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Chris Olds: The Interview

Chris Olds, the Supreme Overlord Editor of all things Beckett media related recently took some time to sit down (virtually!), and answer a few of my questions.

(my questions are in bold)

Q: How did you come to work at Beckett?

A: Starting off with the short and easy one, eh? I came to Beckett Media in October 2008 from the Orlando Sentinel, where I was a copy editor, designer, short-form columnist and then blogger for a few years. Before that, I worked for the Hearst newspaper in San Antonio for a couple years and a New York Times-owned newspaper in Tuscaloosa, Ala., for five years (full-time … while also finishing school at the University of Alabama). Before that, I was an editor who did it all in college for three years at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. There, on the side, I also worked as a stringer for the largest newspaper in Wyoming. In short, it’s something I have done for a paycheck since 1996.

The reason I go back that far is that at every stop along the way I worked in my long-time hobby, card collecting, into my job. Even in college I found a way to do that. If you were there, a small school in a tiny Wyoming town, you’d have no idea that a former NBA player — a starter on a world championship team — played there in the 1960s. There was no documented history, just a trophy case for team accomplishments. By the time I had left there, I had written more than a few research-based items about the player who the school had lost touch with and even self-published a book documenting the history of the basketball program. (That even included a record book with every available stat compiled for every player from 1947-1997.) That was an exhaustive project but a fun one for someone who loves to research and examine the past in sports … in search of trivia that leads to cool cards.

At my other stops, I volunteered to write a column and design a page about cards on a weekly basis and did it on my own time or my off day. Eventually it was built into my routines. Each week, I’d focus on a random topic — or topics — that the newspaper’s audience would appreciate. In Alabama, that meant a lot of Crimson Tide football cards and NASCAR since Talladega was nearby, but I also was in contact with the various card companies and would write stories about what was new here and there. (NetPro tennis anyone? I remember writing an extensive piece on that product’s arrival in 2001 … ) And it was through this work that I first established contacts with the likes of Tracy Hackler, who was then at Donruss, and others in the industry.

In San Antonio, it was a bit different format — a short-form Page 2 all dedicated to cards and memorabilia— where I could do several nuggets of quick-read items on a page I also designed. (That’s a place where I designed my first set of Major League cards back in 2005.) Then, in Orlando, I did the same thing in print for a while until we started moving toward online content. So, in 2008, I’d do my full day at work and then often come home and work up blog entries about various sports items after that. (Unfortunately, my blog, SportStuff is no longer online.) My daily hobby content there, combined with my journalism background and past card writing, led me here.

For any person in a creative role, I think the key is to push yourself to do as much as you can. Just let it fly. Over time, you will get better as your skills in whatever — design, writing, photography — and as long as you get better and show yourself to be reliable (i.e. can produce … and are truthful as a writer) the opportunities will come. And, if you push yourself, you will be ready to produce skills-wise when a BIG item drops in your lap.

While I have always focused on sports, I have done all kinds of non-sports writing and reporting, which are all things that help you develop.  As a designer, I have done everything from the TV page to the food page to the sports page to Page 1. I was working Page 1 the day Dale Earnhardt died. I was asleep from a long night working sports the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. At larger publications you finally get to focus on certain things. (Though, again, you’re more valuable the more you can do.) As a writer, I have interviewed Jeff Gordon about collecting Hot Wheels to the complete opposite —  interviewing a mother-turned-activist whose daughter was raped and murdered when I was in college.

While I may not use certain skills in my everyday work any longer (not designing much today), having been there and done that when presented different kinds of editorial challenges always comes in handy.

Q: What are your favorite typefaces to use for article headers, decks, sub-headers, and body copy?

A more design-specific question … makes sense since you’re a designer. For newspapers, you really work within the routine of what the publication’s visual identity is — a set of parameters where you’re intentionally reigned in because of time constraints but parameters that you can poke, pull and prod. On occasion, you get to pick your spots and break away a bit (a special feature story or special section). That’s different than magazines, though good ones will keep a reign on things. I prefer fewer crazy font changes, instead make changes more subtle. Not every piece of typography on a page needs to scream for your attention. In fact, I prefer the art to scream for your attention, the headline to set a bold tone and then the rest of the stuff to justify whatever vibe you set off and then tell the story whatever it may be.

My personal preference of late (last several years) is a meaty slab serif font for headlines — and that’s probably from working in sports and then with hard news — and stuff with a more modern feel. Make an impact with your pages. Be bold. Generally, though, I prefer fonts that are concordant and make sense both together and with the image of the magazine as a whole. For body copy, I prefer something that holds up well in big or small chunks without any visual noise. In other words, it shouldn’t slow you down as a reader or bug your eye.

