Joe Cannon is defined by optimism, enthusiasm

Published: Saturday, Sept. 25 2010 11:00 p.m. MDT

Joe Cannon is the former editor of the Deseret News.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When Joseph A. Cannon was 15 years old, his dad told him they were going to the World's Fair in New York. Joe's mind flashed forward to Technicolor images of bright lights and a bustling midway.

There was only one problem: Adrian Cannon was a bookstore owner of very modest means, and the Cannons couldn't afford train fare to get from their Los Angeles home to San Francisco, to say nothing of New York City. So Joe's dad hatched a plan: He and his three boys would ride their bikes across the country.

Pauline, Joe's mother and voice of practicality in the Cannon home, was flabbergasted. Three boys on a cross-country bike ride — how would they survive? And who would tend the bookstore in Adrian's absence?

Adrian was undaunted.

With no fixed itinerary, they slept on roadsides, on highway medians, and in barns and front rooms of people they had just met. They drank water given to them by highway construction workers and spent as little of their own money as possible on food. They sang hymns and memorized scriptures while they rode.

During downtime, Joe entertained himself at local libraries reading "Atlas Shrugged," always resuming Ayn Rand's landmark novel where he had left off at the previous town's library.

Today, Joe Cannon fondly looks back on that bike ride as one of the seminal moments of his life. The trip sowed seeds in his mind and his heart for the buoyant optimism and audacity to dream he'd need to rise from a poor upbringing to prominent positions such as presidential appointee at the Environmental Protection Agency, chief executive officer of Geneva Steel and editor of the Deseret News.

"One big lesson was that if you can ride your bike across the country, you can do a lot of things — especially if you're doing it in 1964 when it wasn't common," Cannon said. "The fact that my dad would even think of something that crazy and then do it was so important. It was a huge life experience — huge — and impossible to overstate. It was a defining event in my life and my brothers' lives."

This month marks the end of Cannon's tenure as editor of the Deseret News, but he will continue to be associated with the paper as a member of its new editorial advisory board. Given he joined the paper's since-dissolved board of directors in 1996 and became its editor in 2006, it's fair to say that Cannon is as responsible as anybody for what the Deseret News has become over the past decade and a half.

While his hiring as editor-in-chief was controversial and criticized in journalism circles — Cannon had never worked as an editor or reporter ?— he has largely remade the paper according to a vision he thinks will ensure its survival into the future.

Under Cannon's watch, the Deseret News increased its circulation, posted the nation's largest per capita increase in print and online readership for daily news publications, and launched two print publications — Mormon Times and El Observador — at a time in which conventional wisdom had decreed print all but dead.

If past performance is any indicator, Cannon's influence on the Deseret News won't go away any time soon. Even before becoming the paper's editor, he exercised a palpable influence during his decade on the paper's board of directors.

"Most of my experience with Joe was working with him (in my role) as chairman of MediaOne when he was on the board of the Deseret News," said Dean Singleton, chairman and publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune and CEO of MediaNews Group. "I got to know him in that capacity as we were working together on newspaper issues and newspaper decisions, and I found Joe to be an absolute delight. He's smart, and he's a real gentleman and a real good partner to have on the business side."

Cannon underwent quite a bit of on-the-job learning, but by the same token, he had no emotional attachment to ideological tenants of the newspaper industry that had been rendered counterproductive and inefficient with the progression of technology.

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