SLAM

Ben Osborne, Editor-in-Chief at SLAM

As part of the course that allows me to work with SLAM, I had to conduct an informational interview with someone at the organization. The Ed himself, Ben Osborne, agreed, and I thought I’d share some of our conversation from (wow) a little more than a month ago. 

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What is your favorite thing about your job?

My favorite thing is shaping an issue, totally. I think I always loved that in concept even when I wasn’t the editor but could influence and propose ideas. That challenge each month of deciding: how many pages do I get and what am I going to put in them, it’s very, very exciting. By the last two days when we’re actually producing it, I’m sick of it. But that first stage—the meeting where we talk about what’s going to go in, who’s going to write it, making sure we can afford it, what are we going to do photo-shoots for—that’s really, really fun.

What types of advancement opportunities are available for an entry-level worker?

Minimal at SLAM and absolutely massive in the basketball industry. As far as here, I started as an intern. Tzvi was an intern, he’s up to senior editor. There’s a really good chance to move up in the sense there’s a history of hiring from within; it’s just a small chance because there are not a lot of people. But industry-wide, for one thing, we’re such a part of the culture now. Everyone knows SLAM. Everyone loves SLAM. It’s instant credibility, definitely if you have a print clip, but even just online clips are very respected. So that’s number one, and then number two: whereas ten years ago all you were learning if you worked at SLAM was how to write a cool basketball story, well now, you’re going to be learning WordPress—the ins and outs of it—being given the power to, at minimum, build posts and eventually make them live, given the keys to our Twitter feed. You’re going to do a lot, and if you go somewhere else, you’re going to know social media, you’re going to know WordPress, and you’re going to know basketball…from a really cool place. That’s a really good combination.

How has this career affected your lifestyle day to day?

Dramatically. Obviously, it’s incredibly thrilling. Peers save up money and go to three games a year, I can go to any game I want. I love basketball, I get to watch it as a job. The impact on my lifestyle is all-encompassing, in any way you want to put it. How do I make friends, meet girls, what’s my social life—sometimes that’s dictated by work functions. It’s a social job. The impact is dramatic, 80-90 percent positive. You’re not going to get rich. I have peers working at banks making a lot more money than me, but I personally am being paid to do a lot of the same things I was doing when I was 11, 12, 13, 15-years-old. Reading about sports, watching sports, writing about sports, buying sneakers, and going to games. It’s all the same stuff. I think, for better or worse, most people’s adult life has nothing in common with what they liked when they were a teen. I personally feel incredibly blessed.

What was your first job in this field?

I worked at the school paper in high school, obviously that was unpaid. I worked at the college paper at George Washington for all four of my years, which was paid. I sold ads and got commission, and my last two years, I was sports editor which was paid—not much. The summer after my sophomore year in college, I was an intern at PSP, Professional Sports Publications, which still exists. That was like a five dollar an hour internship.

What was the first story you ever covered?

My first real clip…was for the New York Daily News. George Washington was recruiting a kid named Richie Parker, who was at the time, probably the most highly scouted player, in public school at least. He was being recruited by all Big East schools. He was accused of some sort of sexual assault in the hallway or the stairwell of his high school. Then the big programs stopped recruiting him. GW started recruiting him, because all of a sudden they felt like they could get a kid who, basketball wise, would never even talk to them. It was kind of like a firestorm and the New York Post sent someone down to try to talk to the coach or athletic director like, “How could you be recruiting this kid?” I knew the managing editor of the Daily News. We were from the same town; his son went to my high school. I thought it was incredible he was the managing editor of the Daily News because I was such a newspaper junkie, he was my hero. He knew I was down there. He knew I was working for the school paper, so I think instead of sending a writer down, he was like, “Hey can you report this story for us?” They ran it—a pretty big story, by Ben Osborne, special to the Daily News—so that was my first one.

Do you have any advice on how people interested in this career should prepare?

Write a lot. If the goal is not to be an editor and be a writer, just do it. I’m a little wary if [a blog] is all you’ve done because there’s no chain of command. No one’s editing it. You’re really doing whatever you want. Write for someone else. If you can get paid for it, awesome, but even if you can’t, because that shows you can take an assignment, that you can work with people.

What’s something that shocked you about the industry when you first started out?

Shocked is too strong of a word. I’d like to think I’m cynical enough to not be shocked by anything, but I think the influence of advertisers is absolutely massive. I think because SLAM is a little less hiding it, I think we’re accused of being too pandering or being too much of sellouts. A) I don’t apologize for it, and B) I’ve seen so many examples of the influence. If anyone tries to tell you that [publications like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc.]’s content is pure and not influenced by some advertiser or business guy that’s killing stories or shifting coverage, that’s a lie.

How did you get your foot in the door?

I moved back to New York from D.C. after college and reached out to any number of magazines and newspapers, and then I was following up with phone calls, and I think [SLAM] had a kid that was supposed to be here all summer, and he bailed on them. [SLAM] had all these interviews to transcribe, and they had to have someone come in the next three days, and see what happens…I never looked back. Each step, it was all incremental. The high school paper got me the credibility to go to the college paper. The college paper got me the credit to write for the New York Daily News. The New York Daily News got me the credit for the Washington Post.

The media and press tend to have a negative rep. How do you make sure SLAM doesn’t fall into that hole?

It’s a case by case basis. If certain reporters, depending on their job, are pestering people and being annoying, they’re just doing their job. At SLAM, I don’t want that at all, for a number of reasons. For the most part, we’re not breaking stories. Our magazine comes out once a month, so we don’t have to be that annoying guy. I always think about it at games, we get the best perception in the locker room. A) the players like SLAM, and B) if a [player] had a tough game and is not in the mood to talk, we don’t have to be that guy. The Knick beat writer has to ask Carmelo why he shot five for twenty-three. If you’re doing a Melo story for SLAM, you know you’re going to have two weeks to do it. Just go to practice the next day. Go to the next game.

What is the most challenging part about this kind of job?

There’s some stuff we’re doing now that’s basically paid for. We’re creating little ad campaigns, that stuff is growing. Advertorial native content, whatever you want to call it. That usually leads to an approval process that’s not really familiar here. You’re kind of in this corporate approval matrix that’s frustrating. The overriding issue is seeing revenue. In the last six months, we happen to be on a nice little uptick, but if you go as a whole for the past…our revenue is down dramatically. So that’s hard—people don’t buy as many print magazines. That’s depressing, it’s scary. I think SLAM will be around for a very, very long time, but how long will we produce a magazine once a month? This could be the last year, I don’t know. Magazines are folding left and right, so that’s a difficult climate to work in.

Anything more to add?

Everything I’m telling you is true to my experience, but that doesn’t make it true to you or to the world. All I can tell you is what I lived and what I think, but you may get very different answers. So take it all with a grain of salt.

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