Back in the days when newspaper rivalries were newspaper rivalries, the rambunctious Salt Lake Tribune poked fun at the dignified Deseret News as "Grandmother." The Tribune's relations with "Granny" have not always been cordial, but they have been interesting.
And what LDS historian Edward Tullidge called "the irrepressible conflict" has been good for Utah.
Brigham Young did not appreciate competition of any kind, so he was not pleased when his newspaper monopoly in Utah ended in November 1858. The Mormon leader unhappily noted the appearance of "a vulgar little scurrilous sheet, in the shape of a newspaper for this city called 'Kirk Anderson's Valley Tan.' "
The Valley Tan, named after the local whiskey, catered to the newly arrived U.S. Army. Rather than use the church-owned Deseret News to debate the "gentile" press, LDS authorities created a new paper, The Mountaineer, to battle the competition. The Tan offered a dissenting voice until it succumbed to a paper shortage in 1860, and The Mountaineer died three years later.
The first true competition for the Deseret News began with the founding of The Mormon Tribune in 1870 by the "Godbeites," Mormon dissenters who opposed Young's economic policies, which included slashing working men's wages from $4 to $1 a day.
On April 15, 1871, the paper became The Salt Lake Daily Tribune and Utah Mining Gazette with veteran reporter Oscar G. Sawyer as editor. As The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had done before, it supported a new journal, The Salt Lake Herald, to counter The Tribune.
Editor Sawyer was so decidedly anti-Mormon that The Tribune's original owners eventually accepted his resignation, but circulation sagged with his departure.
The war took on new rancor when three Kansans bought the paper in 1873. Known as "the border ruffians," their red-haired editor Fred Lockley launched a relentless crusade against Young and the Mormon theocracy that lasted for a decade.
Lockley mocked "Granny" and called The Herald "the church's hand-organ."
While The Herald went toe-to-toe with The Tribune, the News stayed out of the fray.
The wisdom of this policy became apparent in November 1884, shortly after Charles Penrose became editor of the Deseret News and C.C. Goodwin took the helm of The Tribune. Goodwin broke a story about a scandalous abortion. When the News published the names and lurid details, Goodwin went ballistic.
He called Penrose " the Beast of the News," a "psalm-singing male prostitute" and a "God-deformed wretch." Goodwin denounced Penrose as "the bastard in charge of the News" who had exploited "a young girl's shame and everlasting disgrace" in his dreary columns.
Penrose responded in kind, mocking Goodwin's "impotent anger" and "grotesque contortions," which reminded him of "barefooted lunatics dancing an involuntary jig upon an iron floor brought to white heat." The Tribune's staffers, Penrose wrote, were "the advocates and apologists of the libertine, the prostitute and abortionist."
John Q. Cannon, an editor at the News, took the conflict to the streets when he confronted Tribune reporter Joseph Lippman on the corner of State and First South to demand a retraction for a "vile" story.
"I want you to get right down here on your knees and apologize for the lie you published about me," Cannon sputtered.
When Lippman refused, Cannon sent his rival "flying through the air as if a cannonball had struck him" and then beat Lippman with a whip. Cannon pleaded guilty to the assault and paid a small fine, but went on to serve as executive editor of the News off-and-on until his death in 1931.
With only an occasional armistice, Salt Lake City's irrepressible culture war raged on until John F. Fitzpatrick took over the helm of The Tribune in 1924.
Fitzpatrick brought a new respect for the state's majority religion to its pages. But as the official history of the Deseret News notes, the two papers continued their fierce competition.
Following World War II, city circulation for the News had fallen to a mere 12,583 subscribers, trailing far behind its afternoon rival, the Telegram, and The Tribune. On its 100th birthday, the Deseret News released a 174-page centennial issue announcing the paper's expansion plans. With the financial support of the LDS Church, its managers launched their aggressive campaign with offers of free carving sets, toys, radios, bicycles and watches.
An economic war replaced the old editorial battle as the News allegedly acquired an astonishing 255,728 subscriptions with its promotions. The Tribune's largest advertiser, ZCMI, withdrew its support and the paper's profits evaporated. A rumor circulated in 1950 that the LDS Church had bought its old nemesis. News columnist Drew Pearson reported the claim as a fact.
Only a brilliant business proposition by Fitzpatrick turned the tide. He proposed that both papers negotiate a joint-operating agreement that created a separate Newspaper Agency Corporation. The agency continues to manage production and advertising for both papers to this day.
When the managers of the Deseret News calculated the cost of their expansion, they, too, realized Fitzpatrick had offered them a deal they couldn't refuse.
The arrangement has led many to conclude the papers have the same owner, but readers can't miss their distinctive styles. And while the old vitriol may be gone, the rivalry endures.
Tribune religion editor Hal Schindler's cordial relations with LDS President David O. McKay allowed the "gentile" paper to break the story of plans to build a new church headquarters in the 1960s. That same decade the News won a bitter battle over liquor-by-the-drink, but The Tribune eventually won the war to bring Utah into the 20th century.
Competing reporters have not horsewhipped each other on State Street for more than a century, but a Deseret News intern this month did rear-end a Tribune reporter as both raced to cover the same story.
And rumors still circulate--as they have for 125 years--that the Mormon church covets The Tribune and a chance to at last repress the Irrepressible Conflict. Tribuners say it will never happen.