As for specific font names, I have none since I don’t have to select them these days. I just have to make sure that they “work” within the context of everything else and recommend a change if they don’t.

Q: Any personal rules you follow with regard to mixing typefaces?
Best bit of advice is to keep it simple. If you turn the screws too hard on your fonts and neglect everything else on a page, then all that will scream out and grab for attention are the fonts — and, really, they shouldn’t do that. On occasion, sure. Good, fundamental design is more about structure and servicing/showcasing a story’s content and guiding a reader than it is decoration. But you do have to grab a reader’s attention.

Q: Relating to that, when deciding on which colors to use, do you try to echo whatever images might be contained within and use that to form color schemes? If so do you look for exact compliments, triads, analogous, etc.?

I prefer a limited color palette and prefer to use color as a way to service something else. In other words, I wouldn’t want Dodger Blue on a cover featuring Tim Lincecum. Orange? Makes sense.

For sports pubs, you obviously can give off the energy — but you don’t want the color to overwhelm everything else. In newspapers, color schemes are relatively simplified for uniformity across sections and the paper as a whole (think USA Today and its color-coding). But on newsstands, magazines are always trying to jump off the shelf more than the other one.

I think a strong visual identity and good everything else (design, art, etc.) is more important than color — but bad color choices will stand out.

Q: I see you also write a column for’s Page 2, how did that come about?

Professional networking. I have worked with several people through the years who have ended up there. In fact, people from each newspaper I worked for have ended up somewhere up at ESPN. Out of the blue one day I was contacted by someone I used to work for wanting card and hobby content on a regular basis. We figured out a way for it to work here — i.e. Beckett will always have it first as long as its something we would want in our coverage — and it’s as simple as that.

The newspaper/media industry is much bigger than the card industry these days but people know people everywhere in both. I have worked with people who have ended up at ESPN, Yahoo Sports, countless newspapers/websites all over the country … you name it. It’s pretty crazy to see where people will end up in their careers.

Q: When Upper Deck was still “teasing” EVOLUTION™®© you speculated in a Beckett item that it might have something to do with QR codes.  Are there any plans to start integrating QR codes into Beckett? How about a smartphone Beckett price guide application? Do you think either would be effective towards your target audience?

It made sense to me as I know that card companies had been talking about some kind of interactive stuff with QR codes for more than a year. Looks like the video companies got to them first and will do it better, anyway.

As for us, who knows? I know we’ve talked about it in the past — and we briefly used a text-messaging code-entering service in 2008-09 where collectors enter a code found in a magazine to get exclusive content sent to them. That, though, had mixed results.

I think anything’s possible — it’s just a matter of where it might fall on a priorities list. A phone app has been discussed, too, but I will say that the new works pretty well on my iPhone.

Q: Does Beckett do all of its printing in house?

All of our magazines are printed by a major company based in the Midwest that prints many of the top magazines you see on newsstands today. We’re printed by the same folks who print TIME, People, Sports Illustrated …

Q: Regardless I’m sure a glossy page costs more than plain paper, as well as color vs. black and white.  Is there a budget for each magazine that effects this, meaning if your amount spent on Getty images is less for a particular issue, then it’s conceivable that said issue could have more color pages and vice versa.  Or is this not a variable?

The cost of newsprint, printing and distribution is the biggest challenge for any print company — magazines or newspapers. We keep it simple with set page counts, color page counts, etc., for titles on a regular basis. I’m glad it’s done that way, having come from newspapers where your sections can shrink and grow daily — regardless of you have something ready for it or not. Beckett briefly experimented with color pages on all pages in its magazines in the mid-2000s but the much-higher price for such a feature did not translate into any added issue sales or advertising so it vanished quickly.

Q: It seems like there are fewer ads from the major card companies now then in the past, especially on the back cover.  Do you agree with this assessment? Why do you think this is? (It’s not like they don’t have the money.)

Your parenthetical statement may or may not be true these days. The business side of the industry is much smaller than ever — and there are fewer collectors than in the boom years. Meanwhile, two things that aren’t going down cost-wise are licensing fees and autograph fees — both things that put a pinch on card companies. And, just like printing magazines, the costs of stock, foil stamping, packaging… you name it …  isn’t cheaper, either. People forget that before Topps went private it was its candy side that generated more revenue than cards.
As for the back cover part of the question, part of that is intentional. When I wasn’t at Beckett I always wanted to see “other” teams and players on the covers than the typical guys that pop up most often. For Beckett Baseball, I decided that we’re going to have flip covers so we can showcase a guy who is doing well but may not be a recognizable face to many at the newsstand.

