On Sunday, The Oregonian engaged in a very unusual exercise.
The daily hired former San Jose Mercury News sports editor Craig Lancaster to analyze the increasingly contentious relationship between the paper and the town's only big-league sports team, the Portland Trail Blazers.
The full-page article (which can be found at Oregonlive.com) broke little new ground in examining the paper's coverage of the NBA team. But bringing in an outsider to look at disagreements between a paper and an organization it covers is certainly a departure for a major metropolitan newspaper.
And while Lancaster delivered no revelations in his freelance piece for the sports section, it was hard to read his analysis and not conclude that the Blazers are guilty of whining and that Oregonian columnist John Canzano had a memory problem in one instance.
In his regular radio slot on KFXX (1080 AM) on Monday, Canzano trashed Lancaster's article, saying the idea was "ill-conceived from the beginning" and the result was "a waste of space."
Relations between the Northwest's biggest daily and the Blazers have mirrored the team's record, which plunged to 21-61 last year, only two years after they made the last of their 21 straight playoff appearances.
Every media outlet in town has piled criticism on the Blazers and owner Paul Allen for the team's recent crummy record on and off the court. But the Blazers have been particularly aggrieved by the daily's aggressive coverage. Lancaster looked at the general tone of that coverage and a few specific incidents involving Oregonian reporter Jason Quick and Canzano.
The only previously unreported information in Lancaster's article was his description of an angry email exchange between Blazers spokesman Art Sasse and Canzano. Sasse said Canzano was disagreeable in tone and, at one point, emailed Sasse and said, "I hear your house is on the market"—suggesting that Sasse's job security was in jeopardy. Canzano disputed that sequence, but Lancaster's reporting backs Sasse's version.
Canzano joined The Oregonian in 2002 from the San Jose Mercury News (where he briefly worked with Lancaster). Between his blog, daily radio spots and column, he has become a marquee name at the paper.
On Saturday prior to publication, Oregonian executive editor Peter Bhatia sent a memo to the newsroom, preparing it for Sunday's story. The memo said in part that "the idea for a story initially came from a brainstorming session of [sports editor] Mark Hester, Jason Quick and John Canzano."
When KFXX host Isaac Ropp asked Canzano on Monday why the story was written, the columnist replied, "You'd have to ask Hester, it was his idea." (Canzano, Hester and Bhatia declined to comment for this story.)
The Blazers found the article no more satisfying than Canzano did.
"I told Peter [Bhatia] beforehand there was no point in constructing the faÇade of an independent journalist, and that I didn't understand why The Oregonian wasn't just doing the piece itself," Sasse says. "I think the result was an odd kind of 'checkbook journalism'...[although] it was even-handed in that we all looked bad."
Sandy Padwe, a former editor at The New York Times and Sports Illustrated who teaches sportswriting at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says East Coast papers, where teams and the media often war, would be unlikely to call in an outsider to review coverage.
Padwe says the paper was going out of its way to prove to its readers it was being fair, but adds, "I don't see why the problems couldn't be solved with a sit-down meeting between the parties involved."