As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 323, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and writers Leigh Baldwin and Sean Williams about their work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Leigh Baldwin lives in London. Sean Williams lives in Berlin. Together, they co-wrote the latest issue of The Atavist with “Follow the Leader,” a piece about Rainer Sonntag, who helped fuel a neo-Nazi movement that still plagues Germany to this day. Sonntag also was a Communist spy, and you may be familiar with the young KGB upstart he reported to: a man named Vladimir Putin.
It would be a challenging story to tackle for a single reporter, but two reporters come with their own challenges. Did there ever come a point when there were too many cooks in the kitchen? How did they keep it all straight?
“Did we keep things straight and easy, Leigh?” asked Sean. “I’m not sure we managed to do it so well. But we tried.”
“You’re moving pieces of information around, trying to contract them into a coherent narrative — and then it’s really hard to keep track of footnotes, references, cross-references,” Leigh replied. “However well you try to keep track of it as you go along, there’s always a fairly horrible process at the end, where you’re racking your brains thinking, I know I read this somewhere. But where did I get this from? Or which interview did this fact come from?”
Jonah Ogles, the lead editor for this piece, spoke about fact-checking — that “fairly horrible process at the end” — and how writers can make that process far more seamless for the editor and researcher who are ensuring the piece is airtight and ready for publication. The key, he said in no uncertain terms, is annotation. Not only does it make the writer’s work more organized during the writing process, but it gives the fact-checker the best possible resources to work from.
For those looking to do ambitious reporting and collaborative journalism, Jonah, Leigh, and Sean give you tremendous insights into what it takes — and how they pulled off this heavyweight of a feature. Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
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Brendan O’Meara: There’s a lot going on in this story, Jonah.
Jonah Ogles: This was one of those pitches that checked every box: It had twists and turns, and a sadly timely hook to it, which is rare for us. Leigh and Sean had the goods when it came to source material — this unbelievable story that almost no one has heard of.
There were two timely elements to it. There’s the craven ambition of Putin, but also this idea of how far-right extremism, as much as you want to believe that it’s gone, is very much prevalent. Even though this takes place in Germany, we’re seeing it here in the United States, and I felt that pulse throughout this whole piece.
You could set this in various places in history, various points in time, where, yeah, all of these factors sort of come together to create the right conditions for, you know, for people with this really hateful ideology to basically exploit the conditions for their own personal gratification and, you know, glory — it’s a dark piece.
What becomes the challenge on your end when you’re working with two reporters?
It’s a different thing. This isn’t the first dual byline piece that I’ve worked on. It’s a little bit harder, I think, because they’re each bringing a different thing to the story; one person may be better versed in the documents and the other person might have a little more experience writing deep scenery of the type that we like. It requires more patience, and more back-and-forth between all parties to make sure everything is coming together. It also means that there’s another person with their own schedule, their own timing. So, in my experience, these pieces tend to move along a little bit more slowly than other pieces. But the benefit is that you have three sets of eyes looking at it — finding weaknesses, trying to push it forward.
What’s the process by which you really started to hammer it home? “Okay, this is how we’re gonna start tying these threads together in a better way so we can stick the landing.”
When I was at Outside, I was a fact-checker on a handful of stories that had two writers. And, we would reach a point where the easy thing to slip into as a writer can be like, “Oh, well, that’s Jonah’s thing to deal with over there, and so what do I care if he’s not doing it on time?” But somebody has to care that it’s getting done on time. I would guess that stories with two bylines end up being stories where the editor has to take a larger role in getting things done, and making sure that the writers aren’t just waiting for the other one to do something. To Sean and Leigh’s credit, they were always really responsive, and communication was about as seamless as it can be with two writers working on something. I assumed they were buddies, but it turns out they were in different countries — and I never would have known because they were really on top of answering emails and hitting deadlines.
What can reporters do on a story of this nature to make the fact-checking easier if they’re not well-versed in helping that side of the table?
