Being Steven Sotloff's Editor

Not long before his kidnapping, the journalist beheaded by IS sent a note that seems hauntingly prescient: 'It's easy to feel invincible, even with death all around. It's like ... I'm not gonna die.'

Steven Sotloff reporting from Egypt.
Khaled Bey, Twitter

I’ve been a journalist my whole adult life and for most of that, a reporter. Recently, for a short period of time, from January 2011 to mid-2012, I crossed the aisle and became an editor. I was in charge of editing Middle East content for the Jerusalem Report magazine, and the writer I edited most intensively and frequently was Steven Sotloff.

I had become an editor because it seemed like the sensible thing for a war correspondent-turned-new mother to do, and as I read Sotloff's stories from around the region, where he was covering the Arab Spring, I was envious. I missed the thrill of being out in the field, and at the start of the anti-Mubarak uprising in Egypt, I mused over the feasibility of bringing my four-month-old baby on a reporting trip to Cairo with me.

Steven’s reports were good, showing that he was out talking to real people involved in the uprisings, filing regularly from countries including Libya and Egypt but also some lesser-reported corners of Middle East such as Yemen and Bahrain. He relied a lot on what we would call man-on-the-street interviews or “vox pop,” which help readers understand what average people are thinking, and he was good at weaving in color and context, both crucial tools in the journalist’s toolbox.

I was charged by superiors with giving his stories what we in the industry would call “a good edit.” At the time, I didn't know quite how young he was - just 27 when I was first editing his submissions to the magazine. And as the culture of magazine reporting is not for editors to simply make changes and publish but to send "playback" or "readback" for consultations, I would send back his stories with comments that I now fear could have seemed preachy, but were meant to be helpful.

"Steven, good work! Lots of great reporting here," reads one e-mail I wrote to him in 2011, when he was reporting in Benghazi. "Here are some things I want you to notice in the edited version when you read through it, so that you'll know for future reference…." It continued in grammar-nerd fashion, focused mainly on tenses. I signed the note: "Be well and stay safe!"

Maybe I said too much - and too little. Instead of just trying to help him write smoother stories, maybe I could have tried to mentor him in another way. I could have told him how much I respected the work he was doing and had once been there myself. I could have asked him if he was closely calculating the risks he was taking. 

I suppose I could also have told him, if I’d had the chance, that covering certain stories as a freelancer - particularly Iraq and Syria - was more dangerous than going as a staff writer. Covering Syria in particular had become such a kidnap-trap that even major news organizations were avoiding sending journalists there - and eventually also avoided taking work from freelancers as well.

"I felt a bit guilty for not warning him about heading for Aleppo in August 2013, which was very late in the day for taking that route," one Western journalist who regularly covers the region told me. "But of course it wouldn't have mattered."

Indeed. Less than a decade ago, when I was doing the same kind of reporting, I felt I was taking reasonable risks but wasn’t reckless, and I’m sure Steven felt the same.

I didn't tell him those things because all of my contact with Steven happened over e-mail. Another Report editor spoke to him only on a few occasions, during which he talked about how he loved playing rugby, which he'd done for a while in Ra’anana, a Tel Aviv suburb, while he was studying the Middle East at the IDC Herzliya. (It emerged today that he was also an Israeli citizen.) Instead, Steven largely pitched pieces via e-mail - much easier than calling Israel on his Yemen-based cell phone - and sometimes he sent in unsolicited stories without running the ideas by the editors first, which isn’t how the game works. But because we were always happy to have fresh, original reporting, we almost always ran his stories.

RIP Steven Sotloff, and every victim of #ISIS whose names we don't know. pic.twitter.com/Z8Mj8JxPX0


Of course, that is the editor’s dilemma: In an era of shrinking foreign news budgets, having a journalist on the ground in a global hot spot is what every editor wants and few can afford. Of all the top-flight news organizations Steven contributed to, including TIME, The Christian Science Monitor and Foreign Policy, none had a contractual relationship with him, nor had any of them sent him on an assignment. Neither had the Report.

"As his editor, I found that he was professional and talented, and I was always impressed by his caring, compassionate insight, a wisdom that seemed much older than he," says Eetta Prince-Gibson, who was then editor-in-chief of The Report and is now a contributor to Haaretz.

"I would also like to add, even though it's been said in some of the tributes, that I felt very torn as his editor," she says. "He was a freelancer, we paid him fairly, but not well, and we could offer him no protection or back-up - especially since he was writing for us in Israel. That is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."

Janine di Giovanni, the Middle East editor at Newsweek and a friend of Steven's, met Sotloff in Syria, when she was on assignment.

“We shared a fixer,” she explains in a phone call from her base in Paris, using the journalist term for an assistant who acts as both an appointment-setter as well as interpreter. “A couple of weeks after we finished working with him, he was murdered, and that really upset me.”

Steven Sotloff's killers never wanted to negotiate, @shaneharris & @k8brannen report: http://t.co/KopNWZurrF pic.twitter.com/gH8Bnquwwb

Di Giovanni describes him as many other colleagues have – generous with his contacts, serious about his work and surprisingly funny.

“Aside from being intelligent, Steve had a hilarious sense of humor. He and Barak [Barfi] traveled together often and they were a duo not unlike Laurel and Hardy. I was always happy to see them because they were like some light relief from a horrible, dangerous situation,” she says.

She was last in touch with him in July 2013, shortly before he was kidnapped. He was feeling concerned about making another trip to Syria. “We were discussing about the borders and who’s controlling them. He was concerned that the militias controlling border checkpoints had him on some kind of a list.” She said it sounded unlikely; a mutual Syrian friend of theirs checked and said he hadn’t heard of such a list. He also had said he was apprehensive that one of the rebel groups blamed him for filming the bombing of a hospital in Aleppo.

“But he was not even inside Syria at the time of that bombing,” di Giovanni added. “Steve was savvy, he knew the story, he knew the politics of the region, had great contacts. He was, and I say this from the bottom of my heart, a really good guy. He was someone who was so lovable, friendly and kind.”

Not long before his kidnapping, Sotloff sent di Giovanni a note that seems hauntingly prescient –and reminds me of what made me force myself to pull away from a life near the front lines. “We are all naïve,” he wrote. “It’s easy to feel invincible, even with death all around. It’s like...I'm not gonna die.”

That same month, he came to Israel to watch rugby in the Maccabiah, says a friend and former classmate at the IDC, Michael Sapir. They had played together in the Ra’anana Roosters Rugby Club.

“He was not a journalist following a story at the request of an editor, but was writing about something because he was interested in it, and then he would send it to an editor and see if they were interested in running it,” Sapir told reporters in a conference phone arranged through the Israel Project. “He was experiencing the world and then he would write about it.”

When Sapir, a lawyer who lives in Caesarea, first saw the video of James Foley’s murder which ended with the threat to kill Sotloff, he was in shock. “I realized then that he had been kidnapped August 2013. I had just been with him just a few week earlier in Netanya, watching the rugby team.”  

Reuters