A paper, and a sports editor, who left their marks
Posted On March 9, 2022
On the night of Sept. 18, 1971, Blaine Newnham had an idea. At 29 then, only a week into a long stint as the sports editor of the Eugene Register-Guard, Newnham herded his troops together in the old press box at Autzen Stadium, and we did the stuff sportswriters have done for decades – plot, on the fly, how we’d attack post-game coverage of the University of Oregon’s 36-29 football victory over Utah.
Bobby Moore had just rushed 27 times for 249 yards, an Oregon record. Obviously, we’d need a sidebar with reaction from Moore and his head coach, Jerry Frei.
Newnham had a twist on that plan. Why not send somebody to the Utah locker room to gather reaction from the defensive players who had spent the night in futile pursuit of Moore?
As ideas go, it hardly ranks up there with the microprocessor. But it was solid, imaginative thinking, which we came to expect from Newnham for years on end.
I can’t even remember who wrote that story. Hell, it might have been me. The point is, Newnham thought of something that gave the next day’s readers something extra, something better than “I gotta credit my offensive linemen.” (I find it ironic that one of the worst trends in today’s sports pages is the absence of reaction from the other side. Didn’t two teams play in the game?)
Recently, there was a get-together in Eugene honoring Newnham and his wife, Joanna. Two days later, Blaine would turn 80. The stories flowed. Bob Welch, who worked part-time in sports while a UO student on the way to becoming a prolific author, recalled turning in a story with a name misspelled, and seeing it on a bulletin board a couple of days later with the bold-faced admonition, “If we can’t get a name right, we’ll go out and find somebody who can!”
Newnham’s special genius was in the fine art of recognition and interpretation. I worked in sports dailies for 45 years, and I don’t think I ever came across anybody who was better at distilling an event into its essence than Newnham. He seemed to know intuitively what the real story was.
In Eugene, circa 1970s, the story usually had something to do with University of Oregon basketball, as I chronicled in “Mad Hoops,” the saga of the so-called “Kamikaze Kids.” And Newnham was quick to recognize that. His fingerprints were all over the R-G sports department’s coverage of the basketball Ducks. Paired with phenomenal photojournalism keyed by Pulitzer Prize-winning Brian Lanker, the sports page’s work was must-see stuff during that era.
Mark Akins, a former teammate of mine at the Seattle Times and the guy who edited “Mad Hoops,” was a UO undergrad during the meat of the Kamikaze Kids days, and lived in a large house a couple of blocks down University Street from McArthur Court. He told me tales of a race to get the newspaper (afternoons, then) on national letter-of-intent signing date.
Newnham’s move to Eugene from the Oakland Tribune represented not only a geographic but a major philosophical career move for Newnham. He had covered the vaunted Raiders for a metropolitan daily. Now he’d become boss of (then) a six-man department in a medium-sized college town.
Back then, there was a glib, vacuous talking head on NBC named Lee Leonard, who teamed with Bryant Gumbel on an NFL studio show. In the mid-‘70s, Newnham took an oblique shot at Leonard or the network for something. In the mail one day came two letters – one from Leonard, deriding Newnham for his criticism, with a potshot telling him he couldn’t make it in a big market.
The other letter informed Newnham that the Associated Press had just named the Register-Guard’s the best sports section in the country.
That department was his baby, and nobody ever fought harder for his territory than Newnham. I saw him go to unfathomable ends to battle for his department, to the point of obsessiveness. In 1976, Eugene was about to host its second Olympic track trials, and a couple of days before the start, Newnham chanced to go over to Hayward Field and eyeball the Register-Guard’s press seating atop the west grandstand. He was, shall we say, dismayed, to see that there was a television camera down the way, near the south end of the straightaway, which served to obscure a clean view of the finish line.
When Newnham confronted UO sports information director Chuck Niemi about it, you could hear the howling all the way to Salem. But he got his way; the R-G seats were moved.
It wasn’t long after that the Oregon football radio flagship station, KUGN, proposed a radical idea – a sideline reporter, who could update listeners with injury news and be first to relay other happenings. Newnham took that one on, too, reasoning that no matter the nature of the medium, this would be giving radio an advantage print people didn’t have. Strange as that might seem in 2022, he won that battle, too. I don’t know when KUGN finally got its sideline reporter, but the issue went moribund after that skirmish.
Newnham could report a little, too. In 1975, he went down to Crater Lake to write about a siege of mysterious illness – later determined to be caused by a backed-up sewer infiltrating a spring — that was plaguing workers and visitors. He came away with a story that there was a local attempt at a coverup aimed at preserving the tourism trade.
Three years later, he was at the Far West Classic the night Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team played a first-round game, when he got a call from the office. A United Airlines jet on a flight from New York had crashed near Portland International Airport, killing 10. Before the night was done, Newnham had turned a column on the basketball game and filed a story from the plane-crash site with reaction from some Willamette Valley survivors.
It was hardly all work. Those of us from that era who went on to metro newspapers agree that while some things became bigger and some things became better, none of us had more fun than we did in Eugene. People on that sports staff golfed together, we jogged together, we went cross-country skiing together, we competed in something called Over the Line together, we played fantasy football together, we conjured up our own intra-paper road-run competitions. And Saturday nights, when we got done putting out the paper, we met for pizza and beer, and then occasionally extended the evening at somebody’s house. Soon, the sun would be coming up.
Alas, nothing is forever. The Register-Guard, long locally owned, has fallen into the mercenary clutches of the Gannett Corporation. Manpower has been stripped to the marrow. Deadlines are grievously early because the paper is now printed in Vancouver, Wash., so Thursday’s game makes the Saturday paper. A Civil War basketball game goes unstaffed, as does a visit from the University of Connecticut women’s team. (This is not to criticize remaining staffers, only the corporate motive. You can only work with what you’re given.)
Many nights now, they catch the game on TV, supplement the coverage with quotes, and voila: Five “takeaways.” I’m certain that future world events won’t be marked in newspapers with stories, but rather, like this: “The Second Coming: Five Takeaways.”
Just this once, I’ll succumb. Here’s a takeaway on Blaine Newnham: Difference-maker.