooler and cooler. Then all of a sudden you're going to put music under it and it becomes more cinematic.

So I think that it's just one other palette, if I were to use artistic terms, it just feels like it's a whole other set of tools in journalism to tell a story, which is exciting to me. I mean, I never really meant to do that, but I do really like it. It's just the business of it, that I'm a little bit like… I would like to sell more podcasts, but I have no idea how to get people to respond.

Mark Armstrong: You mentioned, that speaks to, I think, with a podcast these are all sort of highly collaborative things. And this is something I've thought about a lot is sort of the big push to the Substacks and the newsletters and create your own personal brand thing is the downside of that, which is having to operate in more isolation versus having like real collaborative projects.

Can you tell me a little bit about sort of how collaboration fits in your work? 

Leah Sottile: Yeah. I mean, I really do like to collaborate with people. I think it's because I'm just sort of willing to admit the things that I know how to do and do well, and I want to stay focused on those things. So I feel that I can write well, I feel that I'm a good interviewer that can get people to open up. I'm not the kind of person that's going to learn all the intricacies of different microphones and how they sound and, you know, things like that. So, especially with podcasting, I mean, in the case of Bundyville, it was not possible for me to produce something like that on my own.

And it just so happened that we assembled a team that, we didn't know each other, but we all ended up working really, really well together. And everybody brought something to the table, and that was cool. I mean, going back to my music reporting days, like it felt like a band, like it was like everybody had a role and, and, with High Country News and … I wrote a story for the New York Times Magazine last summer about the Boogaloo movement. These are all really great opportunities for me to learn as a journalist, by working with different editors, trying new things, trying new styles, trying new structures, working with different fact checkers. I liked the whole — I liked the process of journalism, no matter how it's made.

So I kind of seek opportunities when I can work with people. Maybe it's because I am a little bit of an island as a freelancer, so I seek out… when I became a freelancer, I remember saying to my editor, when I, when I left the paper I was at, I was like, I just want to learn from as many people as I can.

If I’m going to stay a student at this forever, I can't just stay here. Like I have to go and try and fail and learn from other people and, try other formats and things like that. So I'm happy that I'm able to do that.

Mark Armstrong: And so it is still, is it in this sort of era of sub stack and people starting their own newsletters? It is still possible to find collaborative projects. 

Leah Sottile: I think so. For me, Substack is interesting because it's the only project that I do do alone. I have to edit it myself, and so it feels like a very … I'm still learning what I want it to be. And so it's interesting, every time I work on my Substack, I was just working on it before we got on the phone today, and I was just like, man, I could not do this all the time. I think that to live in that silo of yourself is a little scary.

Mark Armstrong: What is your process? What do you, when you put that together? 

Leah Sottile: It's a good question. I mean, I have written about extremism. I've written about depression during the pandemic. I've written about music. I think the most exciting thing about is that every month it is a blank page.

To me, there's no thing that it is or isn't, you know, a lot of times when I work with different publications, they'll say, you know, 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, you know, I've even asked people, paid subscribers, like, Hey, what do you want to see? And they're like, if you want to write about music, journalism, you know, 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. It seems like, and people are kind of like the element of surprise is. When they get it every month seems to be… I wrote an obituary for my cat last month, you know? And that's like… people were emailing me like crazy.

And that was really cool. It's yeah, it's fun. I mean, I it's just like a totally, already kind of artistic platform for me. 

Mark Armstrong: What has been your experience with sort of the paid aspect and the paid subscriber aspect?

Leah Sottile: I think, I think about it more than I maybe even need to. I didn't know what paid benefits I would offer and I just figured I would figure that out and over time, I haven't offered a ton of exclusive paid benefits, but I've not heard any subscribers upset about that. So, I sort of treat the whole thing like everybody's paying, because I noticed from month to month, a lot of free subscribers will decide to become paid subscribers based on what I'm writing.

So there's that, but one thing I do plan to do more since I have a little bit of a recording set up in a closet in my house is to just like one month I read a story, that's one of my favorite stories I've ever worked on, for Playboy. It's really, really difficult to find online. And I just thought, like, I'll just do an audio, like Audible style version of this story, for paid subscribers only.

