SLAM Magazine Editor-In-Chief Ben Osborne
In the six months as SLAM magazine’s EIC, Ben Osborne has stressed the logical importance of broadening the mag’s readership while keeping its initial Hip Hop empowering fanbase intact. Ben has a vested interest in SLAM’s success not only because of the many years gaining experience and wisdom shooting through its ranks, but also because he wants to make sure SLAM remains the go to magazine for everything relative to the sport of baskeball. He’s a fan who truly cares about how his readers view his staff’s depiction of the sport and is determined to make a difference both here and abroad by implementing innovative nuances and mature features that will keep the sport’s most popular magazine fresh and relevant. I personally hope to positively impact SLAM’s future with upcoming features that will remain close to Ben’s personal responsibilty to continue the success of SLAM.
MT: Give the TSF readers your journalism history coming out of George Washington University relative to your present position of SLAM magazine Editor-In-Chief.
BO: I worked on the school newspaper from the first day I attended GW because I knew in high school that I wanted to be a sports journalist. An EIC at GW my senior year was hired at the Washington Post as George Solomon’s assistant–who was the sports editor there. She was looking to bring someone on as a news aide. So I worked at the school paper and also every Friday night and some Saturdays as a news aide in the sports department which is pretty awesome. I worked 6pm to 2am taking calls, making copies and whatever. I would read from copy and suggest things but copy editing was not my job. That was really a good experience. They probably would have had me come on as a full time news aide but that meant staying in D.C. and I wanted to come back to New York where I grew up. I basically sent resumes and cover letters out to every paper in the area–New York, New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island. I also sent out to a lot of sports magazines–Sports Illustrated, other big ones and also small ones. After I graduated, my girlfriend and I drove across country–which I kind of hinted at in the letters I sent out. I said that I would be back in New York in August to work for pennies basically.
When I returned, I followed up with people. A few people had me in for interviews. SLAM called out of the blue. I don’t think I had any official offers. I remember talking to Maxim–which was on their first issue. It was not sports and I thought it would be a total failure. I don’t regret not working there, but I couldn’t have been more wrong from a magazine perspective. I also talked to the Daily News and the paper in Westchester–where I grew up. They were all feeling me out. Like I said, SLAM calls urgently saying their intern just quit. They said they had my resume and I needed to come in and do some transcribing right now. They asked could I come in the next three days for 5 dollars an hour.
Ten years later, here I am. So, I started as an intern in late ’97. That became a full time job. Since then, I helped with some other magazines with the same company. XXL, which is a Hip Hop magazine, King, which is a men’s magazine, Blitz, which was a football version of SLAM and Striker, a soccer magazine (I was senior editor) that failed.
I freelanced a lot in between. Tried to stay in papers. I’d done a lot of college basketball stringing for the Washington Post. I did a few things for the Daily News and the New York Times–either sport or city type coverage. I wrote a book that came out in 2004 about the Brooklyn Cyclones, which is the minor league baseball team in Coney Island. All these things freelance wise happened while I wasn’t yet full time for SLAM, so I had some extra time. I was always writing for SLAM since that first day. I just wasn’t in here everyday. I was in three days a week, so I was able to do some other things–including the book that came out under New York University press. So I continued to write for SLAM while helping the other magazines. My predecessor as EIC, Ryan Jones pretty much suprised everyone on the staff last November by announcing that he was leaving and moving to State College, PA. He left to become one of the top editors at Penn State–working with the school’s alumni magazine. That is no joke because of their huge alumni. He and his wife just brought a house and they have a kid. It was a basically a lifestyle change. As he announced that our publisher–knowing my history with the magazine even though I wasn’t in here five days a week–offered me the job. So, now I’m here as EIC of SLAM and six months in. It’s vastly curtailed side projects, but in a good way. It’s a really fun magazine to be working on every day.
MT: For our readers, give a specific definition or the objective of SLAM the Magazine.
