FP Exclusive: Jonathan Wilson On Monopolisation of Journalism and Story Behind The Blizzard

‘Eclectic’ is our favourite word in the English dictionary. More than a word, it’s an idea. Eclecticism finds its roots in a class of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who did not belong to any recognised school of thought but investigated doctrines and perspectives from a wide variety of sources. It’s a conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories to explain or interrogate the truths that have been taken for granted.

For multi-award winning football historian, Jonathan Wilson, it’s an ideal. Inverting the Pyramid – A history of football tactics; The Outsiders – A history of the goalkeeper, Angels With Dirty Faces – The footballing history of Argentina, Nobody Ever Says Thank You – A Biography of Brian Clough, Behind the Curtain – Travels in Easter European football etc: a quick browse through his bibliography will reveal to you his mastery of the word.

He talks to Srijandeep Das, the chief editor of Football Paradise, about the monopolisation of journalism, the responsibility to tell stories that need to be told and the origins of football’s most eclectic quarterly, The Blizzard magazine. Now, there are some of you who haven’t read Jonathan Wilson before despite your best intentions. No worries; reading on from beyond this point should make you want to rectify that situation.

On The Story Brought on The Blizzard

Jonathan Wilson: What happened was, I had this piece on a South African player called Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone – the first black South African to play professionally in Europe when he signed with Coventry in 1955. His story is incredible – he faced racism, fought apartheid, and everything you’d expect from that sort of a story.  (His skills rarely come to the fore, and understandably as Coventry players were made to train in a style akin to a boot camp, climbing over plywood walls with itchy ropes, and only practised with a ball once a week. ‘De Zwarte Meteor’ or The Black Meteor, as he was lovingly called in his time at Heracles Almelo, found success in The Netherlands, so much so, that he even having a book written about him by an infatuated Dutch journalist, Tom Egbers with the same name, which was later made into a movie.) He went onto play for Barcelona, Torino, Valencia, later earned a PhD and becoming an assistant professor at the University of Rochester in New York state.

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“If Pele of Brazil is the Rolls-Royce of soccer players, Stanley Matthews of England the Mercedes-Benz, and Alfredo di Stefano of Argentina and Spain the Cadillac of soccer players, then Kala of South Africa, lithe and lean, is surely the Maserati.” – Beppe Branco, a famous Italian journalist.

He then has an acrimonious divorce with his wife who was also a black South African whom he met in Britain. She was given custody of the kids. And a few days after the court ruling somebody threw lye, or sodium hydroxide, on wife, Joyce Maaga face, followed by another acid attack on her lawyer, Ann Boylan Roger. Mokone ends up for 12 years in jail for it and maintained his innocence throughout the rest of his term and what was remaining of his life. Close friends and acquaintances went on record to say at the time that those attacks would be extremely out of character for Mokone. Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a former classmate even plead for clemency. He later had an onset of Alzheimer’s – it was really difficult when I spoke to him about it, he was in the early stages, and it was just about possible, but it took him soon after that, and it was impossible to speak to him.

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Moving to Europe at a time when it was unheard of for a South African, or even for a sub-Saharan footballer, to do so, Mokone’s departure was further complicated by the reluctance of the apartheid government – scared of what he might symbolise – to grant him a passport. Mokone, an academic, had become increasingly politicised and outspoken and the South African government had asked the CIA to bring him in line. – Marc Strydom, Times.

I can’t say with definitude whether he did it or not, but what was interesting, is that same Dutch journalist, Tom Egbers, wrote another book Twaalf Gestolen Jaare (Twelve Stolen Years) where it was revealed that he found letter being exchanged between the CIA and the South African Security Forces of the apartheid government, with the South Africans saying, can you take this guy out? As an academic he was a very vocal anti-apartheid activist, member of the African National Congress, and had been growing increasingly influential and outspoken. So, it’s possible that the CIA framed him. Those letters are incriminating and very, very unnerving.

 Steve Mokone, third right, appears at a press conference in New York to support a bid to boycott the 1968 Olympics in protest at South Africa’s proposed readmittance. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
Steve Mokone, third right, appears at a press conference in New York to support a bid to boycott the 1968 Olympics in protest at South Africa’s proposed readmittance. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

On Monopolisation of Journalism

Jonathan Wilson: Now, from a journalistic point of view this is a great story – it has about everything! And I wrote this just before the World Cup in South Africa, which was in 2010. I pitched to a few of people, a couple of them came back to me saying, ah, it’s a great story, but before the South Africa World Cup, what our advertisers want are positives stories about South Africa, we don’t want this negativity! For fucks sake! This is a great story! It wasn’t even a negative story about South Africa! It’s just a story about a South African person who may or may not have been framed. They wanted, you know, football projects in townships raising AIDS awareness or oh, look at how good African football is now as compared to what it was 20 years ago! I went to newspapers, and they said, yeah, great story, thanks, but we’ll give you 800 words. This was a story that needs two to three thousand words! 1200 words was the best I could get. I was miffed about this. How could it be there was no place for this story in the year of the South Africa World Cup, a story that has clear relevance?

