The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The vicious 150-year rivalry between Utah’s two biggest newspapers

This illustration depicts the death of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, as he was attacked by a mob while incarcerated in a jail in Carthage, Ill., on June 27, 1844. This was published in the book "Life in Utah or the Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism," 1870. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)
11 min

A previous version of this article misspelled the names of historian Richard Bushman and Mormon Tribune founder William Godbe. The article has been corrected.

Utah is often portrayed as a political and cultural monolith, whose Latter-day Saint majority helped Mitt Romney hold Barack Obama to less than 25 percent of the state’s vote in the 2012 presidential election. But there have long been divisions within Utah and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, often called Mormons), as highlighted in a recent Washington Post Magazine feature on the rise of a liberal faction within the church.

Nowhere has this schism played out more viciously, and at times violently, than in the fierce 150-year-old rivalry between Utah’s two largest newspapers.

Joseph Smith, who founded the LDS church in 1830, understood the power of the press. “The church was founded on the notion of accessible printing,” said Matthew Bowman, who teaches LDS history at Claremont Graduate University. Smith eventually commissioned seven church-owned newspapers, and he feared negative coverage in the rival press.

When a handful of former church members established the Nauvoo Expositor in his base of Nauvoo, Ill., in 1844, Smith worried that their words (including their denunciation of Smith’s polygamy) would foster a “mob spirit,” exacerbating tensions between Latter-day Saints and neighboring communities. So he ordered the town marshal to destroy the Expositor’s presses after it had printed only one issue.

The consequences of his actions were swift. “He did not grasp the enormity of destroying a press, especially one that was attacking him,” wrote biographer Richard Bushman in “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.” The decision proved fatal, as Smith was soon arrested for the deed and, while awaiting trial, was shot and killed alongside his brother Hyrum at the hands of an angry mob.

As if to vindicate Smith’s concerns, the mob had indeed been roused in part by a different local newspaper that asked its readers days before the murder to “arise, one and all” against the “infernal devils,” not with “comment [but] with powder and ball!!!”

After Smith’s death, his successor, Brigham Young, picked up Smith’s commitment to the printed word. As the Latter-day Saints fled persecution in the Midwest, he commissioned church member and longtime newspaper editor William W. Phelps to purchase a printing press and bring it westward with him to “Zion.” The first issue of the Deseret News was printed on Phelps’s press in Salt Lake City in June 1850.

Young initially sought to keep the Salt Lake LDS community isolated from the broader nation and established a barter system meant to exclude outsiders. “Young was implementing a church-controlled, cooperative economic system which non-Mormons regarded as a plan to force them out of the city and the territory,” wrote O.N. Malmquist in “The First 100 Years: A History of the Salt Lake Tribune 1871-1971.”

Two local businessmen and members of the church, William Godbe and Elias Harrison, watched these developments with concern. Their livelihoods depended in part on working with outside merchants, and they hoped to mine Utah’s gold and silver — another enterprise Young opposed. They critiqued Young’s stances in Utah Magazine, a publication they had founded. Within months of their writings, they were excommunicated from the faith.

Godbe and Harrison had earlier been readers and supporters of the News, but in the wake of their excommunication in 1869, both men came to loathe the News almost as much as they hated Young.

Almost immediately, Godbe announced they would begin publishing a weekly newspaper to compete with the Deseret News, called the Mormon Tribune. Their new venture would preach a reformed version of Mormonism, which they called the Church of Zion.

Just as the News was a mouthpiece for the LDS church, Godbe and Harrison sought to make the Mormon Tribune a mouthpiece for the Church of Zion and the broader “Godbeite” movement — a popular spiritualist movement of the mid-19th century in which people communicated with the spirits of the dead through mediums. After the Church of Zion failed to gain traction, however, the Mormon Tribune changed its name to the Salt Lake Daily Tribune in 1870.

But Godbe went a step beyond religion and journalism. Young had started a political party, the People’s Party, so to counter it, Godbe founded the Liberal Party in 1870. (When, a few decades later, the two parties were disbanded, nearly all People’s Party members joined the Democrats, while Liberals generally became Republicans, according to Utah public historian Jedediah Rogers.)

In 1873, three Kansas businessmen purchased the Tribune, and for the next three decades, its pages took a darker, more starkly anti-Mormon turn. The new owners — Fred Lockley, George Prescott and A.N. Hamilton — “saw real benefit in baiting Latter-day Saint leaders, especially Young — even penning a scathing critique of the man as his obituary in 1877,” wrote Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack in April 2021.

The Tribune “simply wanted to embarrass the ‘Profit,’ as it sometimes called Brigham Young,” said John Turner, author of “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet” and a history professor at George Mason University. “It gleefully reported on Brigham Young’s marriage to the much younger Amelia Folsom and on Ann Eliza Young’s divorce suit.”

Lockley was particularly mean-spirited toward the church and the News, often referring to the News as “Granny” due to its role in church affairs. He called LDS women “conks,” “old hens,” “concubines” and “mistresses,” and branded LDS men “midnight assassins” and “thick-necked polygs.” Under Lockley, the Tribune referred to Young as “King Brigham” and equated polygamy with prostitution and slavery.