BO: Our tag line is the in your face basketball magazine–which implies a little more agressiveness than needed. I want it to be the baskeball fan’s Bible. Not in a statistical sense like the Sporting News, which calls themself the baseball Bible. I want it to be the go to magazine for the basketball fan. I’ve spoken in my letters to the editor, that I don’t want to be be just about our most common buyer which is the seventeen year old male. I want it to appeal to anyone that likes basketball. I don’t think there’s anywhere else that gives you the mix of basketball coverage that we give. There’s an Old School story every issue that we are proud of. I want people to learn a little something there. There’s always extensive high school coverage so we’ve got what’s next. The core stuff is obviously the NBA with some college stuff thrown in. We try to have on the cover whoever is hot. Who people wanna see. What’s going to move the issue is the cover subject. That’s gonna be Iverson, Kobe, LeBron and Jordan in his heyday. I wanna pack around the cover with anything basketball. Serious topics, funny topics, DVD’s about basketball or shoes. All basketball all the time. If you are this super intense high school or college basketball junkie, you probably need something else. But if you are an NBA fan we have what you need plus.
MT: From the gate, SLAM has had a Hip Hop parallel–fashion included. Why?
BO: Our publisher definitely didn’t shy away from it. Fashion wise, he was able to sell ads. Early advertisers were record labels and clothing companies trying to reach that aforementioned seventeen year old male buying Hip Hop. Our publisher definitely played that up. That translated into an image of editors and writers of kids listening to Hip Hop while reading the magazine. It was much more because we were in that teens to thirties range that liked Hip Hop, so we are going to use references in our writing and our headlines of our favorite songs. Sometimes that’s been Rock and Roll, sometimes Jazz, but always Hip Hop. I don’t think it’s been forced. The publisher sought that affiliation. It was just natural to see it in the magazine because of the musical climate as it relates to basketball. We were just writing how we talked amongst ourselves rather than someone who writes for another magazine and uses it in another way. The affiliation is intentional on the business side and editorially much more organic.
MT: Hip Hop is here to stay, what are your plans for the magazine with the current market shift?
BO: From the advertiser’s standpoint, they’re creating new relationships outside of the market while keeping the relationships that are still going strong.
From our side, we did a redesign that coincided with my first issue. We’re trying to add different kinds of stories that get a little bit deeper. I’d love for someone that picked it up because of the cover to be a little suprised by the product inside and keep coming back for it.
We have to work a little harder. Basketball as a whole is plenty healthy and so is Hip Hop. The kid that was into it as a fad, they have a new fad now. The product has to be a little tighter and wide ranging in attempting to draw people in or back in that don’t read the magazine because it’s cool anymore. We’ve got to make sure that any basketball fan knows who we are and ultimately likes what they read. We just can’t slap a cool photo with some Hip Hop headlines and clothing ads and call it a day. We have to be more creative.
MT: In the August issue which features Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, Dave Zirin wrote a piece entitled Law and Order: NBA, which speaks to David Stern’s vice grip on player protocol as it relates to the fans. Is this current practice helping or hurting the NBA?
BO: The type of fan that I am and also that SLAM readers are, I have to say yes. Our readers like the personality. I can live with a hard foul. I can live with a little emotion and trash talking. I’m not privy to the type of studies that David Stern’s done. Zirin just hammers him repeatedly for his affiliation with Matthew Dowd. I guess David Stern has proven some things with market research. From the fan that has come up in the eighties and nineties, I think all of this has made it worse. The game has become a little less fun and expressive than it used to be. I can’t say what it’s done business wise, but I like it a little less. I agree with Zirin that from SLAM’s perspective it has made the game less fun.
MT: This is a question that just comes to mind, but why does it seem like corporation heads usually are more conservative when their product is slipping instead of taking that risk that just might get them over the hump?
BO: I don’t know Michael. It might be a fear of empowering people they don’t want to empower. I don’t know. What you asked is true politically, and true in sports. It certainly doesn’t thrill me, but I don’t know the answer.
MT: Also in the last issue there was a great story by Robert Marriot entitled The Audacity of Hoop, which highlighted the non-profit organization, Hoops 4 Hope’s workings with impoverished kids in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Speak about that piece and how it was developed.
BO: Hoops 4 Hope is an organization that we’ve been aware of for a long time because our publisher spent a lot of time out at Long Island where Mark Crandell is from. Mark heads the organization which is based in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where Mark spent some time when he was younger. It basically uses basketball as a vehicle to do a lot of things with kids like testing, schooling and other positives to draw them in. We did a really small piece in our Hype section maybe three years ago–maybe through a phone interview–about what they do and had a bunch of kids holding up our magazines. It was cute, but you weren’t going to get much out of the story. My predecessor Ryan spoke to Mark all the time. We get shoes mailed to us a lot so we sent them packages of shoes. Mark wanted us to do a story, but we just weren’t motivated to get someone over there.
