Early Mormon Journalism and the Deseret News : 1830-1898
Ann Arbor, MI
University of Missouri, Columbia
Early Midwestern Mormon publications in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois established general patterns of nineteenth-century Mormon journalism and provided valuable experience in the rudiments and power of the press that later proved useful in the Great Basin. Problems of communication, newsprint, subscription and capital kept the Deseret News (founded in Salt Lake City, June 15, 1850) small and significantly diminished its influence until after the Civil War. However, these difficulties, which generally proved insurmountable for individually-directed frontier newspapers, never proved fatal to the News because of the rigidly prescribed cooperative efforts directed by an all-powerful Church. Although unable to offset completely the coercive effects of its isolated environment, the strongly centralized Mormon society did modify the common newspaper frontier pattern.
The News was owned and controlled by and for the Mormon Church and Brigham Young. New suppression and editing by the Church was common. The News, at least in the beginning, existed chiefly for the sake of Church members and as a tool to build up their Kingdom in the West. It was perhaps the most valuable of all the means of communication in Utah in carrying out that job. By remaining editorially uncommitted or silent on sensitive matters and exaggerating the positive aspects of Mormondom, the Church paper also attempted to keep Gentile-Mormon conflict to a minimum.
The News was filled with Church-related subjects and its columns reflected Mormon theology. Editors tried to issue a paper for the whole family and only very briefly commented on items of a sensational nature or excluded them altogether. For economic reasons, however, the News did not always present the high-caliber journal Mormon leaders seemed to have preferred.
The Deseret News played a major role as Church defender and apologist. It faced the enormous task of allaying the fears and correcting the misrepresentations held both by policy-makers in Washington and by the American public in general. Utilizing a variety of methods, the Mormon paper only partially succeeded in meeting this challenge. The shift away from personal journalism that marked the end of the nineteenth century had little effect on the Deseret News. From the very beginning it had been the organ of an institution. Despite the fact that at times its editors seemed gifted and talented, ecclesiastical authorities controlled and dominated the paper for the benefit of the Church. However, for a short time in the 1880's, the News did temporarily take on some of the trappings of the very personal frontier small-town papers and engaged in highly sensational journalism.
Although between 1892 and 1898 the News was owned by the Cannon family, it remained the official mouthpiece of the Church and continued its arguments against the federal anti-polygamy laws and for the admission of Utah into the Union. It lost the fight over polygamy and can claim little responsibility for Utah statehood. By the turn of the century, the News had shifted from vigorous and aspiring journalism to genteel moralizing, a tone and manner characteristic of it today.