So I that's like my plan is to do a little bit more of that kind of stuff. And, you know, I think as the world opens up again and I'm out there, you know, in the woods reporting and doing the weird things that I do, I think I'll probably be able to like offer more paid content, I guess. But I mean, I think I've thought a lot about it and come to the conclusion that it will just sort of present itself organically to me that what those kind of extra benefits are.

But I guess right now I'm just sort of treating everybody like they're a paid subscriber. It's probably not a good business model, but I'm not a great business person.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. it was a similar experience I had with Longreads, which is that people were were paying because they wanted to support what it did. They were not necessarily being picky about what was available only to them, versus everyone. 

Leah Sottile: Yeah. That makes me feel good because like, like I said, I didn't really plan on doing this. So when I decided to do it, I was like, I'll just kind of figure it out as I go. And, you know, it's been really fun and, and I think that it's, it's cool that I have a good amount of subscribers that seem to keep reading, which I don't know, that's all I could ask for.

Mark Armstrong: Well, I'm a subscriber and a fan. 

Leah Sottile: Hey, cool. Thanks.

Mark Armstrong: I mean, you talked about the other piece about sort of, trauma and burnout. And I think, you know, the other part of this is also Twitter, harassment. What has been your experience in terms of navigating social media and navigating harassment coordinated or otherwise? 

Leah Sottile: I feel like I have a ton to say about this. So, 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's like ways that you can curate your feed and have lists and you know, all these things, but at the end of the day, I think I really think for somebody in my position, Twitter is something that takes time away from other projects. And so like, there's this great quote in the Lindy West book, the, what is it called? The Witches Are Coming. I think it's her second book. And she says something about when she got off Twitter. She's like, People pay me to write articles. I don't get paid to tweet. I'm creating content for this really kind of questionable platform that doesn't turn off Donald Trump's Twitter, you know, years before they actually did, it causes all this damage. So I'm not going to be a part of it. 

And so I think that that's a little bit of where I am with a platform is like, I, my time is better spent working on things that will pay me so I can go live my life.

But you know, that's not how I always was. Like when I was at the alt weekly in Spokane. For some reason our web editor was this kind of weird gatekeeper for Twitter. Then I like begged him. I was like, we have to get on Twitter. This is vital. Like we can communicate with our readers and like have these brands as writers.

And, finally he was like, all right, start a Twitter account. And I mean, it was useful, but when it, when it really became a big part of my life was in 2015, you know, when I moved back to Portland where I'm from, and I was trying to figure out like what my place was as a freelancer, and sort of seeing what's not being covered.

What can I add to, how can I get people to pay attention to what I'm doing? you know, and then of course I embraced it big time, it just allows me for me to see that there was like a huge audience that was like ravenous for more information on the far right. And, you know, I was able to make connections with experts and sources on Twitter. And then, you know, when the Bundy trial happened in the fall of 2016, I was there in the courtroom and I could see the daily reporters, there was just like funny race where we would all kind of like run out and everybody would start tweeting about what had happened.

And I started to realize. You know, they're going to talk about what's actually happening. So I, as a former alt weekly reporter, can add color. And so I started like talking about the fact that the Bundys were like kneeling and praying with people and singing and the clothes people were wearing and the things the attorneys were saying to each other.

And, so it kind of like helped me in my objective as a writer to really bring people into the story in a visceral way. And all of the sudden my followers just exploded. And, so that was right around the time of the 2016 election too. And so I got, you know, I was really into Twitter. I was tweeting all the time and, I think it was honestly when I started covering protests in Portland, around the 2016 election, when I would still keep doing that kind of color stuff where I would say, you know, the protesters are here or there, the police are doing this or that, but I would sometimes kind of jab a little bit at people.

I remember one time I tweeted about these kids that were, you know, yelling like, Fuck the man. And they were wearing like these like $200 Doc Martens, and I like tweeted about it and was like, you know, made a joke of it. And I got trolled so hard. Like it was liberal Twitter that like had loved me. And then all of a sudden like hated me and turned all their people on me.