We decided that if we were going to do it right, it required someone to go over there. So in the mean time, I get the job and am really determined to get this story done. It speaks to the power of basketball. Rob Mariott is a guy that used to work on XXL, which I mentioned before, so I knew him. I received his email address from a co-worker that had stayed in touch after I’d heard that he was living in Africa. In a perfect world, one of us from here goes and it would be a tremendous experience, but we all were pretty busy. Besides, maybe it would take us longer to get a feel. So I got in touch with Rob and put him in touch with Mark. Rob was very interested in the story and spent time in both locations. All the pictures are from South Africa, but Rob spent two days in Zimbabwe. Being a writer, he ended up telling the kids a lot of what he does. He ended up being one of their better guest speakers. He raved about the experience. Mark raved about having him. I rarely would use this word, but Rob turned in a beautifully written piece. He’s a really good writer. We were very happy about it. Hoops 4 Hope is doing big things this summer with Larry Brown. If we aided in them getting more funding, great, but I like to think it makes people feel better about basketball and educates some of our readers about what’s going on in places like South Africa and Zimbabwe politically and culturally. The story had value on a lot of levels and once we had a writer of Rob’s abilities and interest it was a no brainer.
MT: I really enjoyed the story. Hoops 4 Hope is a great organization.
Do readers have the power to shape future issues?
BO: That’s a good question. If we were inundated with letters for a certain player. We don’t publish all the letters obviously, but we run a nice cross section of what the readers have to say. For example, we didn’t put Karl Malone on the cover until he was a Laker. Jazz fans felt persecuted. We maybe piled on and they would constantly write. Maybe that was immature of SLAM. Reggie Miller notoriously didn’t care for the magazine, so we responded by giving him one split cover. Certainly not the coverage he should have received. Fans would complain about that. So guys to poke fun at–no matter what our reader says–will be the butt of the joke. It’s different now because the two players I mentioned existed before we did. It was kind of fun for them to mess with us also.
Any player that’s in the league now probably wanted to be in the magazine when they were in high school. If they weren’t then they probably were in it when they were in college. There’s not that villian like Reggie was. It used to be a Knick fan dominated staff. SLAM never really could embrace Malone and Stocton because they were seen as boring. Those are just examples of readers getting mad and us rubbing their noses in it.
Currently, we get the most letters about Kobe. We’d put him on the cover more if he’d give us more time I guess. Some of letters are just obvious. People want more Kobe. If LeBron’s been on the cover too many times, then maybe readers will complain about that. Sales numbers don’t really back that up. They still buy them.
We read the letters and enjoy them. We take them to heart. I think I can’t really think of a player that a reader would want that wasn’t very much on our radar anyway.
MT: Kobe Bryant’s situation. How does SLAM plan to attack all the drama surrounding him currently? If at all.
BO: Take right now for example. We are a little hindered by our frequency. I don’t want to divulge too much information, but we’ve been talking to his agent about issues that are coming out five weeks from now, or the one ten weeks from now. We have a very long lead time. What are we asking him for? What can he commit to? There are so many things that are up in the air. If we were SLAM were Sports Illustrated, he’d be on the cover this week with his face and a question mark. It wouldn’t be about choosing a side necessarily, because people want to read about him. It would just be foolish of us to cover him in a Laker jersey and then he gets traded. I mean, he did a couple of radio interviews that became obsolete three hours later, so imagine the take on all this from a magazine’s perspective. We’ll worry about the tone of the story when the time comes. He’s a cover the second this situation gets resolved. So if a writer writing about Kobe hypothetically calling in to ask us where’s his Kobe cover. We would tell him that we didn’t put this together yesterday. Our website is growing a lot. We joke to the contributors that if they want to get a hundred comments on your column, then write about Kobe. It’s not even close from a lightening rod perspective. It’s very positive, very negative–both sides, but extreme. People have a lot to say.
So his story is in a holding pattern until his situation gets resolved.
MT: Same thing with Kevin Garnett?
BO: Same thing with KG. He’s very due for some SLAM love, but we have to be very careful. I don’t know if you read the issue before Durant/Oden. It featured Shaq and Dirk which went horribly wrong. That stunk from a baskeball standpoint but at least those guys are still on their respective teams.
It’s too risky to have a Garnett or Kobe cover and have them get traded. It’s just too risky.
