BIRTHDAY NEWS:News Celebrates Sesquicentennial
Will Bagley, History Matters
The newspaper business in the Great Basin began 150 years ago today when the first 220 copies of a "small weekly sheet, as large as our circumstances will permit," rolled off the press of Brigham H. Young in Great Salt Lake City, as the 3-year-old town was known at the time.
The first headline in the Deseret News of June 15, 1850, proudly displayed its motto: "Truth and Liberty."
The prospectus of the eight-page, 10-by-7 1/2-inch tabloid announced that copies cost 15 cents, or $2.50 for a six-month subscription, "invariably paid in advance" (and usually paid in produce). The editor urged subscribers to save and bind their copies so "their children's children may read the doings of their fathers, which otherwise may be forgotten."
The Deseret News has been a part of the history of the West ever since. The paper's birth even preceded the existence of a place called Utah, for its first issue appeared three months before President Fillmore signed a bill creating the Utah Territory.
Newspapers had been part of life in the American West since 1813, when Jose Alvarez founded El Mejicano in the Spanish province of Tejas. And Mormon adventurer Sam Brannan printed the prospectus of San Francisco's first gazette, The California Star, late in 1846, several years before the birth of the Deseret News.
But no newspaper west of the Missouri River has endured longer than the Deseret News. And few journals in the United States can lay claim to a more colorful history.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been in the newspaper business since June 1832 when W.W. Phelps published The Evening and Morning Star in Independence, Mo., "about 120 miles west of any press in the state." In the spring of 1847, Young ordered Phelps to buy a press for the settlement the Mormons planned to establish in the West. That summer Phelps borrowed $61 from Alexander Badlam, Sam Brannan's brother-in-law, to purchase a Ramage press in Boston.
Buying a press, type and newsprint was one thing, but hauling it 1,100 miles from the Missouri River was another. To do the job, the Mormons turned to Howard Egan, a veteran frontiersman and future Pony Express agent. By May 1849, Egan was on his way west with 57 emigrants, the mail, six dogs, a cat and the printing press. By the first week in August, Egan's 22 wagons rumbled into Salt Lake Valley.
Early in 1850, Thomas Bullock used the press to print the constitution for the short-lived State of Deseret. On the last Saturday of May, Apostle/Editor Willard Richards finally found time to write the newspaper's prospectus. Two weeks later, the "lion-hearted letter carrier" Tom Williams arrived from the East with enough news to begin work on the first newspaper printed in the Rocky Mountains.
The print shop--known as "Bullock's Money Mill" for its use as a mint--was in a one-room adobe building on the corner of Main Street and South Temple, later site of the Hotel Utah (now the church's Joseph Smith Memorial Building). City subscribers could have their papers delivered for 50 cents every six months and could trade flour, wheat, corn meal, butter, cheese, tallow and pork for the News.
To discourage everyone in the territory from leaving for the Golden State, the Mormon newspaper loved to tell of disasters in California. The first issue reported that fire had destroyed much of Stockton and San Francisco on Christmas Eve, and a flood had obliterated a million dollars of property in Sacramento. It also noted the deaths of Sen. John Calhoun and Book of Mormon scribe Oliver Cowdery.
Throughout its first decade the Deseret News would struggle--not always successfully--to buy or manufacture enough paper to issue a weekly edition. Resourceful pioneers produced the first homemade paper on Temple Square in 1854. It was dark gray and readers could "almost see the buttonholes" from the shirts used to make it. In 1860, Young installed paper-making machinery in the old mill at Sugar House, but only the arrival of the railroad in 1869 eliminated the chronic paper shortage.
The early issues of the News still make remarkable reading. Rough drafts of the material later published as the official history of the LDS Church ran for years on the front page. "The History of Joseph Smith" kept alive the memory of the hard times Mormons had experienced in the United States, while "The History of Brigham Young" celebrated their accomplishments in the Great Basin.
The folksy sermons of Mormon leaders filled column after column of the News well into the 1880s. Young complained that his printed remarks "often omit the sharp words, though they are perfectly understood and applicable here," while Heber C. Kimball observed that editors transformed his colorful sermons into "buttermilk and catnip tea to accommodate the tastes of our enemies."
Yet to modern eyes, the frank discussions of polygamy, blood atonement and vengeance in the Deseret News are downright astonishing.
In 1858, U.S. President Buchanan said "he received the Deseret News and thought some of Brigham Young's speeches were terrible." The sermons convinced the president "that Governor Young intended to establish an independent government and had been preparing for this for years." The fiery rhetoric in the Deseret News persuaded Buchanan that the Mormons were ready to fight the U.S. Army he sent to ensure the safety of Utah's new governor.
The history of the Deseret News is a virtual chronicle of the newspaper business in the United States. The first sports page appeared in April 1898. Its first news photo, of stacked coffins from the Scofield mine disaster, ran in 1900, and the next year the News published its first comic strip.
The paper has been home to some legendary journalists. Scipio Africanus Kenner physically resembled Mark Twain, even if his writing didn't. Beginning in 1861 he established the paper's "somewhat erratic tradition of humor." Cartoonist Calvin Grondahl, probably the funniest person ever to work for the News, kept Utahns in stitches during the 1970s and 1980s before leaving for the less restrictive confines of the Standard-Examiner of Ogden.
Robert Mullins chased a story of murder, kidnapping and suicide over 1,800 miles to win the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. Folklorist Olive Burt edited a Sunday magazine with Ray McGuire that ran the first color photos in an Intermountain newspaper.
And of course, there was Swen Teresed, the mysterious columnist of the 1930s. (Read it backward.)
The News has not only employed some first-rate journalists, but provided training and jobs for many high-ranking LDS Church authorities. Five apostles have edited the journal. Current church President Gordon B. Hinckley got his first job 75 years ago delivering the Deseret News, and he served as president of the company from 1971 to 1977.
Now the third-largest newspaper in Utah, the News has become much more dignified and prosperous since its fiery and impoverished youth. The various incarnations of the Deseret News grew into a publishing empire that spawned KSL television and radio, the LDS Church's Salt Lake Printing Center, and retailing titan Deseret Book.
Will Bagley is a Salt Lake City historian and author. His brother Pat is the political cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.