Award-winner tells of his 20 years of living dangerously

Live magazine’s Jonathan Green was named feature writer of the year at the Press Gazette’s Magazine Design & Journalism Awards for his often hazardous assignments across the world. He talks to Rachael Gallagher about his work

As a man who has faced a perilous trek through the Himalayas and had his vehicle break down in the Borneo rainforest, you might be surprised to find out that it was playing the guitar with a member of KISS at Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in New York that Jonathan Green found most terrifying.

‘I’m awful at the guitar, which is why it was so much worse. I always try to be hands-on in the stories I do, so I took part and played a guitar on stage,’said freelance journalist Green, who was named feature writer of the year at this year’s Press Gazette Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his work for The Mail on Sunday‘s Live magazine.

Earlier this year he picked up the American Society of Journalists and Authors award – a first for a British publication – for a Live investigation into how a gold rush in Ghana was causing the deaths of local miners.

Green, who at 38 has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, is a true believer in what he calls ‘real journalism”. His portfolio is brimming with international reportage features and madcap hands-on stories such as bull-riding lessons and scuba-diving under ice.

He has been freelancing for Live since it launched two years ago, and continuously emphasises how grateful he is to the magazine, which he says has been nothing but supportive of his passion for telling a good story. ‘They’re going back to real journalism again, which is fantastic,’he says.

Green moved to New York five years ago, leaving the UK because he felt the titles that first inspired him to write, such as British Esquire and GQ, had lost their passion. ‘I got fed up with it. I’d be pitching stories to magazines and people would say ‘Where’s the celebrity angle in it?’ I found it horrific. Their circulations are plummeting, but what do they expect? It seems that these people are only investing in designers and photography. But that’s all window dressing. It’s like a restaurant that doesn’t serve food. So I came to America where I knew that journalism was still very strong.”

Green has now established himself in the US as a freelance. His big break came after New York-based Men’s Journal picked up on his work for British Esquire and packed him off to break a world record by making a 30,000ft (9km) skydive, after other writer had refused to do it. ‘I had no idea what 30,000ft was,’he admits. ‘When I got there they told me the last guy that did it blacked out.”

Green’s first taste of journalism came at 18 while doing work experience on his local paper, the Suffolk Free Press. But rather than ‘covering jumble sales and rehashing press releases”, he did his own investigation into heroin-dealing in Suffolk, which resulted in the police raiding and shutting down a local pub.

‘It was the first story I’d written. I realised it was something I wanted to do, and that it was really important that journalists and the media act as watchdogs to inform, help and show what’s wrong with society,’he says.

Because Green had left school with only one qualification (a D in A-level politics), journalism courses were reluctant to accept him. After two years of freelancing he took the initiative and showed up on the first day of term at the London College of Printing where he had been turned down twice for not having a degree, and managed to take the place of someone who had dropped out.

His first job at a court reporting agency was short-lived – he was fired after three months for his copy being ‘too flowery”. So he reluctantly returned to his old job at a bottling plant. Green’s next break came when he took up the post of feature writer for The Big Issue in London. Here he got the opportunity to live out his dream of doing undercover investigations and exposing criminals.

His freelancing career kicked off, quite literally, after he was brutally attacked by a gang of skinheads in a London pub, which he wrote about for Esquire. He graphically describes how, on waking the morning after, he had to cut away his coagulated blood-covered eyelashes so he could open his eyes. ‘That was horrible, real violence. But I think when you’re starting out as a writer you write about anything that comes your way – you’re trying to get a name and become established.”

It’s not just British magazines that have pushed Green into taking drastic measures. He took action once he realised photographers were earning more than him for a day’s work after he had spent months setting up a feature.

‘I got fed up with it,’he explains. ‘Here I was not making any money, working night and day to come up with stories and setting them up. And they were making more money. So I got my own camera and decided to learn how to do it myself.”

He says his other reasoning was the lack of sensitivity of some photographers who, he says, show up with a ‘big ego and bark orders”, often spoiling his relationship with contacts he has spent months building.

The article that won Green the ASJA award, an investigation into gold mining in Ghana, resulted in a number of jewellers signing a pledge to say they wouldn’t buy gold from companies that mine irresponsibly.

‘I love standing up for the underdog. It’s the whole basis of what we’re doing – championing the cause of the underdog: poor kids in Africa, the gold miners, or Tibetan refugees being shot at by the Chinese military. If you’re standing up for people like that and telling their story to a readership like that [the MoS], it feels great.”

See next week’s Knowledge for how to pitch to Live magazine

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