 

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20th July 1956: South African footballer Steve Mokone, nicknamed ‘Kalamazoo’, who is hoping to join Coventry City FC. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

On How Blizzard Was Conceived in a Pub (obviously)

Jonathan Wilson: So, I was up in Sunderland in a pub before Sunderland vs Stoke, and I was sort of raging about this saying, – what we need, the writers, we need to care about the story and care about the writing, and not the advertisers, we need our own magazine, we need to not always think about profit, but think about how good is this story, and whatever profit we’ll get, we’ll divide it equally between us. And the lad who was sitting next to us – Peter Daykin, has been a friend since we were 11, we went to school together; he said, you know what I do for a job, yeah? And I was, yeah, you’re designer and publisher. Oh, hang on there!

The Colliery Tavern
The Colliery Tavern: A massively popular haunt of Sunderland fans when the Black Cats are at home, the Tavern is right opposite the stadium and is usually recogniseable thanks to its red and white hanging baskets outside.

Then we talked about the idea a bit more, and the next morning I rang him up and said, – you know what we were saying last night? It wasn’t just the beer talking, that could work, right?! And he was like, yeah, yeah, I’m really excited about it! We then had a year when he looked into the practicalities of it, and I went around talking to other journalists explain the idea, and I got an incredibly enthusiastic reception! I was a bit sceptical as to whether the journalists would be prepared to write things with no guarantee of making money from it. But there were a huge number of pretty high-profiled journalists who immediately went, yeah, I’ve been pissed off about this as well. Let us take back control. So, yeah, after a year after that conversation Issue Zero came out.

Issue Zero of the Blizzard, a publication started by Jonathan Wilson

On The Blizzard Business Model

Jonathan Wilson: [Laughs] The thing you have to know about The Blizzard is that it had no business planning at the start, at all!

Okay, so, about the pay-what-you-want? There’s nothing clever to it. [Laughs] We were virtually sitting in a room, three of us own it, and we had the conversation going – what should we charge for it?

We produce a magazine that is printed on very high quality of paper, which smells nice, feels nice and is printed with high production value, and you sell it as almost a luxury product that people would want to collect, want to have it on their coffee table, want to have it one their bookshelves, when you have it on your hand that it should feel special.

Then, we also have the digital version for people who can’t afford that, or don’t care for the paper, but just want the words. Okay, so what price should we put on this? But we couldn’t come up with a number. Should it be £5, should it be £10? Peter said, – why don’t we let the readers decide? Make it pay-what-you-want! I said, – okay, let’s give that a go!

The paper product obviously had to have a value on it, you can’t give it away for it considering the production value, the cost of printing, the cost of storage, and distribution – so we arrived at a figure where the minimum it could go down to was, while the digital version could go down to a penny.  We realised that it fit with the ethos of the magazine where the writers trusted us to make something that’d produce enough money, so we turned to profit share. Nobody gets paid a certain amount, they get paid at the end of the financial year, dividing equally the profit we’ve made. You paid just as much for writing a 5000-word piece as you do if you write a 1000-word piece. So, the writers put faith in us, and consequently, it is us placing the faith in the reader.

You know, there are always certain people who take the piss and pay a penny every time for the digital copy, but by-and-large most people have treated The Blizzard with respect by paying a reasonable amount. We put a recommended value on the digital copy of £3. What that means is, that if you’re a student, or are currently unemployed, or don’t have enough money, you could still get it! That’s important. What that also means that everyone will have to have a sense of trust and responsibility of contributing to this project, and so far, this has worked.

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On Why Football Blogs Fail

Jonathan Wilson: Something that I was very keen on was that we needed to have a paper version – you know a decade before there were a million websites that were launched, and they all had great ideas, but all failed, because they haven’t worked out how to monetise online content, and not only that. The question arose, how do we make ourselves different, how can we give ourselves an identity? Maybe, even now, six years later, a paper product still has more credibility than a standalone online product. We had this conversation, where we decided to attack both ends of the market at the same time.

Steve "Kalamazoo" Mokone: the first S.A. football player to play for a European club, founder of The Kalamazoo South African Foundation and is also on the board of directors of the Commonwealth Sports Awards. Circa 70's © Sowetan
Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone: the first S.A. football player to play for a European club, founder of The Kalamazoo South African Foundation and is also on the board of directors of the Commonwealth Sports Awards. Circa 70’s © Sowetan

Footnote:

The Blizzard took its name from an eclectic Victorian Sunderland – based newspaper set up by Sidney Duncan, which ran for 12 issues and was established in 1893. Wilson, who also comes from Sunderland, wanted to replicate the eclectic nature of this publication. The Editor’s Note, which began Issue Zero, set out the magazine’s ethos as an alternative to that which was currently available in football media. Jonathan Wilson wrote:

“I’d been frustrated for some time by the constraints of the mainstream media and, in various press-rooms and bars across the world, I’d come to realise I wasn’t the only one who felt journalism as a whole was missing something, that there should be more space for more in-depth pieces, for detailed reportage, history and analysis. Was there a way, I wondered, to accommodate articles of several thousand words? Could we do something that was neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between? As I floated thoughts and theories to anyone who would listen, I became aware there were other writers so keen to break the shackles of Search Engine Optimisation and the culture of quotes-for-quotes’-sake that they were prepared to write for a share of potential profit, that the joy of writing what they wanted and felt was important outweighed the desire to be paid.”

Incidentally, it is what Football Paradise is striving to do. Stay tuned.

Jonathan Wilson is one of the most venerated historians of the beautiful game, and the author of 8 critically-acclaimed books. His latest book, Angels With Dirty Faces is available in stores. He tweets @jonawils
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Srijandeep Das

Managing Editor and Poet. On a mission to elevate Football Writing to an art form.