For example, last year at the time our pitching issue was ready to go Stephen Strasburg wasn’t a household name. By the time it arrived with him on the back cover, he was making his big-league debut (the same week). By the time the next issue came up? He was a no-brainer and was on the front of what was that year’s best-selling issue. This was a move to get more fans’ teams and players out there and get them grabbing the magazine — even if it’s just showcased on a back cover.

Q: Do you do any video editing on the Beckett Box Busters?  If so what programs do you use?

We use iMovie. We keep it short, sweet and simple. We’re not creating Forrest Gump here, so we let it fly and use simple, quick graphics to get the stuff posted fast. (The only time I have to “edit” per se is when we run long on time … ) Often times, the videos are filmed within minutes of arrival and posted soon after that.

I, personally, believe in a web-first set-up, which is why you saw more content online immediately on a regular basis when I got here in 2008, including our videos. Our traffic on The Beckett Blog alone showed that before we folded that area into with explosive growth. My Derek Jeter Photoshop item, for example, generated more than a quarter-million hits in a single day last winter. It appeared on the homepage of as well as countless other websites and USA Today even ran an item on it in the newspaper. Then, to top all that, Jeter was even asked about it during his first news conference after signing with the team. (That’s pretty crazy.)


Q: Would you ever consider working directly for a card company, or are you in your ideal job now?

I think anyone who collects cards thinks about it. But they really don’t think about what goes into it from a business standpoint. There’s a lot of balancing that goes on between “dream content” and the realities of a budget and a price point.

I have been to Panini HQ just once — got a behind-the-scenes tour of its old building along with a group — and it really, really reminded me of a newspaper office. The certain departments did certain specialized things and pieces were sent from area to area with the day’s edition — the card set — was the eventual end result. Except rather than a reporter or a photographer coming back without a story that forces you to make changes on deadline it’s Peyton Manning or some NBA rookie not sending in his autographs.

There are a lot of collectors and former Beckett employees at card companies (names people would recognize) because they know the hobby. I have heard from a few that it’s not exactly what they think it is when they first get into the routine — making cards is a lot more work than they think. It’s not just ripping wax packs and chewing bubble gum.

Q: So why do you collect Nick Swisher?

As a kid I collected a guy who made an impact as a right fielder for the Oakland A’s who wore No. 33. Jose Canseco. I collected him hard but he was expensive and my collecting habits meandered all over the place through the years depending on where I was living. When I was in Alabama I collected him, but I also looked out for Crimson Tide guys in football, baseball and basketball. Also did some NASCAR.

By complete accident, I picked up the book “Moneyball” while in an airport because it talked about a guy who had played baseball at UA when I was there, Jeremy Brown, and the book turned out to be about the Oakland A’s — the star player of their 2002 draft being Nick Swisher. Fast forward a couple years and I was in San Antonio — then dabbling a little here and there with Spurs stuff but really moving toward just collecting baseball because of costs. There, I got my first Swisher autograph on a USA Baseball card. Fast forward to 2006, I was in Florida collecting just baseball and the A’s had an emerging slugger on their hands … who played right field and wore No. 33.

The A’s had always been the team I followed — largely because of cards in the formidable years because I didn’t grow up with a team nearby. With Swisher, I thought the team had a new franchise player — so I started digging in and found his cards, autographs, and game-used memorabilia a LOT more affordable than Canseco’s.

And the back story with his long hair, his fan-friendly demeanor and being a bit of a goofball? I like it. I got to see him play once in Tampa Bay — got a seat behind home plate the day before the game. Got the autograph (something I never did in-person as a kid with Canseco) and saw him hit a homer, too. I found my collecting focus … and then he was traded. Like in the Canseco years, I stuck with the player — even though he’s on a team that, as an A’s fan, you have to loathe, right?

Q: Why do you think we’re seeing so many “Alien Skull” embeds in sports cards nowadays?

I think it’s just the natural evolution of cards. I mean, why stop with fossil relics?

Why indeed.


Q: Could the proliferation of “Alien Skull” embeds be part of some kind of larger cultural inoculation against an upcoming “disclosure event”?

Let’s hope so …

Find Chris on Twitter here

and check out the Beckett Blog


Posted by on May 1, 2011 in Random


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