By LESLIE EIKLEBERRY
A journalist whose work has informed and influenced thousands of people in central Kansas is being inducted into the Kansas Newspaper Hall of Fame.
Linda Denning, editor and publisher of the Ellsworth County Independent-Reporter, joins Gary Mehl, retired editor and publisher of the McPherson Sentinel, and John D. Hanna of the Associate Press, in the 2020 class of inductees. According to information from the Kansas Press Association (KPA), the three will be honored once health officials determine it is safe for Kansans to meet in large groups.
"It’s an honor to be recognized by my fellow journalists and I’m very grateful and humbled," Denning told the Salina Post.
"Two other thoughts come to mind as I go over the list of journalists already in the HOF. The first is I’m not sure I can even begin to live up to the contributions made by the Whitley Austins and the Howard Kessingers and the Tom Eblens of Kansas journalism. There are so many more," she continued. "The second thought is that over the 150 years of the Kansas Press Association, I am the fifth woman to be chosen for HOF. My hope is that will change significantly going forward and we will see more women recognized."
Changes in the newspaper business
Denning knew early in her life, third grade to be exact, that she wanted to be a newspaper journalist. Throughout her career, she has seen changes, most notably in newspaper technology. She explained that when she attended Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., in 1968, the school newspaper was being printed by what was then a relatively new offset press.
"Four years later, when I went to work for the Salina Journal, we exchanged our typewriters for computers. The Journal was one of the earliest newspapers in Kansas to install computers. At the same time, the newspaper was trying to perfect its color capabilities,"she said.
"Then, in 1999, when Sharon Montague and I founded the Ellsworth County Independent, websites were just becoming standard. Digital media has just exploded since then," she continued. "Is that a good thing? In some ways. It gives people a voice who perhaps wouldn’t have one otherwise. But it also has devalued our society and created so much fragmentation, everyone can now pretty much find a site to support their viewpoint, no matter how misguided it might be."
Denning noted that another big change was the rise of hedge fund journalism.
"It’s all about money and that is almost never good," she noted.
People and stories
While at the Salina Journal, Denning served as regonal editor for nearly 27 years. During that time, her ability to seek out a story was finely honed.
"We used to head out to western Kansas to work on one story. By the time we started heading for home she would have found four more stories after talking to a few people. We'd be eating at the local restaurant and people would stop and say 'You're Linda Denning, I've got a story for you,'" longtime Salina Journal photographer Tom Dorsey told Salina Post.
"It was always fun working with Linda. She always had interesting stories," Dorsey said.
"I’m proudest of the stories I wrote about ordinary people who quietly went about their lives and at the same time made their communities better places," Denning said. "There also were the issue-oriented stories that allowed me to tell a side of a story that might not otherwise have been represented."
As an example, Denning told of a central Kansas business owner who called to thank her for the stories she wrote about the woman's community during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
The woman told Denning, "I think there are towns out here that are still alive because of the stories you wrote."
Denning also said she enjoyed covering Bob Dole's run for president.
"My all-time favorite, fun story was chasing Bob Dole around when he ran for president. It didn’t end as I would have wished, but it was a wonderful education for a political science major," she explained.
The journalist and her legacy
Over the years, Denning, a past KPA president, has received accolades for her work, including the Clyde M. Reed Jr. Master Editor Award in 2004. Yet she is quick to praise those with whom she has worked.
"I have had the honor of working with some of the most talented people ever over the years. Tom Dorsey. Fritz Mendell. Kelly Persnell. Scott Williams. All Journal photographers and all the very best in their profession. And the writers. I spent years trying to be as good as Karen Black and I’m still not there. Jim Suber. Pat Gaston. John Marshall. Larry Mathews. Sharon. And John Schmeidler. John was a wonderful writer. He brought poetry to the pages of the Salina Journal," Denning noted.
"I have been fortunate enough to work with all of these people and many more, including those in other departments at the Journal and my staff at the Ellsworth County Independent-Reporter. I learned so much from every one of them," she added.
As for her legacy, Denning hopes "Kansas is a little better place because of the stories I wrote."
"I hope Ellsworth is a little better because Sharon and I followed our instincts and provided the community with the newspaper it deserved. Later, when Sharon left to return to the Journal, I joined with Morris Multimedia, my competitors, and that was another win for Ellsworth County. Morris is very community oriented."