This is a great question, and the answer is actually really easy: It’s just annotation. As thorough an annotation as you can give them. If you have a transcript, and there’s a quote, just go ahead and put the minute and second timestamp in there. If you’re quoting from a book, put the page number in there. You’re less likely to make mistakes as a writer when you do that. I’ve had stories that have just fallen apart in fact-check, but then I’ve had stories that just sailed through — and the ones that sailed through was because it’s annotated. As the writer was annotating, they just kept double-checking themselves: Oops, I got this quote a little bit wrong; or oh, hey, that’s not what this says. It just makes a fact-checker’s life so much easier. [Sean and Leigh] did a pretty good job of that, because they had a lot of source material — hundreds of pages of historical documents.
If you don’t have an annotated draft, a fact-checker is sitting there reading hundreds of pages of documents. When I was a fact-checker, I would have to read through everything just to get familiar with it, and then read it all again in order to find the actual material that I was looking for. So when you annotate, you remove that from the equation — you give that checker the ability to make sure that you got the right facts from the source material. But it also gives them time to step back and look into other stuff, look into sources that maybe the writer didn’t refer to in their reporting, and say, “Hey, are we characterizing the rise of neo-Nazism in West Germany properly?” When you have a fact-checker who has the time and energy to do that extra legwork for a piece, that will only make a piece better.
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And at the very end, when you’re ready to send it to the press, as it were, that’s when you can remove all the annotation, so it becomes reader-friendly.
Exactly. From a reader standpoint, this isn’t an academic journal, though it’s sort of sourced like one. This is a true story, but we want it to be immersive and to suck readers in, and 200 footnotes probably get in the way of that.
Years ago, I used to admire the footnotes of David Foster Wallace or Chuck Klosterman. Over the years, though, if I see a footnote, I’m like, “Oh, God, if it’s not good enough to be in the main body of text, I don’t care what funny aside you think is happening, it takes me totally out of the piece.” I hate them now.
Chris Keyes at Outside once gave me a note on a story I was editing. He was like, “Parentheses are a signal to me that the writer and editor haven’t figured out where to put this piece of information yet.” I don’t think it’s a hard and fast truth; sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. But it’s a really good practice for me as an editor to identify a footnote or a parenthetical and say, “Okay, here’s the thing that isn’t contained within the flow of the story. How do I get it in the flow of the story?”
Why don’t we start off by you both giving me a sense of how you arrived at this story?
Leigh Baldwin: I run a small nonprofit newsroom in London called Source Material. And well, just rooting around looking at things, I came across an old story from 2015 by a German outlet about Putin’s early years when he was a KGB officer in Dresden in East Germany. There were a couple of lines in the piece buried a long way down, about the fact that one of the agents he recruited — or was recruited on his behalf — was a neo-Nazi called Rainer Sonntag. No one else seemed to have really noticed because it was a long piece, focusing mostly on other aspects of Putin’s life, which were also very interesting.
When I mentioned it to people, no one seemed to know. So I became slightly obsessed, [but] didn’t have the opportunity to do anything until I got to go to Dresden and spend a few days in the city archives, digging through all the court records from the case surrounding Sonntag’s eventual shooting in 1991. And what I stumbled upon was a mine of massive forensic detail. So we could reconstruct, second by second almost, the moments of his death. There were forensic photos of his body, there were witness statements from all angles of the scene. And there was a wealth of background material. So the next step was to get the Stasi archives; that whole process took six months. By that time, we were deep into the pandemic and other things were getting in the way, and I put the story on the back burner. And then Source Material did a story for a news organization called Tortoise in London, and it happened that Sean did a story for them about East German neo-Nazis. I thought, wow, this could be the perfect person to help this story finally make it.
Sean Williams: I’d also done a story for GQ the summer before about [Germany’s COVID] protests, and it was kind of a crazy situation. I was thinking, “Maybe I could do something a little nicer about Germany for once.” But then Leigh called me in and I thought, “Why not? Let’s just jump into neo-Nazism again, that can be a beat for a while.”
For journalists like you who have covered extremism and hate groups, how is it that you don’t get pulled into the mud?