What’s more, Tribune editors frequently reached out to government officials in Washington to “out” LDS men and women who entered secret polygamous relationships after the federal Edmunds Act outlawed such marriages in 1882. “When the federal government or other officials looked for ways to attack the LDS church, they knew they could turn to the Tribune for help,” said Benjamin Park, author of “The Kingdom of Nauvoo” and an assistant history professor at Sam Houston State University.

One of the people outed was George Q. Cannon, a high-ranking member of the LDS church and longtime editor of the News. “He successfully avoided arrest for several years,” said his great-great-grandson Kenneth Cannon, a law professor at the University of Utah. “But when he was finally found and arrested … the Tribune, and much of the non-Mormon population of Salt Lake City, were delighted.”

Tribune editors would even learn where LDS missionaries had been sent and then forward derogatory stories about the faith to those cities. In one instance in 1879, a missionary named Joseph Standing, who had been sent to Vamell’s Station in backwoods Georgia, was murdered soon after his arrival. The News accused the “hell-inspired Christian bigots” of the Tribune of being responsible for the young missionary’s death for fostering anti-LDS animosity against him.

The News’s editors, for their part, referred to the Tribune as “the slanderer,” and Lockley and his fellow editors as “the Tribune ring.” In one instance, according to the historian Rogers, “Lockley’s no-holds-barred attacks against Young, polygamy and Mormons generally led an unknown gang to beat him senseless with brass knuckles in 1878.”

“Both papers would have liked to have seen the other one shut down,” said Patrick Mason, the chair of Mormon History at Utah State University. “They were each a needle in one another’s side.”

Tensions cooled slightly between the rival newspapers when Charles Goodwin became the Tribune’s editor in 1880, at the same time Charles Penrose was running the News. Goodwin and Penrose were highly regarded editors, but they maintained a fantastic rivalry of their own over the next two decades, akin to Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s mid-1890s battles on the pages of New York World and New York Evening Journal.

The following decade brought more of a detente as Goodwin joined in the News’s push for Utah statehood, Rogers said, which was achieved on Jan. 4, 1896.

Statehood brought about a mainstreaming of the once-fringe territory. The church had recently renounced polygamy, helping ease its pariah status among many U.S. leaders. The local political parties disbanded, and the Transcontinental Railroad brought a flood of non-Latter-day Saints to Utah.

Meanwhile, in 1901, the Tribune passed into the hands of U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns, who “eventually pushed the paper in less Mormon-antagonistic ways,” Turner said. Over the following century, it became a voice for Utah’s non-LDS residents and a safe harbor for the more progressive factions of the faith, while the News covered local and national issues that often went beyond its religious roots.

“In many ways, both papers reflect, maintain and exacerbate on a local level the polarized information environment that we find across the country,” Mason said, “but they also give voice to the state’s diverse viewpoints and populations in a way that would be almost impossible for only one newspaper to do. I can’t imagine Utah’s distinctive public square thriving without either paper doing what it does.”

And though the volatile competition of the late 1800s between the papers is now a distant memory, remnants of a rivalry return from time to time. In 2013, for instance, the New York hedge fund that owned the Tribune sold half of the paper’s future revenue to the News for a quick profit, a move that forced the Tribune to lay off dozens of journalists and cut its budget. The paper resisted, resulting in a nearly three-year legal battle that was only resolved when Utah businessman Paul Huntsman (the brother of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman) purchased the Tribune and renegotiated its arrangement with the News.

Huntsman, a devout member of the LDS church, now owned the paper founded on criticism of the church and its leaders. In 2016, in a demonstration of his independence from the church, he funded a Tribune lawsuit against church-owned Brigham Young University that changed the way university campus police shared information with the press and won the paper its second Pulitzer Prize.

In 2019, the Tribune became the nation’s first long-standing newspaper to gain nonprofit status, pioneering a path forward that struggling local news outlets may follow. Last year, the News and the Tribune ceased printing daily in favor of a weekly print edition, online news coverage and, for the News, a monthly magazine. Both have posted profits in recent years, as many local newspapers have folded.

The rise of the liberal Latter-day Saints

Today “any old rivalry between our papers is long since passed,” Huntsman said. The two papers have covered major local events — from the election of Salt Lake’s first openly gay mayor to protests over racial injustice — very differently, Huntsman acknowledged. But he said that each publication has expanded its reach far beyond its local roots, and he no longer worries about how many subscribers the News has. “Like most papers, our biggest source of competition has become social media,” Huntsman said.

Hal Boyd, executive editor at the News, echoed Huntsman’s points. “There are many shared values between Deseret [News], our owner [the LDS church] and our core audience, but editorial decisions remain with the editors,” he said. Boyd noted that the paper’s readership has grown far beyond Utah, with 75 percent of its online readers now coming from outside the state.

“Newspapers were the primary means for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to communicate for almost a century,” Boyd said. “But as the church grew internationally and journalism became more professionalized, that dynamic changed. Church leaders now have many ways to communicate official messages to church members and beyond. In many respects, Deseret journalists today engage with the church’s global press office like other reporters.”

Huntsman said, “I believe that both institutions are committed to preserving journalism and doing what’s best for our community.”

Though the relationship between the papers has improved dramatically since the name-calling and violence of the 19th century, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an emeritus Harvard historian who has written extensively about the early LDS church, said that “whatever rivalry remains” between the Tribune and the News may intensify again someday: “The Internet seems to have taken us back to the era of scurrilous press rivalry.”