Maneuvers by the LDS Church to acquire the company that prints and distributes The Salt Lake Tribune have drawn national attention to journalism in Utah. Even the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal examined the whys and wherefores of such a purchase and its impact on Utah culture. Analysts wondered if such scheming would herald an end to independent journalism and the demise of the long peace between The Tribune and the Deseret News in which The Trib reported the news and the News reported the gospel.
Former Deseret News Editor Bill Smart indicated recent Tribune stories had aggravated the powers that be, threatening the fragile accommodation between Mormons and "Gentiles" in Utah, a detente that allows Mormons to run the state and non-Mormons to complain about it. If Utah's religious authorities don't like the stories in today's Tribune, they should consider the colorful history of the Trib-News rivalry, which goes back some 130 years to the founding of The Mormon Tribune by dissident members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The paper dropped "Mormon" from the name in April 1871. Three Kansans, known as the "Border Ruffians," purchased the paper two years later. As the late historian Harold Schindler, a Tribune staffer for fifty years, noted: The ruffians "moved up from blistering [church President] Brigham Young to full-scale Mormon-bashing." Red-haired editor and firebrand Fred Lockley was fond of headlines such as "The Prophet on His Haunches," "Is Brigham Young Insane?" and "Bamboozaling the Heathen." He called Brigham Young "the Mormon profit" and dubbed Salt Lake Mayor Daniel H. Wells "The One-Eyed Pirate of the Wasatch."
The Deseret News held itself above the fray. The Tribune ridiculed its rival as "Grandmother." The gloves came off when "Granny's Imp," the feisty Charles Penrose, became editor of the News in the 1880s. The paper's official history admits a News reporter once tried to "assassinate" a Trib staffer. Newspaper wars raged in Zion for more than forty years, until Tribune owner Senator Thomas Kearns arranged a cease-fire in 1911. The Tribune acquired a new appreciation of Utah Mormons and a lot more subscribers than the News.
By 1946, News circulation was down to 12,583. With the support of the LDS Church, it launched an aggressive promotional campaign. Economic warfare replaced the old editorial battle. The Tribune's largest advertiser, ZCMI, withdrew its support and the paper's profits evaporated. A rumor circulated in 1950 that the Mormon church had bought its old nemesis. Instead, Tribune Publisher John F. Fitzpatrick forged the agreement that created the Newspaper Agency Corp. (NAC), which prints, circulates and sells ads for both papers.
The Deseret News is now complaining that the NAC agreement is unfair. Maybe it's the twelve percent of the profits the corporation earns from the Trib and gives to the News. More likely, News managers want to run a morning newspaper so they can get clobbered in a circulation war. Christian Scientist John Hughes, the first non-Mormon editor of the Deseret News, admits the paper has discussed dropping "Deseret" from its name. Should the News acquire The Tribune, it's likely only a single morning newspaper would survive. Maybe its new owners could call it The Mormon Tribune.
For a sample of old-time Utah journalism, see Robert Kent Fielding's book, "The Tribune Reports of the Trials of John D. Lee."