By James Reid
Laura Williamson is quite literally one of a kind. The Deputy Editor of online football publication The Athletic, Williamson is one of few women in senior editorial positions within football journalism, if not the only one.
“It’s pretty depressing in 2021”, she chuckles, almost in gallows humour. It is not the first time the former Daily Mail Sports News Editor has laughed heartily during our nearly hour-long conversation, and it is certainly nothing to do with Palatinate’s wit or lack thereof.
Instead, it is perhaps the best representation of the upbeat and ambitious attitude that Williamson brings to a subsection of the industry in which female journalists are a rarity.
“There’s no point whinging about it because I knew that’s what it would be like,” she reflects when asked what it’s like to be a female journalist within the football industry. Nevertheless, the imposter syndrome was something felt by Williamson in the early days.
“I sort of always likened it to walking in a room and feeling like an alien because I just didn’t look like anybody else that was there.
“I was told quite quickly not to look at the comments on my pieces on the website. I guess you put more pressure on yourself because you think, if I mess up here, if I don’t do my research, if I get something wrong people are going to straight away say ‘well it’s because you’re a woman you don’t know what you’re talking about’.”
She is aware too, of the extra perils faced by young female journalists who often rely on social media, but can also face heavy abuse from fans still resistant to the presence of women within the football media. Williamson herself uses Twitter sparingly as “a self-preservation thing.”
Throughout our conversation, the topic of women in football – and more precisely in football journalism – is something that keeps coming up. It is clearly something Williamson is passionate about.
“I firmly believe in holding the ladder up for other people to climb. That’s the only way they’re going to do it.” It is part of the reason Williamson wanted to become an editor, as it gave her the power to make those hiring decisions and to open up the profession.
Such a focus on supporting young female journalists is clearly shaped by the Durham alumna’s own experiences in breaking into the industry.
After 18 months working for HawkEye, Williamson cashed in her Christmas bonus on a journalism course “and never looked back really”, ending up at the Daily Mail graduate scheme.
“I just sort of bludgeoned my way in somehow” she laughs. Williamson talks about her career in the language of luck and fortune, in particular mentioning former Daily Telegraph writer Sue Mott who acted like a mentor.
Yet once she was in the door, there was no hint of luck about it, rising to Executive Sports News Editor at the Mail, the position she held before taking what she describes as “a heck of a risk” in joining The Athletic.
“It was all really exciting,” recalls Williamson as she talks through the events in the summer of 2019 that would eventually lead to the establishment of the subscription-based, online publication that had already taken the US market by storm.
“The pitch was basically… ‘how do you fancy having the opportunity to do things as you want to do them?’ The opportunity to be involved with something at the beginning was too great to turn down.”
It looks to have been a successful one, too, with The Athletic recently having passed one million subscribers globally.
Reports of double your money salary offers were wide off the mark, but The Athletic marked an investment in British sports journalism that had not been seen in years, hoovering up some of the best football writers in the process.
Editorially, it has been different, too. “The main thing is just the benefit of time”. Though Williamson admits missing the “absolute buzz” of having to fill a newspaper back page, the new rhythm of work has its benefits, with Williamson being able to work more closely with writers for a better-finished product.
It also allows her to work with and nurture young writers, something she has always loved doing, and has taken it further at The Athletic with the hiring of a number of young, raw journalists.
When asked what it is that makes young journalists stand out, Williamson is largely unequivocal: personality. She mentions traits such as ambition and drive, and the ability to make her think “readers are going to love you”.
Such investment in young, up and coming journalists is just one part of what looks to be an exciting future for The Athletic, with Williamson playing a major role as Deputy Editor. Despite only being around for about 18 months, the online-only publication has shaken up the market with its focus on longerform, high-quality writing.
The future is exciting too, with Williamson describing it as “all on the table” when it comes to what’s next for The Athletic. “We’re constantly looking at what works and what doesn’t and pushing for what does.”
It is an exciting chapter in a career that Williamson describes as “an absolute blessing”, owing to her love of football, and sport more generally. “My mum and dad are just sports nuts. Sport was a big part of what we did.”
While Williamson admits to being “terrible” at football, she played netball for Durham at university while her sister represented the North of England playing football.
But it is watching the game, and more specifically her support for Grimsby Town, that really makes her face light up.
“We used to go home and away watching Grimsby Town all over the place and I just loved it. Saturday was stop at Little Chef on the way to wherever, go and watch a rubbish football match, sing some songs and go home.
This love of sport was combined with a love of newspapers and the media, leading Williamson to study English Literature at Durham.
She laughs that her degree probably contributed little to her career, but regardless has “very fond memories” of both her degree and her time at Durham in general.
“I had a lovely time. I played a lot of netball, got involved in the uni sport scene and rowed a bit for Hatfield.”
Williamson also wrote the odd piece for Palatinate, including an interview with Des Lynam, as well as getting involved in the Perfect Day Foundation, a charity that uses sport to help deprived children in Zambia.
On her time at Hatfield, Williamson admit she was not overly involved in college apart from rowing and editing The Hatfielder, the college magazine, but “always felt it was there if I wanted it really which was quite comforting.”
Williamson does not fit the stereotypical image that many might hold of a Hatfielder but it was the ethos, tradition, and location that drew her in.
“The ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos was something that was very appealing and then logistically just being on the bailey in the middle of the town seemed really good – why would you want to be up that hill?”
“I just thought ‘be the best you can be’, I’m gonna get in there and I’m gonna show them somehow.”
As Deputy Editor of The Athletic, following her career at the Daily Mail, Williamson has certainly shown them. It is important not to underestimate still just how rare female football journalists are, particularly on the written side.
Yet with the likes of Williamson at the helm, the future undoubtedly looks a lot brighter.
Image: The Athletic