Former New York Times journalist Catherine Saint Louis ’96 reimagines storytelling

This is a headshot photo of Catherine Saint Louis.
Catherine Saint Loius ’96

As a child, Catherine Saint Louis ’96 didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up, but she was bookish, confident, and an extrovert. She woke up one day during her master’s program at Oxford thinking journalism could be the career for her. After nearly two decades in different roles at The New York Times, she pivoted to podcasting and is now the executive editor at the podcast production company Neon Hum. Two of its podcasts — Smoke Screen: The Sellout and Spectacle — made The Atlantic’s list of top 50 podcasts of 2021.

Early on at Princeton, Saint Louis thought she wanted to become an English professor. “Honestly, there were a lot of people who wanted the same thing I wanted at exactly the same time, so it just was like a bad bet,” she says. Saint Louis says English professor Elaine Showalter, now emerita, encouraged her “rare skill” of being able to talk to anyone — which turned out to be perfect for a journalist. She says she can go to any party and “come away with five sources.”

Her original journalistic dream was to be a magazine writer. She obsessively studied The New York Times to teach herself journalism. After a failed attempt to get a job as a fact checker at The New Yorker, the editor referred her to an opportunity at The New York Times Magazine to work as a clerk. She got the job, learned the ropes of editing, then transitioned over to the newspaper side, where she was an editor and then a reporter. “I kind of loved being an editor, but then I became a reporter and that worked well, too.”

Meanwhile, Saint Louis obsessively listened to podcasts, tracking each show’s structure and the elements of a good story. She decided to move into podcasting and found joy in working with other people to “figure out the best damn way to tell a story so that a lot of people want to listen to it.” She says her work is about more than reporting; it’s about making people feel something. 

Saint Louis also started Neon Hum’s editors’ bootcamp, an eight-week course for people from underrepresented groups. While students learn the hard skills necessary to become a story editor, Saint Louis also teaches that editors should not act like gods who tell their teams what to do. “We are all in the mess together, and the point is the editor just tries to be one step ahead so that you can say, ‘The way out of the forest is that way.’”

Lessons learned: “It’s about being awake to feedback and criticism and not in the service of tearing yourself down but in the service of getting better. The end goal is not mastery; the end goal is just every day evolving a little bit.”