And it was like, whoa. All of a sudden I saw that like, I mean, it was vicious, like things that made me feel unsafe. And I think that that like, kind of made me have a reality check of like, Why am I using this? You know, am I trying to build a brand for myself? At that time? Yes, I think so. I wanted to be a part of the conversation I wanted to get more work and this was a great way to get, into the, the DMs of an editor who would probably never respond to my email.

But you know, I think as the years went by, I started to feel more conflicted, starting to feel like more of a waste of my time. It got kind of boring. and I didn't like how, like I was just compulsively checking it sometimes and not understanding why. I was just like, why am I in Twitter again? I don't, I don't even know how I got here. And so, yeah, I just think that, you know, I think it was journalism Twitter that really ultimately turned me off of it is that I could feel myself getting really uppity when someone from New York would say. Ammon Bundy's a rancher. And I would feel like it was like my job to correct the record and like, you know, say like, this is a bad take on the west, and be this kind of asshole, when I'm just not really, I'm not like that.

I'll never be like that in person. So I think I just had to check myself and think about, Is this how I want to be spending my life? Do I want to, if I'm going to work all the time, I might as well put it into reporting. And, it just turned me off. Seeing people that I really respected start dunking on public officials or, other journalists and this sort of yucky infighting.

I just, I started to lose respect for people. And I thought, you know, it's kind of like Facebook. I just, I have it. You know, I just, I don't need to use it. Like it's there. I promote stories with it. Occasionally I'll make a little joke about something and then. That's just it. And it's funny, you said the less time you spend on it, you get on there and you're like, What is everyone talking about?

Whatever level, just log off again. It's just like, it starts to feel like when you go and live your real life, you're like, nobody's talking about Twitter. Twitter is talking about Twitter.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. I mean, it's something I've grappled with as well. And my career and the amount of relationships, I, or the number of people I met through Twitter and, and in terms of my career, it was so beneficial, but it there really is a sort of tipping point in which it just becomes unhealthy and addictive and also, kind of a trap for what you want to do versus what you think you're supposed to be doing. But what, what would you recommend a journalist starting out? Is it Twitter? Is it something entirely different? How do they build their community in ways that are healthy? What would you recommend? 

Leah Sottile: So 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.

And then had I had, I had like come to understand how it could be better used for the purposes that I needed. That that actually is a really useful tool. So I think they should have a Twitter account, but the basics of journalism have not changed even though the medium has. It is, you need to be able to talk to people.You have to have conversations with other journalists with your sources, you need to know how to make public records requests. You need to be reading the work of other journalists and saying, I don't want to do this. I do want to do that. And sort of figuring out what your own place in it is. So I think it is a part of being a journalist.

I don't think it's going to go away. I mean, I'm not even willing to say I'm not going to use it at all anymore. You know, I could unplug my account or whatever. I'm not, I'm not willing to do that. So I think it is, it is a part of it, but it just needs to be like kept in check unless you want to be a reporter for Twitter.

And that is a thing, you know, there are people who make journalism for Twitter, for an audience. And typically, those are people who have been kept out of traditional newsrooms who are, you know, going to experience barriers and trying to get jobs. So there is a real use and benefit to Twitter. It's just, it's just about keeping it in check. 

Mark Armstrong: Where does this intersect with personal brand building and especially sort of the question of how much of that to do as a journalist. 

Leah Sottile: I mean, as a freelancer and just kind of a general weirdo, like I think that my personality just comes out a lot on Twitter. So, could I nurture that more and like hook it to an Instagram and a Facebook and or whatever you call it? Yes. But it's just not, it's not interesting to me.

I don't even know if I'm the right person to answer that question because the majority of people that I know that are working in journalism are working in jobs where they are overloaded to the point of like, they have so many stories they have to crank out in a day. There's never enough time. I think that if they were spending their time on Twitter, that would be, it's like a waste of journalism time, you know? So, I don't know. I mean, I certainly follow people who have personal brands, I like certain writers because of the way that they seem or are, but I also know that it's not always real.

I mean, what do you think, do you think people need to spend time on, on their personal brand?

