For years Utah Holiday magazine has run a feature called "The Front Page: News and views the papers don't see fit to print." The twist on the New York Times slogan implies local newspapers are known to overlook or ignore items of public interest.
Now "Utah Holiday" has been through some internal struggles of its own that the magazine may find unfit for its own Front Page.Ten days ago Barbara Bannon, Utah Holiday managing editor and theater critic, was asked to leave. The move quickly led to the resignation of editor Paul Swenson. John Sillito also resigned as the book editor. The mass exit surprised many people in the media, though insiders say conflict and friction have been growing for some time.
"We're looking to establish a broader appeal to the magazine," says Jeffrey J. Jonas, president of Golden Wood Inc., which purchased Utah Holiday several months ago. "We want to continue doing investigative reporting and dealing with issues. We hope to stress the positive, not the negative, however. We feel Utah Holiday can be a tremendous positive influence in this community.
"As for people who aren't with us anymore, I have no comment."
Robert J. Coles, the magazine's publisher, says a "personality conflict" led to Bannon being dismissed. Bannon herself sees the differences as more philosophical.
"We never had an overt problem, no encounter," she says. "Jeff simply called me in and told me I wasn't a team player. It was a rude awakening. When Bob (Coles) was running things we never had any tension. He didn't allow that kind of atmosphere. I think the new management saw me as a threat and had me fired as an example. I'd never encountered a real descriminatory situation before. It was like a nightmare I couldn't wake up from."
Swenson stands behind his former managing editor. "We were all let know that Barbara's firing was a warning," he says. "But then this was just the latest in a series of things. I'd gotten several indications that the new management wasn't as interested in risk-taking stories. They even wanted contracts that specified individual writers would absolve the magazine of any responsibility if there were lawsuits.
"Right now the only part of the editorial department left there is Barbara's intern, Bill Nelson. He's young, and he's good. But I think he's in for a baptism of fire."
For years Utah Holiday has been operating on a wing and prayer. In Swenson's words, it's been a "family operation." Everyone worked for peanuts and worked out of principle. When Utah Holiday has gone to the bank at all, it's gone on its feisty, hard-focus features. Over the years the magazine's been accused of being snide, of not always doing its homework and being elitist in a self-congratulatory way. But in Swenson's 17 years it has become an institution, respected to point that even small changes cause ripples.
Credit much of the magazine's credibility to Swenson. Says Linda Sillitoe, co-author of "Salamander," the new book on the Hofmann bombings, "Paul Swenson has been the life and soul of Utah Holiday. When he left I felt I was mourning the death of a friend - not Paul, but Utah Holiday itself."
If Utah Holiday seemed unfocused at times - Esquire one month, Newsweek the next, Cosmo the next - it was not an identity crisis so much as facets of Swenson. He worked the tireless hours of a small-town newspaper publisher. His editorial vision was the center that held.
As a writer, he also has shown the politician's knack for making his statements sound definitive. (In the "Best and Worst" issue, for instance, he called me "about the only resource in Utah daily journalism who can give us a reading on Mormon culture," then added "Johnston occasionally appears to be writing from a Cache County corncrib." Both sentiments are now gospel.)
The loss of Bannon was a bigger blow than many may realize. She ran a tight ship behind the scenes as and had become the most respected voice in local theater criticism. Few, if any, critics can shut down a show in 1988, but one heard sighs of relief from local theater companies when - because of deadlines - her negative notices appeared after a mediocore show was over.
As for the future, Utah Holiday management hints that the publication may be moving more to the right, softening and going for a more mainstream audience. At the same time editor William B. Smart at This People is pressing on the frontiers of Mormon journalism. As one wag has it, "Maybe the two magazines will eventually merge into a Utah People."
Swenson plans to stay in town and find other outlets for his work. His cerebral movie criticism should be marketable. Bannon hopes to continue with her theater criticism, perhaps for Neo, Network and other populist periodicals.
In typical fashion, however, it was Swenson who managed to get in the last word on the whole affair. In a letter of resignation that he mailed to Utah Holiday management, writers and other interested parties he writes:
"Utah Holiday is also an idea, a voice and vision. Whatever happens to the magazine in the future (and I sincerely hope that it has a future), the vision will live on in those who have made a contribution."