Bob Ford ’76 Discusses Lengthy Career

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Bob Ford ’76 Discusses Lengthy Career
May 11, 2020

Bob Ford, a 1976 graduate of the University of Maryland’s College of Journalism and a past winner of the Povich Center’s Distinguished Terrapin Award, recently announced his retirement after a 32-year career with the Philadelphia Inquirer. The 65-year-old Ford, who spent the last 17 years as a sports columnist with the newspaper, answered questions about his career in an email interview with Povich Center director George Solomon. 

George Solomon: Trace your newspaper career since leaving the College of Journalism.

Bob Ford: After graduation, I was hired at the Easton (Md.) Star-Democrat. I was hired for a news-side county courthouse beat. At that time, I hadn’t done any sports reporting or writing. In those days, there was not an emphasis put on that by the journalism department, and I might even say it was looked down upon. In Easton, the editor was moving around some beats, and the position for which I was hired wouldn’t be vacant for a month or so. He asked me to hang out in the sports department for a while, learn my way around town, the way copy should be filed, and all of that. After about a month, he said the position was ready for me, and I said that was fine, but I actually really liked the sports work. He said I could stay in sports if I wanted, so I did. What I liked was the freedom to experiment and have fun with the language. You don’t usually have that kind of freedom covering murder trials.

I was in Easton 4 ½ years before taking a job with the Delaware County Daily Times as the Phillies beat writer. I did that for three seasons, then did another 3 ½ years as a columnist there before being hired by The Philadelphia Inquirer in December 1987. At the Inquirer, I covered the 76ers and the NBA for five seasons, then spent 10 years as a long-form feature writer and international sports writer, before writing a column for the last 17 years.

GS: Why did you decide to retire now?

BF: I’ll be 66 in December and that was really my target date. When the paper offered a good separation deal ahead of that, it made sense. I still enjoy the writing, and the relationships, but I want to do other things. I intend to keep writing but haven’t landed on what form it will take yet. My wife, Bonnie Ford, who writes for ESPN.com, and I have a place on the Eastern Shore where we will relocate full-time.

GS: What are some of your University of Maryland and journalism school memories?

BF: Well, just as I backed into sports writing as a career, I backed into being a journalism major. I tried a lot of different majors in my first two years before an academic advisor suggested journalism, based entirely on the fact I had worked on my high school paper. I had never thought about it. What I found was that I was pretty good at it, and that it simply captivated me, the entire process of producing a good article and then seeing it in print.

As for the university itself, I am the rarest of birds, a townie. I grew up in College Park and rode my bikes to football games when I was 8 or 9 years old and snuck in under the fence. When it came time for college, I applied to other schools, but think I always knew I would choose Maryland. It might not be for everybody, but I liked the sheer size of the place, that you could really pursue anything there.

GS: What’s your philosophy in writing a column?

BF: I think every column should be able to be boiled down to one sentence. If you try to do too much in that format, you lose focus and lead the reader all over the place. Tell one little story, or reveal what you think is one little truth. The entire column should expand out from that one very narrow approach.

GS: How did you go about covering a beat?

BF: Beats are the best training grounds. They teach you to interview. They teach you to develop sources. They teach you to write quickly and clearly on deadline. They each you what hard work really is.

I can’t say exactly how I went about it. My competition on the NBA and 76ers beat was Phil Jasner at the Philadelphia Daily News and he was a Hall of Famer. That was the deep end of the pool and I just tried to swim as fast as I could.

GS: Philly was not only a great sports town, it was a great newspaper town. What happened?

BF: Well, when I grew up in the D.C. area, there was the Evening Star and the Daily News, and those are gone, so what happened in Philadelphia is simply what happened everywhere. The audience got smaller. In Philly, the Bulletin went out of business in the early 1980s, when the industry was booming, because of poor ownership decisions. It was an afternoon paper and they didn’t adjust to the tastes of the consumer. The Inquirer and Daily News, which are jointly owned, still put out very representative, high-quality products, and have been extremely aggressive in pivoting to the digital age.

GS: Who were your mentors? Favorite sportswriters?

BF: I like to tell people that I attended the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism long before it was brick and mortar, when it was just newsprint and ink. Even though I wasn’t considering being a sports writer at that time, I was a sports fan. I read the Post every day, and always felt I was getting the absolute best in commentary from Mr. Povich. Of course, I was right.

He was still a big influence later on, just for the tone a column should have, and there were many editors and other writers who encouraged me and supported me along the way. I do think you have to develop your own voice and style. If you use someone else’s, it never works. I also think, although others might disagree, that teaching someone to write is like teaching them to have blue eyes. They either have blue eyes or they don’t.

GS: What do you think is the future of the journalism business?

BF: I get that question a lot when I speak to classes, and I always tell people that Gutenberg invented the moveable-type printing press in 1450 or 1460 or whatever, and our business really hadn’t changed much since then until about 20 years ago. Change was inevitable and the surprise is that it took so long.

Our industry made a brutal mistake with the internet. When it came along, our brightest minds said, “This is great. We’ll put all our stuff online and when people see how good it is, they’ll go out and buy the paper.” It didn’t quite work that way. We’re still scurrying to catch up, and we’ve lost a lot of ground in the process.

That said, there is always a future for entertaining and informing the public, and money to be made doing so. Our newsrooms are well-equipped to provide the content people want, but our delivery methods have to continue to evolve. What worries me is that the industry is chasing what it should have done 10 years ago, instead of figuring out what will make a difference 10 years from now. Getting ahead of that curve is imperative for the future to include the kind of newsrooms and news organizations we have always known.

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