Mark Armstrong: My whole thing with Twitter, I mean, the reason Longreads existed was because, because I didn't really know what to do with Twitter, from my own account, with my own photo in my own name. And I felt like deeply uncomfortable tweeting as myself. So I said, okay, I'm just going to make up this other thing over here and, and tweet from that.

And so, that was great, so I recommend — I'm fan of making things up and doing things that maybe like, you don't have to be a personal brand. You don't like that. It doesn't have to be the only way you do Twitter. You can create an entirely new identity for yourself if you like as well. And, so that's my thought. 

Leah Sottile: That's cool. I mean, that's kind of like, what is exciting about social media to me is like projects. Like I'm all about projects. Like, okay, this Twitter is all about this one subject. For a minute, a couple of friends of mine and I started an Instagram account where we all three of us had access to it and we were going to take like one cool photo and write like a caption that felt like a narrative story. I mean, we did it, we didn't do it for very long. We all were too overworked, but like, it was really fun because it was like, kind of trying to make like micro-narrative journalism Instagram. It was really, it was fun, you know, at the start of the pandemic. I started like livestreaming records on my Twitter account because I thought like people need this, like maple people need, he does people need more music and stuff. And so I do love projects. I think I just don't like projects that are like centered on someone's identity because personally, like I think it centers on the fact that I hate having my photo taken.

And so, I don't want to like always be like taking photos of myself and like talking and like being a person. Like I just, I can't do it. And just makes me uncomfortable.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. And I think that's the thing that I struggled with. Sort of, the Substack, social media, everything had been kind of pushed in the direction of you needing to sell your personal story as a way into doing like journalism or doing something else. And I think there should be some more pushback on that, that that's not necessary. That doesn't have to be the only way and taking that route has, you know, significant cost to it in terms of what's expected of you and the burnout that can come with that too, or having to contort yourself into being an identity that you know is popular, whether that means becoming more extremist in one way or the other. 

Leah Sottile: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think if experienced a little bit of this with podcasting is that I just read something. I can't remember. It was a story I read last week about how people, , listened to podcasts and feel like the hosts are their friends. And I have experienced some of that where, where people will email me, really casual, like, Hey Leah, what's up.

Like, w like I know them and they want to, you know, trash somebody or talk about something. And I'm just like, wow, they're just like, this is weird. Like, it feels weird that people feel that way. And one hand, and I'm grateful, I guess. Like, but on the other hand it feels like there's like this, you know, it's, the lines of professionalism are blurred.

And enough with Twitter, it's like being, having a personal brand is just out the window. Like I would like to maintain. That sense of professionalism, like at the end of the day, like, yes, I may love heavy metal and I talk about that on my Twitter feed, but I am a reporter who also is trying to hold power to account and I'd like that to like out shine, you know what I ate for breakfast or, you know, that kind of thing.

Mark Armstrong: So what's coming up. Do you have more podcasts or more? Um, what, what are you working on next? 

Leah Sottile: Yeah. So I am working on another podcast. I am working on some longform pieces, kind of a lot of the same stuff, a lot of… different, sorry, Mark. Can you hear my dog snoring? 

Mark Armstrong: Is that your dog? 

Leah Sottile: It's so loud. Hang on. I have to… Matilda. You need to go. I'm sorry. You're…

Mark Armstrong: I kind of feel like we need to keep that. 

Leah Sottile: My animals are, there's an episode of the BBC podcast where you can hear my cat meowing in the background. And…

Mark Armstrong: Oh, we need the timestamp…

Leah Sottile: Okay. I will find it. I can't remember which episode of it, but it's so, so funny because it was my cat that I wrote the obituary for. And so like, it's great that she's immortalized on the BBC forever.

Mark Armstrong: Leah, it's been so wonderful. Thank you again for joining and sharing.

Leah Sottile: Yeah. Thanks Mark. This was really fun. I appreciate it. 

Mark Armstrong: So that's it. That was my conversation with Leah. I had a great time chatting with her. I learned a lot. And go follow her work, go sign up for her newsletter. and if you like this podcast, go to Apple Podcasts and leave me a rating and a review. You can also support the show directly by going to EIL.show/join.

Thanks again, and I'll see you soon.