Leah Sottile is an Oregon-based freelance journalist and host of the National Magazine Award-nominated podcast, Bundyville. She has work featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Outside, Vice, The Atlantic, Playboy, California Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere.
After a two-day masterclass with the Idyllwild Arts Creative Writing Department, packed with mystery postcards and research rabbit-holes, Bella Koschalk and Ryan French sat down to ask questions regarding journalism, politics, and investigative reporting.
Q: You touch on a wide range of topics in your journalism. What draws you to the stories that you investigate and write?
I think over time it has kind of changed. Where once I used to only write about music and counterculture things, now I think I look for stories that have compelling characters. It’s always weird to refer to real people as characters, but I think it’s someone who is interesting to interview or has something interesting to say. Or stories that have good scenes in them where I can do some kind of writing or reconstructing of an event that happened. But I think at the heart all the stories I write there is some kind of tension. So, like, someone struggling with something or a conflict and that maybe by understanding that person’s conflict or story, people can read it and come away with some clarity in their own lives. So I’ve started to look for things that could have a greater meaning for people.
Q: Is it possible to remain completely unbiased in journalism, and should you?
I think that it is impossible to be unbiased. Journalists are real humans too and I think a lot of people in the industry talk about the rectification of the journalist. People talk about how maybe journalists shouldn’t even vote, or journalists shouldn’t participate in civic activities or that they should remove themselves in some way from society. I came up in alternative journalism and alt weeklies, and those platforms were taking a stand on something. So as far as my work is concerned, I approach subjects that I disagree with personally, but still try to understand their point of view. I think that you can hold an opinion but still fully investigate what someone else thinks. I think journalism has gotten into a lot of its problems now where people are trying to say that they aren’t biased. Journalism is undergoing a big change right now on how we cover things. At the end of the day, I think as unbiased as people can be, we do need that kind of journalism to just get to the facts. If the president holds a press conference, and it’s not televised and there are only print reporters there, they need to just get the facts and that’s it. And I think the industry ripples out from there and there are people like me who take a position on a certain thing.
Q: How do you feel the platforms of journalism and podcasting interact and converse? How are they different? Do you prefer one over the other?
The Bundyville project started as a print series. So there are nine written long-form print stories. At a certain point, my editor asked if I wanted to make a podcast and I was like, “Sure, I don’t know how to do that but I like podcasts so I’ll figure it out.” Now that I’m on the other side of that, it’s interesting to see that people who read the stories didn’t listen to the podcast and people who listened to the podcast didn’t read the stories. It’s a really effective way of getting the same information to two completely different audiences. It’s like meeting people where they’re at. Not everyone wants to read a long piece of journalism; that shouldn’t exclude them from the information. That kind of caters to my personality. I was never a traditional student. I’m not the kind of person that got amazing grades and could sit and listen to a lecture and absorb the information. I needed to digest information. I needed to hear it and touch it and see it. I think this is serving journalism to people who might feel excluded from it normally.
Q: From the reporting side, do you have a preference for which medium you use?
I do love writing, and I’m very familiar with the process of what it means to gather information for a print story. But podcasts are really evocative. I can interview someone who has experienced profound loss and write that they started crying. And it’s on my writing skills to really bring a reader into that moment. But hearing someone actually cry in your headphones is a totally different experience. Audio journalism is really exciting to me. It could be because it’s new. They are different in the way they’re reported. I can’t say I prefer one over the other.
Q: Have you ever gone into a piece thinking you knew what the story/angle would be, only to uncover something during your research and refocus the piece?
Almost every story I started thinking I knew what the story was and then the more interviews I did, and the more reporting I did, it changed. Sometimes it drastically changed. Just recently, I wrote a story about a shipwreck that happened and a woman who discovered all this information about it. The story that I pitched ended up being completely different than the story that I ended up writing. It had similar threads, but because the reporting was so exciting and the things I was uncovering were so interesting and different, I had to follow that. I think also that I may come in with a subject that I think, “Oh, this person is going to be awful, and then I’ll meet them, and I’ll think okay, I definitely don’t agree with their view of the world, but people are not always as bad as we want to think.” After you meet them, and sit down and have a cup of coffee and shake their hand, sometimes I’ll really have a shift on how I feel about things.
Q: Have there been any stand-out stories for you that completely flipped?
Yeah. Last year I wrote a story about a man named David Matheson, who was a conversion therapist. He was someone who made his career by trying to convert someone away from their same-sex orientation. Which we know is impossible; it’s not scientifically proven, it’s pseudoscience. And all of a sudden, he stopped doing that therapy and he came out as gay. I went to meet him and was like this guy has damaged so many people’s lives. He was super remorseful of what he had done and he explained to me how he justified it in his mind. And by the end, I felt he was a friend, in a way. I really understood him and I felt a certain amount of empathy for him. That was really interesting. I didn’t think I could level with someone that I thought to be such a terrible person. So that was one example where I was really surprised.
When I interviewed Cliven Bundy, I was really scared. I talked about it in the first season of Bundyville. I was like “I’m so afraid to meet this person.” And then he was like, “Come on in my ranch, sit down on the couch.” It smelled like barbecue and he was very kind. We sat down and talked for three hours. This man is supposedly one of the biggest domestic terrorists in America. I don’t think I changed my opinion at all about what he did. He represents a super dangerous arm of extremism. But, he was very easy to talk to, and that kind of surprised me.