MT: As EIC, what type of stories do you want to see in SLAM?
BO: Seventy to eighty percent of the magazine is going to be straight profile stuff, hottest guys currently and the future, high school players and the other quarter is going to be Old School players that made an impact on and off the court and organizations–there’s only one Hoops 4 Hope–out there who are progressive in the advancement and best interests of baskeball. Sometimes it’s tragic ways also. We sometimes have stories of players who are out of the league because of something that went wrong. People that have a tie to basketball that are compelling. We’re never going to be lacking for star power, but I’d love for that other percentage to be about something that outta left field. Baskeball related but it has a larger meaning. A player that fits, an organization or a coach.
MT: Considering the current mad scrutinizing athletic climate, have you had players come to SLAM and ask for coverage?
BO: It happens all the time. Guys in the league want the cover. As a rule, some deserve it and subsequently get it. Other’s don’t have a prayer. The SLAM cover has a cache’ with almost all the players. The magazine is old enough that there aren’t that many guys that pre-date it. That’s why we are able to get time with almost every player–from Allen Iverson to LeBron James. We get calls from player agents that are hoping to just get into the magazine in major frequency. On the high school stage, if we cover one player, five are going to want to get in and that means ten other parents think their child should be in. The superstars want the cover, the mid level guys aren’t that interested and the lesser players or their people want them to get in. On the high school level, parents and coaches want their kids in. Shoe companies. It’s a regular occurrence on every level.
MT: Has SLAM ever received fan or media backlash for being summarily pro athlete while having a Hip Hop image?
BO: Well fans just wouldn’t buy it. Media wise, I think we’ve been marginalized at times. The internet helps because we’ve been out there and covering more things. A couple of years ago I would say people didn’t take us seriously and I didn’t think writers talked about us. We weren’t in the “club” and still probably aren’t. I don’t remember all the details but there was this bash SLAM session on sportswriters.com. Some people defended us, some people didn’t. It was basically that they would come in all buddy buddy with the players and saying that they were trying to do their job as on the beat and we were interferring. That attitude has subsided because the magazine has gotten better and the website has shown that we are doing things on a daily basis. That definitely used to be an attitude that we encountered from the grizzled veterans in the NBA media world.
MT: The reason why I ask is that I mentioned to you about the TNT panel I’m speaking on in August–Blogs to broadband: How new media is changing sports journalism. You’ve mentioned that the website is growing. How does SLAM fit into the grand scheme of things relative to such a topic?
BO: I hope it fits very squarely. I think from a respect standpoint, it’s helped because we can point to the site when speaking to journalists, teams and the NBA that we aren’t that different than them because we are more involved on a more daily basis.
Reader wise, if we are the best selling basketball magazine, then why aren’t we the most viewed basketball website? We aren’t. We’re talking about doing a better job about providing a lot of original content on the site. It will be a little more light hearted than the magazine. We have someone writing about street ball. We have an ex player writing about the WNBA and we have someone focusing on NCAA basketball. We don’t have the quick hit stuff that people go to other sites for like scores or fantasy. We don’t have a devoted rumor section, or stuff like rankings. Those are some of the things that we are talking about incorporating. For the passionate fan, we are a great place. Like I said, if you want the quick hitting stuff, it might not so quick to find or doesn’t yet exist.
MT: A lot of athletes are choosing to blog themselves instead of interracting with the media because they don’t want the press spinning their livlihood out of control. Obviously, SLAM isn’t part of that because you choose to write good stories about NBA players. Do you feel that you can capitalize on the current climate media misgivings of the NBA athlete?
BO: I’d like to think so. It kind of speaks to your previous question about players contacting us. Even people that haven’t called, they are most definitely happy to take our call. It’s a nice feeling to be written about from a different angle than other publications. There is totally a place for that. Even more now. Current media climate aside, we always have been pretty different than the rest of the pack. We weren’t hammering these guys to begin with so them doing their own thing doesn’t necessarily affect us. It was never a business decision but definitely is a positive as things get more contentious.
MT: Is it imperative that the league has a vested interest in getting Boston, New York and Philly back on track or is it more interested in developing which seems like a Phoenix/Utah type demography?