Williams: You have to kind of see the progress that’s been made, in some ways. The story that we did for The Atavist shows that this was something that was being manipulated by different forces all through the Cold War. But now it’s a different matter. There is a far right [in Germany], of course — we’ve spoken to many members of its scene — but it’s small. And I think we’re making progress. That’s why I’d like to believe we’re on an upward trajectory. I mean, we can’t get any worse than back in those days. Some very general sense of things getting better; that’ll keep me going.
Baldwin: For me, there was a sense that the characters were so fascinating. You have Rainer Sonntag; when you see footage or photos of him, he’s always got this slight smirk on his face. Even when he’s trying to give a really serious Nazi propaganda speech, he can’t stop breaking out into laughter. And so all these characters are a massive contradiction. The main Nazi leader in West Germany to whom Sonntag attached himself, Michael Kühnen, came out as gay in 1986. That split the neo-Nazi movement in West Germany down the middle, and suddenly it was divided into — well, almost the gay Nazis and the straight Nazis, the ones who supported Kühnen and still and the ones who didn’t. All these microcosms of strange politics were really, really fascinating. And I think those storylines keep you focused rather than being dragged down into a swamp of misery and pessimism.
Leigh, you said something earlier about stumbling on a few lines buried in a piece; so often, these longform stories come from people who notice a cast-off line in something else and realize there’s more there. Where do you go about panning for gold and finding ideas?
Williams: A lot of buried ledes. There’s loads of stories like the one that kicked this one off, with mad little details buried in the middle. You’re gonna pick up tons and tons of information just by reading random snippets on any kind of topic. There’s another story that I’m doing for Outside right now, and it came from just watching a 10-minute YouTube video of a guy [being interviewed], and noticing that this was an interesting character.
Baldwin: When you stumble across one of these little nuggets, you sort of go through an informal testing process of bouncing it off people and seeing what they think. For me, the key test was telling colleagues in London, saying, “Did you know Putin recruited a neo-Nazi agent?” and they say, “Wow.” But the real test that we passed, I think, was when I told German journalists — people who are really steeped in German history and politics — and it still was jaw-dropping to them. Most people in Germany had no idea about this. And the fact that it had shock value and was so fascinating not just to people outside Germany, but to Germans, too, really gave me the idea that this was something worth pursuing.
When your reporting hits dead ends and there’s a lot to comb through, how do you keep persevering to find more of those things that are going to nourish the piece?
Williams: It’s keeping things clear at all times. Not just in the sense that you have a clear direction of what you want a story to be, but literally physically keeping all of your notes as clear and as well-ordered as possible. We were counting up the number of Stasi files that we went through in this piece, and it’s in the high hundreds, including all the court docs — and they’re all in very officious German. We spent a whole week together in Berlin sitting in an Airbnb and going over them.
When you have that much information, and there are all these dozens and dozens of potential witnesses and contacts, if you’ve got a bunch of garbled notes, or don’t have everything streamlined as much as you can, you’re dead in the water. It was tough enough as it was, because there were a few people that led nowhere. I went down to Langen, which is one of the main places that the Nazis tried to establish themselves in the ’80s, and knocked on a bunch of doors before I found someone who was a former leader of the movement there — and got told in no uncertain terms to go away.
That was just one of a few trips that led nowhere, but it all builds a clearer picture of where you want to focus your attention. In the end, we realized that there are a few protagonists that we really wanted to zero in on — Klaus [Zuchold, who worked with Putin to recruit agents] being the main example. Obviously, the story was always going to be about Sonntag and Putin and Kühnen, the other leader of the Nazi movement at the time. But there are a few other guys that sort of cropped up that I didn’t expect to speak to. And they turned out to be pretty amazing sources.
In the piece, you mentioned how, even in the ’80s, Putin was working to add upheaval in the West — and then even today in France and elsewhere, including the cybertactics that certainly affected elections in the United States. Where did he develop this playbook of disruption?
