When the Church Owns the Local Newspaper
It appears that a three-year financial crisis that threatened the Salt Lake Tribune may be coming to a close with the recent announcement that Paul Huntsman has purchased the newspaper. Questions remain about how the new ownership will affect the editorial voice of the Tribune, especially considering that Salt Lake City’s other daily newspaper, the Deseret News, is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormons). Paul Huntsman is the son of Jon Huntsman, who served as an Area Seventy of the LDS Church, and the brother of former Republican governor and presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr. These Mormon and Republican family ties closely align with the Mormon, Republican perspective of the Deseret News.
Salt Lake City news coverage fulfills more than a local need when it comes to coverage of the LDS Church, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. News articles about the LDS Church from local news outlets are shared among Mormons worldwide—I should know, since I hear from acquaintances across the globe when my name or photo pops up in a local paper. News articles about Mormonism from local papers are often republished in national papers and stories that break locally are sometimes followed by a flurry of national coverage, such as the recent coverage of punishing rape victims at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. This issue was covered first by a Mormon blogger, then by the Salt Lake Tribune, and has since been addressed by numerous national news outlets.
The LDS Church has a long tradition of running newspapers that frame the news with its own lens. The very website that houses this article is named for the Women’s Exponent, a nineteenth century newspaper that was closely affiliated with the LDS Church and in no way neutral. The Women’s Exponent was decidedly pro-suffrage (Hooray!) and pro-polygamy (Ugh).
While I have no objection to the LDS Church’s tradition of publishing newspapers, Salt Lake City needs an alternative to the LDS Church’s own voice, especially when it comes to coverage of the LDS Church itself. When I served as a spokesperson for Ordain Women, a Mormon feminist organization seeking women’s ordination within the LDS Church, I witnessed this need close-up.
Both the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune covered Ordain Women actions, neither endorsed Ordain Women, and both papers occasionally published articles about Ordain Women that pleased me and others that made me cringe. Most reporters from both papers seemed to attempt to represent Ordain Women fairly in spite of their own religious views or those of their employers. (There was one notable exception, but that particular reporter had a wonderful photographer that took moving photos like this one. I always thought that reporter and her photographer were such an odd couple.) In spite of the (usually) professional behavior of reporters from both papers, the overall patterns of reporting perfectly illustrated the problems with Church coverage of itself and the need for an alternate voice:
- The first article about Ordain Women to appear in the Salt Lake Tribune was on April 4, 2013. The first time Deseret News reported on Ordain Women was on September 24, 2013, over five months later.
- On March 17, 2014, the LDS Church wrote a letter addressed to me and three other Ordain Women advocates in response to a request we had sent to Church Headquarters for tickets to the Priesthood Session of General Conference. The letter began “To: April Young Bennett…” and was published in its entirety in the Deseret News with an accompanying news story before I even received it. A few days later, the Salt Lake Tribune published an op-ed that described the ethical problems associated with the LDS Church publishing a letter addressed to Ordain Women advocates in the Deseret News, saying that this manner of responding was “meant to intimidate.”
- In that same March 17, 2014 letter published in the Deseret News, the Church announced that “consistent with long-standing policy, news media cameras would not be allowed on Temple Square during General Conference”—a strange statement because media cameras had always been welcome at Temple Square during General Conference. On March 21, 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story about objections to the new ban from the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), pointing out that the ban “apparently is intended to deflect attention from the group Ordain Women during General Conference.” SPJ voted to seek that the LDS Church reconsider the new ban, but board members who worked for media outlets owned by the church recused themselves from the vote.
- In June 2014, during the week leading up to the excommunication of Ordain Women Board Member Kate Kelly, the Deseret News profiled six Mormons who had voluntarily participated in church disciplinary councils as a way of confessing and repenting of sin, all of whom had good experiences with the process. The Salt Lake Tribune profiled six Mormons who had been disciplined by the church against their will for publicly seeking reform in the church, situations much more similar to Kelly’s than those profiled in the Deseret News.
- In December 2014, I wrote an op-ed specifically intended for Deseret News readers. Ordain Women supporters were experiencing a great deal of vitriol and ostracism from conservative Mormons—the very people most likely to subscribe to the Deseret News—and I thought that a respectful op-ed in the Deseret News might be a way to talk to conservative Mormons about the problem. In deference to their sensibilities, I did not criticize the LDS Church in the op-ed. I didn’t even offer the opinion that the LDS Church should ordain women! The Deseret News rejected the op-ed, writing to me that “We typically don’t run anything in the Opinion section that has to do with the Church, because it would then open up opportunities for people to submit anti-Church material as well.“ I was surprised by this assertion, because the Deseret News had a history of publishing op-eds that were very much about the Church and critical of Ordain Women. They told me that my op-ed “might be a better fit for the Salt Lake Tribune” which is where it was eventually published: Op-ed: Ordain Women supporters are worthy of their congregations’ love.
I have great respect for the Huntsman family. I hope that under their leadership, the Salt Lake Tribune will continue its vital role as a much-needed alternate voice reporting Mormon issues.