Q: How has being a journalist changed your lifestyle and your day-to-day life in general?
I work from home. Sometimes I don’t take a shower until four or not at all. I wear pajamas a lot and I talk to people on the phone and I’m like, “Good thing they can’t see what I’m wearing.” I tend to take on stories and projects where I often say it’s feast or famine. I won’t have anything going on and then all of a sudden I’ve got a ton of work. When the time is right, I have to put the rest of my life on hold. I have to go on the road and interview people. It’s very long days and I have to hit deadlines. And then it’ll stop. I get published and then I’m done. Definitely, my career has been at the center of my life and I’ve set it up that way purposefully. I could work a nine-to-five reporting job or something like that, but to me journalism is a lot more of an art. I treat it like art. Nonfiction is a form of expression. It’s very important to me, so I set up a lot around my writing. If I’m not writing, then I’m reporting. If I’m not reporting, then I’m reading. If I’m not reading, then I’m making art. So I have this cycle that I’m living in.
Q: You started out working for a newspaper. What made you decide to become a freelance journalist?
I think it was that I didn’t want to write on just one beat. I had been writing about music for a really long time and it was ruining music for me. I like music a lot. I would be like, “Oh, I love this band,” and then I would interview them and they’d be lame and then I wouldn’t like their music anymore. I realized that eventually, I wanted to write for magazines and more national publications and the only way I could do that was to move to New York, which I was not interested in doing, or freelance. I was 32 probably and I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and this decision was going to seem like a really dumb thing to do once I got to a certain age. So I was like “I guess I’m going to try freelancing now.” And I did and I haven’t starved to death yet. I’ve come close. That’s not true, I have not come close to starving, but I’ve definitely come close to thinking this is a terrible idea and maybe I should do something else.
Q: Have there been any situations where you feel really uncomfortable or unsafe when you’re reporting? How have you dealt with that?
I feel uncomfortable a lot. I’m kind of an anxious person, and interviewing people can be kind of hard. But you have to just do it. Your job is gathering facts, so at the end of the day, you have to make someone feel comfortable and interview them. I have had several moments where I have felt really uncomfortable, mostly when I’m writing about extremism. I was at a gun rally in eastern Washington. There were a lot of people involved in anti-government militia groups there. It’s the era of Trump and him calling people fake news and I’m there as a reporter. The person I was trying to interview was a state representative, an elected official, and he got people to film me while I was interviewing him. It really put me off. I didn’t feel like I was doing my job very well because I was so uncomfortable. I was alone and surrounded by men with guns. That was a moment where I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
There’s some stuff in the second season of Bundyville—which is way better than the first season, FYI—where I go to this secretive religious community. Kind of a cult. That was a little scary. I always work myself to be a lot more scared and then it turns out to be fine. The gun rally was the most uncomfortable that I’ve been. I ask myself: what is my job here? I’m here to gather facts and not here to issue my opinions. There are times where I leave before other journalists would. I’ve also covered a lot of street protests that have turned into riots or just completely out-of-control chaos. There have been a few times where I’ve gotten tear gassed or things like that. As a reporter, I’m trying to gather facts and figure out how to stay safe while doing that. I don’t enjoy that. It’s funny, though, the most uncomfortable moments I’ve had have been in the last four years. The tenor of how people think of journalism and what’s going on in America has sort of created those situations.
Q: Had you expected to have to deal with situations like that going into freelance journalism?
No. Initially I wasn’t writing about politics. I was writing about culture and the funny little corner of the West. I was finding groups of people to write about. I never could have imagined I’d be writing about politics. I’m not explicitly writing about elections or things like that. I’m writing about the residuals of the political climate. It’s weird to be a freelance journalist. For example, when I’ve covered street protests, there are all these paid journalists like the Oregonian, the paper there, and the radio station. They all kind of clump together. You’ll see them in their Oregonian jackets. And the TV reporters in their clumps. And then there’s me. I don’t have a team jacket to wear. No one knows I’m actually a journalist. So that can be kind of weird. I hadn’t thought about that as a freelancer. Who am I going to call if I get arrested with a bunch of people? There’s no editor to call. Yeah, it’s weird.
Q: Was there something significant that inspired you to start writing about politics?
My major in college was journalism, but I minored in political science. I’ve just always been interested in politics, just as a person. But, I think it really was falling into this world of writing about extremism and anti-government groups in 2016 that really made me fall into a deep hole that I was not expecting. But who can expect that a group of armed men will take over a building in their state? It was just a very interesting story. Had that not happened, I don’t know if I would be writing about that stuff. Maybe I would have found my way to it eventually.
Q: Bundyville is on NPR. What is that like?
It’s really cool. It’s been much more successful than I could have ever imagined. We made the Apple top ten. This is the second year in a row that the podcast has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. That’s never happened before. I’ve never made radio before, except I used to host a show on the community radio station at midnight where I just played [heavy] metal. But that was just my thing. It’s been really cool. I feel very much like an underdog, as a freelancer. So, to see the work that I’ve done have a big platform is really pretty cool.