Baldwin: I think it’s extreme pragmatism. If you go back to the ’60s, the Communist spy agencies — the KGB and the Stasi in East Germany — had a history of stoking far-right movements and Nazism. Spraying graffiti on Jewish gravestones, for example. By the time it gets to the ’80s, the East Germans are more worried about Western neo-Nazism spreading east because it was a protest movement against the Communist regime. So they were probably less trying to stir up trouble in the East with Sonntag than using him to keep an eye on that. But the interesting thing is that they have no moral compunction about dealing with and instrumentalizing neo-Nazis. It has to be said, too, that West German intelligence services also had a lot of agents that were Nazis, and right up to the modern day had a very complicated and controversial history. So there’s pragmatism on both sides, but I think you can see that that’s the common thread that really links the Putin policy of then to the Putin policy today.
Williams: I was speaking to Anton Shekhovtsov today, an academic who’s written about Russia on the far right. He said that Putin wasn’t really an ideological Communist at all, but he was a statist. Everything was done in service to the Soviet empire, later the Russian state. And now he runs the country like a king. His sowing of chaos all over the West is to destabilize them, because Russia is not a very strong force economically, in many respects. You have to use this asymmetrical warfare to get over on your enemies — and if that means employing neo-Nazis and fascists to cause trouble wherever you want them to do so, then that’s what you’re going to do.
Given the state of journalism, and reporters often being often maligned — in the States, we hear people calling them “enemy of the people” — where is the juice for the two of you in keeping that flame alive with hard investigative work?
Baldwin: To go back to the earlier question about how to write about Nazis without being sucked in and getting miserable: One of the things about Putin’s policy now is that he very much enjoys playing the extremes in the democratic West against each other. Writing about Nazis and understanding them as an actor — not taking a side in the culture war, which has Putin laughing all the way to the Kremlin, but as journalism — is part of the democratic role. We don’t try and condemn people who voted for Trump or neo-Nazis or Brexiteers, but we try to understand them and see what makes them tick.
Williams: There’s so much disinformation pouring into people’s ears and eyes at the moment with regards to Ukraine. And I think that Russia has done a pretty decent job of muddying the waters. In Germany right now, the conversation is not about Russia pounding shopping malls and killing civilians, but about whether [Ukrainian nationalist] Stepan Bendera is a historical far-right fascist figure, and if that should make us think twice about supporting Ukrainians today. I hope that good journalism can sift through. If we can add to the conversation, and you can see straight-up that Putin has been funding the far right as far back as when he was a KGB officer, then that’s really all we can do.
How can consumers of news be more literate when it comes to credible information versus what isn’t?
Williams: Good question. Maybe switching off the TV and reading stuff will be a good start. If you read a few good sources of newspapers and magazines, if not just for the fact that you have to interact with it. Whereas with TV, you can sit back with your mouth open and take in the information. And you can certainly just scroll until you’re half-dead on Twitter.
Baldwin: Journalism is a loser’s game; we’re never going to win the battle. It’s almost like catching drug cheats in sport — the cheats are always a couple of years ahead of the enforcement authorities. All we can do is keep banging away. I don’t think the traditional model of journalism is broken. I think we need to just stick to that plodding, sometimes prosaic pursuit of the facts.
Williams: Stories have always engaged people more than anything else. And that’s why so much fake news has been effective at bypassing people’s credulity. I hope that stories like this, something longer, something a bit narrative with a protagonist that people can identify with or understand a little better, can help people connect.
When I was talking with Jonah yesterday, we got to talking about the nature of fact-checking and how to just keep track of everything and make sure that everything’s well annotated — for yourselves and for the fact-checker as well. When you’re collaborating on a piece of this nature, how are you keeping things straight and making sure that everything is attributable?
Williams: Did we keep things straight and easy, Leigh? I’m not sure we managed to do it so well. But we tried.
