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Nip/Tuck

Damon Cain, managing editor for presentation and design at the Denver Post, minces no words when describing the broadsheet he was hired to upgrade. When he first saw the paper, he says, "I thought it had visual problems with every turn of the page."

Thank goodness he noticed and is doing something about it. Cain and his design team have spent more than a year pushing, pulling and dragging the Post into the 21st century, and on May 4, readers will finally get an opportunity to see the fruits of their labor -- if, that is, everyone on staff can get up to speed in time. A classroom of sorts has been set up on the fourth floor of the Post's headquarters, and within its temporary walls, designers such as LeAnna Efird and Linda Shapley are spending uncounted hours teaching co-workers the ins and outs of the new methodology. As Cain acknowledges, there's a lot to learn. "We've touched every piece of type on every page," he notes. "That's huge."

Modernization was a long time coming. For years now, the Post has had arguably the least interesting look of any major metropolitan daily. No wonder: It was last redesigned in 1985, when Ronald Reagan was president, Miami Vice set fashion trends and Michael Jackson was thought to be charmingly eccentric, not a terrifying threat to prepubescents everywhere. The Times Mirror Company, which owned the Post during the redesign period, sold the paper to Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group in 1987. Those who believe Singleton is a skinflint won't be surprised to discover that he waited until after the turn of the millennium to invest in another facelift.

The impetus to freshen up the Post came from editor Greg Moore, who took charge of the paper in June 2002. The following month, the Rocky Mountain News offered a redesign that made the Post look even stodgier by comparison. Whether by coincidence or not, Moore soon disclosed that the Post would undergo a makeover of its own, telling Westword that "by the beginning of next year, we should be able to give Denver something new" ("The Joy of Sections," August 8, 2002).

Moore's prediction turned out to be over a year too optimistic, but he acted quickly in acquiring Cain, who came to Denver from the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer in September 2002. The Post he found was caught in a time warp. "It still looked like a 1985 newspaper," he says. "It had been designed long ago, in a different time, a different era, and it had stopped. It had not evolved. Denver had evolved. It wasn't the same as it was in 1985 -- but visually speaking, the Post was.

"To be fair to the people who were here," Cain continues, "the paper didn't have design leadership -- no design rules, no design guy saying, ŒThis is how you do design and why.' There had been no philosophical statement, no mission statement, and there wasn't a design dialogue going on in the newsroom."

The conversation Cain started was picked up by a series of new hires: design director Ingrid Muller and features design director Jim Carr, both imported from the Hartford Courant, and lead designer Jeff Neumann, a veteran of the Seattle Times. Assisted by holdovers such as graphics editor Blair Hamill, this squad went through mock-up after mock-up of each section in the Post. The paper planned at one point to unveil its redesign in March before the boss put on the brakes. "We had a lot of work to do -- code in the different changes, train people on the new fonts, things like that," Moore says. "So we delayed it for six or seven weeks." The design team took advantage of the extension. Cain admits that there have been several more generations of tweaks in recent months.

A sneak preview of the almost-finished product suggests revisions that are sweeping in some areas, subtle in others. For instance, the front-page layout doesn't look radically altered at first glance -- a decision that was purely intentional. "When my wife goes out and picks the Denver Post off the driveway, I don't want her to ask, 'What the hell paper is this?'" Cain says. Yet a number of adjustments have been made. Photo-decorated references to other stories appear above the paper's flag, and beneath it, the articles are arrayed in an airier, less clotted way. This effect is achieved in part by a modified approach to headlines. Most current headlines are two layers thick -- a head and a deck. In the future, however, some headlines may contain as many as four layers, including what Cain calls "a summary," which gives a synopsis of sorts in the span of a sentence.

This is not a new idea: In his office, Cain has a framed copy of the Post from 1908, in which the headlines are stacked higher than is currently commonplace outside the Wall Street Journal. By expanding on this idea, Cain feels the paper will be able to disseminate data more quickly. "Sometimes we're criticized for not being fair in headlines," he allows. "This gives us the opportunity to tell more of the story, to be more balanced and fair."

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