NORFOLK - Forty years ago a young newspaper man, Bob Molinaro, in search of a muse sat down next to the great Red Smith. "I sat next to him at the Preakness. I made it a point to sit next to him because he was Red Smith. If it happened there, it was just bigger because of him. Smith was elegant. Of course everything he wrote wasn't a gem. Writers are different today. Everybody has an edge. His edges were rounded off," said Molinaro.
Molinaro, now a sports columnist for the Virginian-Pilot, relishes those times. It was a great time to be a columnist. Newspapers were the main source of information for sports fans then. Today, the internet and TV are the main sources of information, but newspapers still have a roll to fill if they have good columnist that can delve into issues deeper, and have a web presence. But what makes a good columnist?
Tom White, Molinaro's Editor, had this to say on the subject: "Bob's a good columnist because he's a good writer and because he's a good reporter. Some people think a columnist sits on his couch, ponders the events of the day and starts writing. But a lot of his work involves research, observation, interviewing. His strength is that he can be sharp and pointed but without resorting to going over the top. He's rarely harsh but is also rarely afraid of offending when offense is called for."
Molinaro's interest in sports grew out of living in Baltimore. Baltimore was blessed with the Brook Robinson era Orioles and the Johnny Unitas era Colts in Molinaro's formative years. Watching and reading about these sports icons had a great influence on him: "I would spread out the paper on the floor and read it. I would read the Baltimore Sun. Eventually, I asked for the Evening Sun so I could see the box score that the Baltimore Sun lacked. I felt privileged to grow up in a huge sports town, being around that city where they care about these big sports," said Molinaro.
Molinaro reflected on one of his earlier memories in his column recently: "It was on Feb. 24, 1963 - also a Sunday - that my father took me to see my first NBA game. Outside of the CYO League, it was the first basketball game I watched in person... The NBA really did exist - and in my youthful memories, at least, thrive - before Larry Bird, Magic and Jordan and before the Bullets moved to Washington and eventually became the Wizards. The greats were wonderful to behold, but to be a young, impressionable fan meant also appreciating and suffering with Jack Marin, Kevin Loughery, Walt Bellamy, Gus Johnson and others who wore the Bullets jersey."
Molinaro began his foray into writing by working for his high school newspaper where he discovered writing was something he could "latch onto. It was something I could do well." Later he wrote for his college paper while attending University of Maryland, Baltimore. After graduating with a degree in history, he "started off in 1973 in a low-paying newspaper in Cambridge, Maryland, located on the eastern shore. Watergate was the big thing with Woodward and Bernstein. Newspapers grew. A lot of talented people went into newspapers. There was a lot of romance around being a news reporter. It was big in the '80s. I went to big events. The paper was printing money. I went to the Super Bowl, Olympics, Golf Tournaments - expense was no object."
The '60s and '70s were a time when sports journalism became more legitimate. Newspapers prohibited writers from traveling with teams, and disallowed writers to be given other perks such as free alcohol and free food that would skew their objectivity. New writers emerged like Jim Bouton, author of Ball Four and Frank Deford, author of Everybody's All-American. These writers investigated the sordid underside of sports, exposing every facet of an athlete's life.
Being in the print media was a good thing then. Even though TV was the dominate source of information, papers generated good revenue from the classified section. The Pilot at one time even had an auto-trader type magazine called AutoMart. But once things like Craigslist came about newspaper profits began to drop. Those advancements combined with the crash in '08 caused a lot of layoffs in the industry. For now, the Pilot is hanging on only because of the older generation's sentiment toward newspapers.
Additionally, today's athletes don't want to talk to reporters. Everything they say sounds like a public affairs office release. "They prefer TV where they can say some bullshit," said Molinaro. "I get impatient with the coach speech - the obfuscation - the genial - the what you hear and what you see is not the way it really is. I think we're too nice. For every time I call bullshit on an institution, athlete, or coach I let it go ten times. You don't want to be perceived as hating everything."
Not every athlete is difficult. More often than not, they are just dumb. When Molinaro tried to do an interview with Bob Molinaro the baseball player, the baseball player couldn't comprehend what he was trying to do. In frustration, Molinaro called Molinaro a dope and hung up the phone on him.
For Molinaro, writing a column has more to do with experience than inspiration. It takes Molinaro about one to four hours to write one. Although he has done this for forty years he "sometimes gets into a fog - gets into the doldrums. When I've written this column 10 or 15 times - sometimes I feel I have to write this story a different way." Aside from Smith, for inspiration Molinaro usually reads Frank Deford, which he considers the gold standard. Molinaro believes most of the great writers do features for magazines like Sports Illustrated, GQ, or Esquire, and he draws inspiration from those sources believing columnists today focus on statistics too much.
Molinaro's greatest concern though isn't where he will find his next story. He is more concerned about how much longer the Pilot will be around. Dwindling circulation, and without future plans to increase revenue, the future looks bleak. The paper isn't for sale by its owner, Landmark Media Enterprises, but they have recently sold the Greensboro News & Record to Warren Buffett, who wants to add pay walls. Untill then Molinaro will continue on.