The dean of newspaper historians, Frank Luther Mott, once said the Deseret News was the "first successful religious daily newspaper in the English language." Founded in 1850 as one of the first 20 newspapers established west of the Missouri River and north of Texas, the News has outlived all its contemporaries except for the Santa Fe New Mexican.
According to local historian Monte McLaws, the press was important in Utah from the beginning. Although the Mormon pioneers went to the desolate regions of the West to find asylum, Brigham Young never meant for physical isolation to cause intellectual isolation. He ordered that a press be sent to the Great Basin regardless of cost, and that a newspaper be established to ensure communication. Traditional problems of newsprint, newsgathering, subscription and capital, often insurmountable for other frontier newspapers, never proved fatal to the News. This was because the LDS Church as well as most Mormons always firmly supported the newspaper.Besides its function as a regular newspaper, the Deseret News was filled with church-related items, and its columns reflected Mormon theology and values, from millennialism and the "Lost Tribes" of Israel to approved dance styles and women's clothing. Recognizing the power of the press to shape human minds, the News tried to issue a wholesome, reliable paper for the entire family. It strongly editorialized against pornography and almost never allowed sensational items in its pages.
Hubert Howe Bancroft, a well-known 19th-century Western historian, said the Deseret News ranked among the top newspapers in being free from journalistic scandal-mongering and obscenity. Yet LDS Church leader George Q. Cannon once said that if the paper's subscribers bought every drug advertised in its columns, death and sickness would prevail in Utah to such an extent that the paper would lose all its readers.
The Deseret News criticized sensationalism wherever it existed, even beyond Utah. One editorial, headed "Disreputable Literature," attacked sensationalism in the American press, especially stories of "violence, crime and lust." Specifically, the editorial criticized the New York Herald as one of the more notorious of the "nasty journals" that pandered to the public taste. The News regularly censored stories about "personal outrage to females" on the grounds that they were suggestive to a "prurient imagination."
Whereas Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun, said, "I have always felt that whatever the Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report," the Deseret News said, "Everyone in America knows enough about the `under world' without having it dragged into his notice."
One notable example of the News approach to sensationalism was a story in November 1872, when Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin published a story in their "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly" charging intimacy between Henry Ward Beecher and the wife of Beecher's close friend Theodore Tilton. Since Beecher was the most eloquent preacher of his time, it was considered a major scandal for someone who preached one thing and practiced another.
The Deseret News called it one of the most dreadful cases of scandal ever publicized in the United States and decided to treat it with "an exceedingly light hand." The News omitted the names of Beecher and Tilton, referring to them only as "some prominent persons, very extensively known to the public," and to the allegations as "such unmistakable and unreserved terms as to almost take the hair off one's head." The News did not pass judgment on the guilt of the accused but deplored the lurid language used by others to report the incident.
Today, as the Deseret News celebrates its 140th anniversary, it continues to avoid sensationalism. Although its approach is influenced by the tenor of the modern newspaper world - with innovative pictures, considerable use of color, interpretive stories and adoption of a quick-read format - it is done in the interest of time. We've come a long way.
For a look at the Deseret News yesterday and today, see the special section in Friday's paper, "History made and in the making," celebrating our 140th birthday.