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The Message

Damon Cain has designs on an updated Post.
Tony Gallagher

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."

Won't that extra detail make reading the story unnecessary? Cain doesn't think so, but the reality, he says, is that "99 percent of our readers are scanners by definition. In recognition of that, we're elevating essential information so people can get more out of the paper. That way, their twenty or thirty minutes with the Post will be more valuable."

The designs for the Friday entertainment section, retitled "7 Days," and the weekend movie section, dubbed "Screen," are more immediately striking. Cain says focus groups showed that these parts of the paper didn't have a strong identity, with younger survey-takers pegging them as perfect for fifty-year-olds, not members of their demographic. To liven up the section fronts, Cain and company came up with a blueprint that provides room for oversized art, illustrations or photos, supplemented by a section on the right side of the page reserved for hot tickets and exciting events. On Cain's computer screen, it looks infinitely more vibrant than anything in today's Post.

Judging the real thing will have to wait a while longer, but Moore is giving the redesign good reviews. "I think the paper right now is a little crowded, a little gray, and we're going to open it up, make it easier to read," he says. "It's going to be more pleasing to the eye, more visually appealing -- just a brighter newspaper."

Cain, meanwhile, emphasizes that even though this particular task is nearly complete, the work is far from finished. "We aren't satisfied that we have all the answers and we can take the afternoons off and see a lot of Rockies games. If a sports editor decides that we need a different kind of coverage for a different sport, or a features editor decides we're not doing enough with culture or music or what have you, we'll do what we need to do.... If, in ten years, we have to do another redesign like this one, we've failed."

Wave riders: Last December, Tim Brown, the main man at NRC Broadcasting, said that KKHI/105.5 FM, a station his company purchased for about $15 million, had a signal that was "90 percent as good" as that of KXPK/96.5 FM, which sold in 2002 for $47.5 million. Shortly thereafter, Rob Quinn, general manager of Entravision Radio Colorado, which owns KXPK (formerly the Peak), called this assertion an "uneducated statement," to which Brown responded, "I think he's wrong and I'm right" ("Rolling on the Rocks," January 29).

Given the difficulty of quantifying something as nebulous as radio reception, neither Brown nor Quinn can be deemed the definitive winner of this verbal scrap. Nevertheless, KKHI, which went live on April 14, is sending a decent signal into the vast majority of the metro area, with the exception of land along the western foothills, thanks to an upgrade approved by the FCC earlier this month. Although its broadcasting tower is located near Timnath, a small community between Loveland and Fort Collins, the station has the opportunity to become a player in Denver radio.

Jack-FM, as KKHI is now known, certainly made an eccentric debut. The first thing listeners heard was program director Bryan Schock muttering, "Check, check, check. Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?" Schock then introduced himself as the former programmer at 92X, an excellent hard-alternative station that lived all too briefly in Denver during the mid-'90s.

Those who reacted to Schock's allusion by gearing up for some aggro probably downshifted when Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" hit the air, followed by a potpourri of tunes ranging from Alice Cooper's "School's Out" to OutKast's "Hey Ya." Even the Mountain, which has a much more diverse format than the typical retro station, doesn't cover this much ground. Of course, the Mountain also airs deep cuts and has a guiding aesthetic marked by smarts and good taste, while Jack-FM is concentrating on past smashes that have been or are being heard on many local stations: KBCO, Jammin', the Mix, Alice, the Fox and more. Worse, cool hits by the likes of Cracker, Cheap Trick and even Flash and the Pan sit cheek to jowl with the lamest sort of commercial pap: Huey Lewis and the News (sheesh), Phil Collins (ugh), the Little River Band (shoot me now).