Baldwin: The honest answer is I’ve been doing investigations for a very long time now. You’re moving pieces of information around, trying to contract them into a coherent narrative — and then it’s really hard to keep track of footnotes, references, cross-references. However well you try to keep track of it as you go along, there’s always a fairly horrible process at the end, where you’re racking your brains thinking, I know I read this somewhere. But where did I get this from? Or which interview did this fact come from? For example, we have the Stasi files. They’re all scans; you can’t find the words in them with Ctrl-F, because they’re not easily machine-readable. So you just have to hunt through these hundreds of pages until you find the obscure fact that you’re looking for. And the fact process was extremely time-consuming. But I found over the years that there aren’t really any shortcuts for that type of thing.
Williams: It’s sort of a double-edged sword when you’re working as a pair, right? Because in one way you can divvy up the work; you can take your own turf, and trust the other guy that they’re going to know what they’re doing. But when it comes to the fact-check, and you’re cross-referencing things that one of you or the other might have found, it can tie you in knots. In some cases, certainly, there were certainly parts of the story that I sort of took over. And there were parts of the story that Leigh had complete control over. And when it came to putting everything together, it worked really well in pretty much every way. But when it comes to that back end, and putting all the notes into the coherent spots, and making sure everything’s clear, that can become an extra challenge.
That segues beautifully into one of the last things I want to talk about with you: the nature of collaboration on a story of this nature, which is so, so big. It’s undoubtedly a challenge when you’re composing because everyone has their own writing style, but in the end, you need something cohesive. How did you riff off of each other, and how did you create a common vision?
Baldwin: What was apparent from the outset is that Sean and I had a very similar vision of what we wanted to do. We saw a story that was full of wonderful narratives, wonderful drama, and incredible forensic detail of Sonntag’s death. We also had years and years of Stasi documents where the secret police were invading every aspect of his life: sending agents to hang around in the corridor outside his house, spying on him when he’s drinking in the pub, getting his school reports and his teachers, talking to his colleagues.
Incidentally, I found that harder than writing about the Nazis. When you first get your hands on these Stasi documents, you sort of feel like Howard Carter blowing the dust off the sarcophagus and you dive in. But very quickly, you become aware of how banal it is and how invasive it is. I found it quite uncomfortable having this voyeuristic position, into all the private, most private banal details of someone’s life. But what we had from those documents was this very compelling narrative. And I think we both very quickly had the same vision of how we wanted it to go.
Williams: Another thing about working as a pair: It made interviews with some of these ex-officials and spies a human experience. Double-team interviewing a former Stasi agent in a Greek restaurant outside of a German city while drinking beer and Schnapps? That’s a good, fun journalistic experience. I guess we were lucky because we hadn’t worked on a piece before, and it came together really nicely. I think that we were able to really find our own individual place within this pairing that we had.
I always like to ask for a recommendation of some kind, and the bonus of this one is that we get to get two from each of you guys. Sean, we can start with you — what might you recommend out there for the listeners, professional or personal or whatever?
Williams: Through doing this reporting on Cold War Germany, I got obsessed for quite a while with Len Deighton novels, and was pressing to stick these really cheesy Len Deighton-ish lines into the story as if we were writing Berlin Game or one of his other novels. So I would say anyone wanting to have fun with an incredibly witty spy novel, you should read Len Deighton.
And secondly, with this and other recent projects that I’ve done, I’ve found that I’m increasingly relying on listening to my stories — getting a friend or my long-suffering partner to record herself reading the story, so I can take the dog for a walk and listen to that. I find that that’s a lot easier for picking apart structure. I don’t know how good those text-to-speech programs are, but they certainly aren’t as good as a friend of yours. So, yeah, that’s my recommendation.
Baldwin: A lot of my research was punctuated by the soundtrack of Germany in the 1980s. There was also a wonderful book that I read quite late in the reporting process, but we quoted in the piece: Stasiland by Anna Funder, an Australian journalist who spent a lot of time in the former East Germany after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall. It’s a book about the Stasi, but through the eyes of ordinary people, and about their experience of living under the most oppressive surveillance regime that ever existed.
Williams: If we can get people listening to German New Wave stuff from the ’80s after this project, then that’s a win, because that stuff is awesome.