This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A political insider, one-time U.S. Senate candidate and Washington lobbyist is taking the helm of Utah's second-largest daily newspaper.
Joe Cannon, former Utah Republican Party chairman, has been picked to replace Deseret Morning News Editor John Hughes, who will leave the paper at the end of the month.
For Cannon, the job is an emotional homecoming of sorts; his grandfather was editor of the same newspaper 70 years ago. But his partisan background has raised questions about his selection and the paper's ability to remain unbiased and nonpartisan. And an apparently cool reception from the newsroom shows Cannon first has to win over his staff.
He is undaunted. "This is probably my last job in life," Cannon said Friday, after a staff meeting announcement. "I'm going to be a heat-seeking missile on making this the best paper in the world."
For Cannon, he is following his pioneer ancestors, and taking a sort of "monastic" sabbatical from politics. His great-grandfather, George Q. Cannon, was editor from 1867 to 1873 and from 1877 to 1879. His grandfather, Joseph J. Cannon, was the editor of the newspaper from 1931 to 1934. His grandmother wrote a column for the paper; he tagged along with her to work. In 1992, Cannon made a bid to buy the Ogden Standard-Examiner. Ink, he says, is in his blood.
"I don't pretend genetics would make an editor out of me," Cannon said. "But I bring a very healthy respect for the news - and the News."
Nevertheless, his journalistic credentials are sparse. He is trained as an attorney. He and his brother, U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, attempted to save Geneva Steel, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Now a partner in Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Whitman, Cannon has made a career as a Washington attorney and lobbyist. He has been a member of the newspaper's board for 11 years.
What Cannon lacks in journalism training, he has to spare in political experience. In 1992, he spent more than $6 million in an unsuccessful bid for an open Senate seat, losing ultimately to Sen. Bob Bennett. He was elected chairman of the Utah Republican Party in 2001, stepping down just three weeks ago.
News Chairman Ellis Ivory first suggested the editor's job this summer. Cannon said he brushed off the idea of taking the helm of the 70,000-circulation daily. But at a meeting in September, the five-member board offered the position. Besides directing a newsroom of 170 people, Cannon will sit on the newspaper's editorial board and write opinion pieces.
Ivory, a developer and former Salt Lake County mayoral candidate, said Cannon's knowledge of the Internet makes up for his lack of editing experience.
"He may not be a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer that John Hughes is, but he is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reader. This is a man who understands where we are today and where we can go," Ivory said. "He's just with it."
Hughes said Cannon has been appropriately hands-off as a board member.
"He never asked me not to run a story, he never tried to skew a story. He has a good record of not interfering on stories that could have impacted his career or his brother," Hughes said.
Despite those endorsements, Cannon is well aware of the questions his appointment raises. He knows it's "sorta weird." He acknowledges he is best known as a partisan. And he accepts that some will be watching for him to soften coverage of his brother.
At first, he says, he will keep his hands off all local political stories.
"I'm not going to put my thumb on the scales for Chris," Cannon said. "It's going to be an issue in people's minds. I'm not out to prove anything. I have my views on things. But I'll be pretty comfortable being nonpartisan. I view this job as pretty liberating."
Despite Cannon's pledges, Kelly McBride, Ethics Group leader for the nonprofit media think tank Poynter Institute, says Cannon's selection will be viewed through a political prism initially. The fact that the newspaper is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints already raises questions about the paper's agenda. Hiring a former political operative to direct news and write editorials is another "hurdle."
"Most people judge on perception, not actual work," McBride says. "Now, you've got another big red flag. First the ownership of the paper and now the top editor of the paper has been a major, major political player in the state. That is very unusual."
The first skeptics Cannon faced were the newspaper's staff in an afternoon meeting. Many worry they will have to explain away their editor.
"With John Hughes we built up a solid journalistic foundation here. We had a strong, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist as editor," reporter Josh Loftin said. "Now, we have the guy who ran the Republican Party a few weeks ago. I will have to sell my credibility a lot harder now."
Democrats were quick to jump on the announcement. Utah Democratic Party Communications Director Jeff Bell said having Cannon in control of the Deseret Morning News' coverage "makes me very, very nervous. I couldn't figure out how their bias would get any more blatant in how they cover 85 percent of political news," Bell said. "Now, I know how. I would hope for the best - that Joe is able to overcome his obvious conflicts of interest."
Tribune Editor Nancy Conway said, "Mr. Cannon is a politician and a lobbyist. How do you deal with credibility in that situation? He really has his work cut out for him. Newspapering is about credibility and perceptions of balance and fairness. It raises some questions."
News board members dismissed questions about partisanship as a passing storm.
"My biggest concern about Joe is that he'll lean too far in the other direction to convince people he's not biased," said board member Bud Scruggs. "He's going to have to be, and will be, very careful. "
Cannon will wrap up his law practice in Washington before the end of the year. And after a week in Spain, he expects to begin haunting the News' newsroom. He plans to tread lightly at first, listening to staff about what they believe should change at the paper. He wants to boost the newspaper's online offerings - perhaps to include features like amateur videos of Brigham Young University and University of Utah football games, using Wiki technology for constantly updating Internet documents and aggregating more international stories that will appeal to the newspaper's largely LDS audience. No immediate staff changes are planned.
Other than that, Cannon says he has no agenda. Besides living his dream.
"One hundred years from now, my grandchildren are not going to talk about the fact I was a partner at Pillsbury or worked at the EPA," he said. "If I can add to the glory of this newspaper, it'd be a pretty good thing."
* Tribune reporter PAUL BEEBE contributed to this story.
* 1980 works in President Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency
* 1987 Cannon and his brother, Chris, buy Geneva Steel
* 1992 runs for U.S. Senate against Bob Bennett
* 1992 Cannon makes a bid to buy the Ogden Standard-Examiner.
* 1999 Under Cannon's leadership, Geneva Steel files for bankruptcy
* 2001 Cannon is elected state Republican Party chairman
* 2006 Resigns post at GOP and is named new editor of Deseret Morning News