BO: I’m not a business major, but my logic would think that it really would be imperative for those traditional teams to prosper once again. I don’t go to close door meetings there, so I don’t know. I trust your opinion as much as mine. I have to believe that they wish that would change too. Creditability is super important, but I don’t know what they could do. I can’t believe that the league wants the latter markets you’ve mentioned to be dominate over the former traditional markets. You’ve got kids growing up that have no idea. Kids in Boston that could care less about the Celtics. That’s crazy to me. I have co-workers that think the only thing that matters in New York is the Yankees. I tell them that the Knicks used to be on the front page of the tabloids every day. They never belive me. The Yankees will get it in December now. You can’t blame the Daily Times or the Post, because the Knicks stink. I know for a fact that there are people in this city that have no clue that New York is a great basketball city. I’m sure that holds true in Boston and also Philly. Chicago probably risked that by talking about their glory days a little too much but seem to be at least on the right track. I’m not that much of a Knicks fan, but I think it stinks. I hate it. This being the media capital–if not the world–there’s no way that the league wouldn’t benefit from the Knicks being better.
MT: A run and gun type team has not won an NBA championship since Magic and the Lakers–who did play defense. Why is there this wave to think teams like Dallas and Phoenix are the best teams in the NBA? It confounds me that people are actually suprised when these teams lose in the playoffs.
BO: I don’t know. I picked the Mavericks. We had eight people pick teams and not one person picked the Spurs. Are we idiots? It’s like you don’t want to think of the Spurs winning it again. You certainly have respect for them but…I don’t know. It may be a case of emotions winning out over logic. Gregg Popovich is much smarter than me. If you look at the Spurs in February, you would think that they are done and just don’t have it. Then you have Avery jumping up and down and Dirk fired up and as a result the Mavs are firing on all cylinders. It just looks that they are the better team. The Suns are looking great. In reality, the Spurs just have a plan to not settle with being the best team in February. The less wise of us for some reason or the other just don’t remember that. I feel pretty foolish that I didn’t see this coming but I didn’t. The only consolation is that I was hardly alone on my staff in general. That’s a big part of it. The Spurs just didn’t look like a championship team early in the season. Then the game changes, Tim Duncan gears up and then the team follows.
MT: Do you think we’ll ever see a run and gun team win a chip?
BO: I don’t know. Now you have Oden in Portland. The Trailblazers can grind it out now with that once in a generation center. They are now going to be able to score anyway plus play defense.
I don’t know. I’m not going to say never, but clearly the fantic style of play opposed to the tough big man style is hard to go with if you want to win in the postseason.
MT: We’ve mentioned the very detailed feature SLAM had in the last issue. What type of impact do you think Oden in Portland and Durant in Seattle? Is it going to be true or is it all about media hype because we all are searching for that next blow your mind player?
BO: This is a total personal opinion. You might get something totally different from someone else on staff. I’m a really big Greg Oden believer. I’m not sure about culturally or anything like that regarding his personality, but basketball wise? I believe he is going to be a really good player. Portland is going to need pieces–they aren’t winning anything next year–but I would just love to have him if I was the GM. His combination of size, smarts and athleticism is just awesome. He can run too. He can play all different ways. I understand that he needs a jump shot to become a great scorer. But, I just see him as an all star in two to three years definitely. I like Durant as well, but I just think there’s other guys similar to him in the league. People I compare Oden to win NBA titles. People I compare Durant to win scoring titles and play in multiple all star games. It depends on who Kevin’s teammates are where Greg could make any team good almost by himself.
MT: Is there anyone drafted that going to make an immediate impact?
BO: Not on a scoring level. I’m kind of a Noah fan. I think he’s going to have an immediate impact playing twenty minutes a game. I’m just not sure there’s a rookie of the year contender that’s going to jump in and score in bunches. I like Horford. I also like Brandan Wright a lot, but there’s no way he’s going to be that guy next year in his first season. Noah is that guy that sticks in my mind that is gonna do some things right away with his energy, but that’s about it.
MT: What player overseas not ready for the NBA puts you on notice?
BO: Nicolas Batum–France. I don’t know if you guys have written about him, but he will have something nice sized in the magazine soon. He’s a long player who does a lot of good things on the court and I think he’s one of the most ready. It’s not just about Ricky Rubio. We have readers all over the world. Both fans and journalists get to see these players with their own eyes. Our magazine will be impacted as our popularity speads across the globe. We’ll report back to give the most talented players abroad some exposure so they won’t be as unknown when they enter the United States.
That is our responsibility.