Joe Cannon is defined by optimism, enthusiasm

Published: Sunday, Sept. 26 2010 12:36 a.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.

Even as he's leaving the day-to-day operation of the paper, Cannon's head teems with an open-ended world view of the evolving landscape of news media.

"Good journalism still has a First Amendment mission regardless of the format," Cannon said. "The good news is that technology can spread journalism much further today than our forbearers in journalism ever imagined."

As he cedes his corner office and takes a seat on the editorial board, knowing Cannon's backstory is integral to understanding the improbable tale of how a lawyer with no journalism background not only helped Utah's oldest newspaper stay alive but actually grow amid the most tumultuous season in the history of newspapers.

After graduating from BYU Law School in 1977, Cannon embarked on his career with only one general, guiding goal: Get a job in Washington, D.C.

His affinity for all things Beltway stemmed in part from the positive experience he enjoyed during an administrative internship he did with the U.S. Supreme Court as an undergraduate.

Mirroring the 1964 cross-country bike ride, Cannon was beginning his professional career with a broad goal in mind but nary a notion of how to realize and sustain it. In short order, Cannon exceeded his own expectations.

He worked first on George H.W. Bush's 1980 presidential campaign and later Ronald Reagan's 1980 bid. He parlayed that experience into a place on the Reagan-Bush transition team responsible for filling political appointments during the time between election and inauguration.

The job Cannon really wanted was to work in the White House Counsel office. But that didn't pan out; what did come his way, though, was a job he didn't feel remotely qualified for — policy administrator at EPA.

His underlings at EPA initially regarded Cannon with a mixture of contempt and curiosity. Despite negligible experience in environmental law and zero management background, he had been installed as acting associate administrator for policy and resource management, responsible for supervising more than 300 people.

Years later, the Washington Post would recollect the following about his arrival at EPA, "Cannon's tenure at EPA may be extraordinary simply because his appointment was so improbable. … Cannon prefers to think of it as 'serendipity,' but from all appearances it was political patronage, pure and simple, that got him his job at EPA."

Cannon earned respect and support by endearing himself to the various political factions. He successfully navigated a complicated minefield of office politics including career civil servants, neoconservatives and strict Reaganites — not to mention the often left-wing journalists who had him on speed dial.

Cannon, in fact, became so respected at the EPA that he was the only political appointee to survive a 1983 purge of the agency.

The same 1985 Washington Post article that riffed about the improbability of Cannon's EPA appointment went on to elucidate how Cannon not only survived but even thrived.

"Joe Cannon may be the living proof that, even in Washington, nice guys don't always finish last. Slightly rotund, unpretentious and unfailingly cheerful, Cannon acts more like a Good Humor man than a buttoned-down lawyer."

The EPA years marked the most critical period of Cannon's professional life because they set him up for everything that came after, by branding him a leader and affording him the mastery of environmental regulations he'd utilize immediately thereafter in his private law practice and later at Geneva Steel.

"Joe had experiences at the EPA that gave him an understanding that he actually could be influential in a much larger (setting) than he would've imagined before he got to EPA," said Chris Cannon, Joe's younger brother and the former six-term congressman. "Coming from Utah or from Sun Valley, Calif., like we did, you have some friends that are pretty bright. But you really don't know what it's like in Washington, D.C. Once you realize what the competition is, after you realize that you can do well, then life actually really opens up. That's what happened for Joe at EPA."

Although Joe Cannon grew up in California, he was born in Salt Lake City and lived in Utah until he was 10 years old. By early 1987, Cannon already had been a rainmaking partner at the prestigious D.C. law firm Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro for two years. But much like how his father couldn't kick the thought of an improbable two-wheeled journey in 1964, Cannon became captivated by what some considered to be an equally irrational idea — buying a failing steel mill.

Under the umbrella of "client development," Cannon first investigated what would need to happen for the Geneva mill in Vineyard to comply with federal environmental regulations. Then he started assembling a group of investors. Finally, investment bankers informed Cannon he would be the CEO of his investment group if it acquired the Geneva mill.

Cannon's decision to leave a lucrative law partnership for a flailing enterprise flummoxed quite a few people in the legal community. A reporter from the trade journal American Lawyer came to Utah and spent 10 days interviewing Cannon's associates trying to wrap her mind around why a sensible fellow would do such a thing.

With a myriad of obstacles to Geneva's long-term viability and no working playbook, Cannon guided Geneva Steel to environmental compliance and, for a time, economic profitability. (The steel mill closed for good in 2002.)

"A lot of people underestimate Joe Cannon and do not recognize how persistent he is," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, who narrowly edged Cannon in the 1992 Utah Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. "I found that out in the campaign. He can be very persistent in pursuing things he wants to accomplish."

Despite unlikely triumphs and some of the public failures Cannon has experienced (18 years later, Cannon's failed bid for the U.S. Senate still stings), he ultimately is at peace with himself and the world around him.

He lives with his wife, Jan, in the house they bought 23 years ago.

He is of counsel to Van Cott, Bagley, Cornwall & McCarthy — the same firm he worked for in 1977 and where his son, Joshua, also works.

"I'm very committed to the mission of the paper, and I'm very committed to the mission of this editorial board," Cannon said. "I'm really very flattered that they asked me to stay on (in this capacity) after I left the paper."

He may not have all the details figured out yet, but he's sure he'll figure it out — since 1964 he's been making an art of figuring things out on the fly.

"We're talking as if Joe's career is over," Bennett mused during a recent interview. "I don't believe that it is in any way. I think Joe is going to find something interesting and significant to do and press forward with his whole soul."

e-mail: jaskar@desnews.com

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