There's no telling if this jumble, which is scheduled to air without commercial interruption for a few weeks prior to the securing of a new staff, will appeal to the masses. Still, the man overseeing it, NRC Broadcasting president Ray Skibitsky, has an admirable track record, having launched KBCO and the Peak. Skibitsky says the new station's sound was inspired by a series of Canadian outlets, also called Jack-FM; the style was then tweaked with Colorado in mind. Local Jack-FM promos have the swaggering air of 92X spots, with several bragging about "playing what we want," and another maintaining that money earmarked for marketplace research was actually spent on jackets for the staff. This last joke seems to have at least some basis in truth. Skibitsky insists that "we did very limited research.... Instead of trying to target a specific person who listens to alternative or classic rock, we think there are a lot of people out there who are programming their own stations by five or six presets on their radio. The concept is, now you don't need those presets, because you can hear it all in one place."

 

Okay, fine. But if you play the freakin' Little River Band again, I'm surfing the dial.

Sex, lies and audiotape: For journalists, there are few greater thrills than witnessing a politician making an ass out of himself -- and being able to prove it. Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin lived that dream on April 13, courtesy of an interview with retiring senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was on hand at the State Capitol as brew boy Pete Coors announced his intention to run for Campbell's seat. At one point, Littwin asked Campbell if he had any problem with titillating ads featuring the pneumatic Coors Twins -- and when the senator caught sight of a flier featuring the voluptuous vixens, he turned into a mouth-breathing horndog straight out of a Russ Meyer movie. "Whoa, what the hell's the matter with that?" he sputtered before asking Littwin, "Hey, what have you got in your pants? You got ice water or blood in your veins, buddy...? I'm not that old."

It's likely that the senator aged a few years after Littwin dutifully printed these comments in a hilarious April 14 piece headlined "Campbell Endorses Pete Coors -- and Twins." Inevitably, one of Campbell's representatives phoned to gripe, and in response, Littwin revealed that he'd caught the remarks in question on tape. And he wasn't bluffing: After Campbell swore he'd never asked Littwin about his male appendage during a taping of The Aaron Harber Show on Channel 12, the Rocky not only ran an article refuting this claim, but posted the audio clip of the original exchange on its website, www.rockymountainnews.com.

The Rocky regards this recording as proof that its reporting was accurate, but Campbell spokesman Alton Dillard, who was with the senator during his back-and-forth with Littwin, isn't convinced. According to Dillard, "We don't have any problem with the News, per se, but the senator's chief of staff, the senator and myself just do not recall that coming out of his mouth. And after hearing the link, it sounds too garbled for the News to be as definitive as they were."

A bemused Littwin sees and hears things quite differently. He believes he's got the goods and says he's "waiting for an apology -- but I'm not waiting with bated breath."

If Campbell buys Littwin an I'm sorry drink, make it a double.

Never forgotten: The sight of satellite trucks in Clement Park the evening before the fifth anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School brought back the worst kind of memories for nearby residents. Although April 20 has come and gone without much hoopla the past few years, the national media couldn't resist using the half-decade marker as an excuse to swoop back into town and stir up a community's misery again.

For the most part, the Denver dailies did a responsible job of revisiting well-trod territory, while local TV stations turned predictable tricks. On its morning show, Channel 9 matched a photo-montage of victims with heart-tugging music -- not exactly a new technique. The out-of-towners preferred to mix shock value with sentimentality. The former was represented by an April 18 Dateline segment that existed mainly to see how many jolts were left in crime-scene footage. The latter came courtesy of Today anchor Katie Couric, who sat down with Craig Scott, brother of the late Rachel Scott, and Michael Shoels, father of victim Isaiah Shoels, for the second time since an emotionally devastating interview in the immediate wake of the shootings. Despite Couric's efforts, lightning didn't strike thrice.

Did locals appreciate another visit from the network stars? Probably about as much as did my daughters, whom I had to pick up early from kindergarten on April 20, 1999, when their school was locked down because of what was happening at Columbine, less than a ten-minute drive away. In 2004, they watched grumpily as I switched back and forth between coverage airing simultaneously on ABC, CBS, CNN and NBC -- and after a few minutes, they begged me to switch on ESPN's SportCenter. It was a request I was happy to grant.


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