Joe Cannon, who will be taking over as the new editor of the Deseret Morning News, readily admits it's his relatives who have the newspaper experience, not him.
"There's a history here I feel duty-bound to try to live up to," Cannon said in an interview shortly before his appointment was announced Friday. He will assume the top editorial job at the newspaper on Jan. 1, succeeding John Hughes, who is returning to Brigham Young University as a professor of communciations after a decade as editor.
Cannon's grandfather, Joseph J. Cannon, served as the newspaper's editor from 1931 to 1934, and his great-grandfather, George Q. Cannon, was editor for eight years between 1867 and 1879. The newspaper was founded in 1850.
But it's his grandmother, Ramona, who really introduced Cannon to the business. She "wrote a column for the newspaper for over a quarter of a century. That was just the center of her life and therefore the center of all of us around her," Cannon recalled.
As a child, he would go to her Avenues apartment to pick up her column and take it down to the newspaper's old offices on Richards Street. "She probably had a bigger influence on me in terms of the history and the knowledge and background of the newspaper," Cannon said.
Not enough influence, though, to lead him into a career in journalism. Instead, Cannon went to law school and became heavily involved in GOP politics, including an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate and chairing the Utah Republican Party.
Cannon served in the Reagan administration as assistant administrator for air and radiation in the Environmental Protection Agency and as associate administrator for policy and resource management.
He and his brother, Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, were among several investors who reopened the idle U.S. Steel plant near Orem in 1987 as Geneva Steel. Though they had no experience in the industry, they quickly turned the mill into a profitable business.
The company, however, foundered in the 1990s as it spent hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize and couldn't compete with cheap imported steel. It filed for bankruptcy in 1999 and closed in 2001.
Now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of a law firm specializing in environmental and administrative law, Cannon has also served on a number of boards, including the Morning News. He was a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee that put on the 2002 Winter Games.
"I am a product of my background. I can't become like a brand-new person," Cannon said when asked how his experience, especially in the political world, would affect how he edits the newspaper.
"Everybody comes into this job, or any job for that matter, with a history. I can't change what my history is," he said. "But I can assure the staff and our readers that they are going to get truthful reporting with no thumb on the scale for anybody."
The issue of whether journalists can be bias-free "is at some level a silly discussion," Cannon said. "Everybody brings who they are to the table. I think what you can expect is, you're not going to get a shill for the Republican Party."
Cannon said he's stepping down from the law firm as well as from all boards with the possible exception of the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Last month, he resigned as Utah GOP chairman.
And Cannon said he intends to stay away from stories in which he might be seen as having a conflict of interest, at least initially. "At the beginning, especially, I'll probably distance myself a lot from stories where it could be thought I might have some particular bias."
But Cannon stopped short of saying he wouldn't get involved in any type of political coverage. "I don't want to say I'm not going to look at all political stories," he said. "I have very strong views about the role of a newspaper as a watchdog."
During the nearly 11 years he's been on the Morning News board of directors, Cannon said he never attempted to influence the coverage of the news. He said that should tell the public how he'll handle his new duties.
"Never once in that time period did I use or attempt to use that position to influence this newspaper on any story, either wanting to get stories in or trying to keep stories out or shaping stories," he said.
But a journalism professor labeled the appointment "highly unusual."
Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Institute, said ideally, an editor-in-chief is somebody who has cut his teeth as a reporter and understands journalism and, possibly more importantly, journalists.
Nelson said it is also important to readers to have somebody leading a newspaper who possesses strong credentials and does not have "overtly" partisan leanings.
"The editor is the public face of the newspaper, and especially in a city the size of Salt Lake, they will know the editor's background," Nelson said. "Readers who want unbiased news will look at that editor to help them determine which paper to read."
He worried that replacing a well-respected editor like Hughes with someone who recently chaired the state GOP would "damage the credibility" of the Deseret Morning News even if the newspaper already has conservative tendencies.
It is also uncommon for a newspaper to bring somebody in from the business side to run the editorial side.
"In most companies, the business board and the editorial side are very separate," he said. "The editor represents the editorial side and doesn't normally come from the board."
Cannon said he realizes he has big shoes to fill in following Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who edited the Christian Science Monitor. Hughes drew wide attention as the newspaper's first non-Mormon editor.
The new editor is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I can't not be a Latter-day Saint," Cannon said. "That's part of the whole package that you get."
He said Hughes "tried to be very sensitive to the fact that A, it's a church-owned newspaper and B, the vast majority of our readers are Latter-day Saints," an example Cannon said he will follow.
"Every paper has an owner. We have an owner. Our owner makes a lot of news. I expect to cover the news as fairly as possible. I don't see it as our job, however, to be ark-steadiers," Cannon said.
The biblical reference, he said, means that the newspaper's job is not, for example, to "describe to the church that we think the temple-building program has gotten a little out of hand. ... I don't think it's our job to lecture our owners."
That extends to editorials, he said, noting it would be "unlikely to find editorial policy at this newspaper or any other newspaper in the country that comes out and editorializes against its owners. ... You're not going to see a change in the editorial stance of this newspaper."
Cannon said he doesn't believe the Morning News "should be a gigantic ward newsletter. It should be a newspaper that really is the best newspaper for everybody. So that people can pick it up and read the news and feel like they're getting the news."
At least initially, Cannon said, he has no plans to make changes at the newspaper. "I don't come in with a preconception that something needs to happen," he said. "But I'm not a static guy either."
At 57, Cannon told the newspaper staff during a meeting called to announce his appointment that he expects this will be his last job before retiring.
E-mail: [email protected]