Linda Shapley, who joined Deke Digital as Customer Experience Director in December 2017, answered 10 questions from the Colorado Press Association about leaving The Denver Post after 21 years. The interview appeared in the group’s quarterly publication, PressNext.
Linda Shapley is known for her senior leadership at The Denver Post, first as director of newsroom operations in 2011, then managing editor in 2016. She recently turned in her resignation, however, departing The Post after a run of more than 21 years.
She has supervised budget, personnel, newshole and newsgathering operations, as well as design and production. And as a member of The Post’s executive team, she coordinated with advertising, operations and finance departments on special sections, marketing, advertising and technical support, along with taking charge of the newspaper’s community engagement initiative – offering tours and events to “strengthen the bond between Post readership and the staff.”
A homegrown talent, Shapley graduated from Platte Valley Jr.-Sr. High School in Kersey, and Colorado State University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication. A few years later, in 1996, she joined the staff of The Post. Over the next two decades, she would also represent four states as Region 5 director for the Society for News Design, an international organization for news media professionals and visual communicators (2007-2009), and become design director for The Denver Post (2008-2011), supervising a dozen staffers in news, business and sports.
The Denver Post announced her resignation at the end of November, along with the elimination of 10 other staffers and managers in advertising and editorial areas. Shapley is now advancing to a new chapter in her journalistic career, evolving along with the newspaper industry itself. Here is her take on her career, life at The Post and what’s next for her.
What was the culture like during your decades at The Post?
As we said in our 125th anniversary section, there’s one constant at The Post (and at newspapers in general) and that’s change. I would say there have been three distinct types of culture during my time.
There was before the JOA with the Rocky Mountain News, when the newspaper war was at its height, and that competition colored every decision. This culture gave way to after the JOA, when competition was still there, but there was a little less of a feeling that it was as life-threatening. This was a great time of growth for us. Once the right editor was in place – Greg Moore came in 2002 – we did some amazing journalism, both in Colorado and abroad.
Then, I’d say the current culture took hold in the current decade; we were still doing amazing work – we won four Pulitzer Prizes during this time – but the realities of the revenue side of the business found their way into the newsroom and we labored to work under those. In the past couple years there’s been a passion to be in the battle, both journalistically and also to show that the newsroom can be part of the revenue solution.
What personal accomplishments at The Post have given you the most satisfaction?
I have been lucky to do a lot of different types of jobs at The Post. As a designer, I planned, designed and coordinated a 12-page retrospective section when Pope John Paul II died. I started Colorado Sunday with Dana Coffield, which was truly ahead of its time in terms of giving readers a personal connection to our state. And I’m so proud of the coordination that went into our coverage of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 – I think I slept only six hours over those four days.
After I moved into senior management, the accomplishments for me were totally rooted in the accomplishments of others. I always said that my job was to make sure that the journalists had what they needed to do their job. We had a photographer who was detained in a fire zone, so I was on the phone on a weekend to fight for his right to access. I helped coordinate the advertising and newshole when the Aurora Theater Shootings happened so that we gave our staff the room they needed to tell important stories. I spent countless hours with our printing crew to get deadlines that worked for late Broncos games. I joked that my biggest accomplishment was the glass doors to the newsroom, which I talked our then-CFO into letting me take from another floor in the building.
What were a few of the highlights of your tenure at The Post, including personnel, technology and other advancements?
When I first started at The Post, we were actually a little farther behind technologically than I had been at my previous papers in Greeley and Kansas City. Everything was still cut and pasted in a backshop where union rules did not allow me to touch the type on the flats.
The move to full desktop design didn’t come for at least a couple years, but we’re at a point now where reporters have moved from dumb terminals to laptops and digital photography is pushing our visuals out to the world at breakneck pace. We had editors who understood the importance of where the business was headed online and made the right decisions to build our strategy.
And what are some examples of the “lowlights”?
Of course the lowlights include the reductions in our staff. The business decision to eliminate the copy desk in 2012, right after I moved into senior management, was one of the hardest I’ve been involved in, and one that I still regret to this day. Part of me feels like if I knew then what I know now, I would have been able to come up with a better solution that didn’t send decades of journalistic experience out the door. But we were in front of a very depressing trend.
You’re a survivor of a number of cuts over the years at The Post. How did you manage to make yourself indispensable during these (ongoing) unpredictable years for the industry? Do you believe that was enhanced by your years of experience in design?
It had nothing to do with my design skills. However, I would say that my production experience and my ability to work across all departments, with reporters, photographers, editors, advertising and press operations led to my rise in leadership. Up until I went into senior management, all of our cuts had come through buyouts, which is a more palatable way to downsize because you give people the option of joining the fight or not. And it was never my time to leave that fight behind, just when I felt like my passion for great journalism was needed most.
Cuts, buyouts and layoffs seem to have become a necessity, or at the least a standard practice for newspapers to hold the bottom line. What alternatives in everyday and long-term management would you suggest?
We as a community have to be willing to pay for that. That’s been something that newsrooms have been loath to do for years – trumpet the value we bring to a community. We have been beaten down in terms of telling people that we matter, and that must change.
The privately-held, hedge-fund majority owner of Digital First Media, and therefore The Denver Post – Alden Global Capital LLC, based in New York – has been a topic of speculation for some time. Many question its acquisitions of media and subsequent methods to increase profits at those holdings, such as staff reduction. How do you believe that ownership has affected the day-to-day operations at The Post, as well as long-term planning?
We’ve certainly felt the effects of being owned by a hedge fund, but as Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said in our 125th anniversary video, “Who exactly owns you doesn’t dictate how good you are as a news organization.” The decisions that are made in the trenches are the ones that define who we are, and I think mostly, we made some good decisions that benefited the people of Colorado.
We produced a report on the deaths of children who were known to child welfare caseworkers, a report that led to a change in state policy. I honestly believe our current reporting on oil and gas safety will set the tone for legislation in 2018. Alden doesn’t have anything to do with that – it’s all about how The Post will keep fighting for good journalism and stories that matter to Coloradans.
Your Twitter account notes you are a fan of “stellar journalism in its varied forms.” Can you elaborate?
Coming from design, there were so many times where I witnessed some disrespect of visual journalism, where designers only made the page “look pretty” and photos were seen as nothing more than “art.” I worked with journalists who told amazing, compelling stories – they just didn’t use words to tell them. A well-written headline, a photograph, a video, an illustration, a chart, it’s all journalism that benefits the reader.
What is the best – and the worst – of this industry? And what do you see as the most “critical to success” aspect for its future?
The best is what you’re seeing happen at the national level right now. There are some in the industry who became uneasy with speaking truth to power, for fear of losing access or losing followers. I think journalists are waking up to the fact that there’s merit to saying the unpopular thing and backing it up with hard facts. The worst, of course, is what’s happening to keep that voice down – people with a lot of money or a lot of influence who are assigning untrue accusations about journalists. What’s critical to our success is to continue to do smart work and not let personal views get in the way.
What is next for you?
I’ve taken a position with a company called Deke Digital as Customer Experience Director. Deke Digital works with business leaders to help them put what they know out there in the form of op eds or other commentary. It’s not advertorial or self-promotional or even self-referential. The Deke team coaches these leaders to not produce marketing content, but rather true opinion and advice from a place of deep expertise.