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Telling the story

Church News celebrates 75 years of publication

Through the years, the Church News has chronicled many landmark anniversaries in the Church; this week, this publication notes one of its own.

Seventy-five years ago this month — on Saturday, April 4, 1931 — the first edition of what would become the Church News greeted readers of Salt Lake City's Deseret News.

Since the newspaper's founding in 1850 — three years after Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints reached the Salt Lake Valley — news of the Church had been blended with secular items. Eventually, it was confined to specific columns in the newspaper. The perceived need to segregate still further Church news items was reflected in this notice appearing in the Deseret News on Friday, April 3, 1931, and addressed "to those who read the Church News section of the Deseret News":

"Beginning Saturday, April 4 — All subject matter pertaining to doctrine, church news and activities, and other items of interest to those who care for that type of reading, will appear each Saturday in New Magazine Form and Size.

"At the same time it will not 'bother' those who do not want it."

This new publication — self-contained and set apart from the rest of the paper by its tabloid format and size — still carried the Deseret News logo and masthead at the top of the first page. A box on each side of the masthead identified it as "Church Section." Some longtime Church members still call it that, although the name has been "Church News" most of the time since 1943.

In keeping with the Easter season, that first edition carried a half-page line drawing of the resurrected Christ among the Nephites, accompanying an article by Elder B.H. Roberts of the First Council of Seventy. Also on that front page was the verbatim text of a sermon delivered over KSL Radio by Elder Bryant S. Hinckley.

Early on, his son, Gordon B. Hinckley, would be a frequent contributor to the publication in his role as secretary of the Church's Radio, Publicity and Mission Literature Committee. Later, the name Gordon B. Hinckley would be seen frequently in its pages, not as a writer but as a newsmaker, when he became a General Authority and, ultimately, president of the Church.

That 1931 Deseret News announcement concluded with this pledge regarding the new publication: "It will grow, if it meets the approval of those for whom it is designed."

The promise was fulfilled early on under the editorship of Henry A. Smith, who became the first full-time editor in September 1931. In a 1983 master's thesis at BYU, graduate student Paul T Roberts wrote: "Henry Smith was a pioneer of the Church News; it was his idea. He was instrumental in its success because of his integrity and loyalty. . . . Henry Smith, for most of the next 18 years, developed the Church Section and moved it away from announcing golden weddings and dinner parties to publishing more news about the Church. Eventually, the eight-page tabloid grew to as many as 24 pages."

Brother Smith had a reputation for having the confidence of General Authorities. "Henry could get into places at the Church Office Building where even members of the Twelve were not allowed," wrote Roberts in his thesis. "He was a close friend of President David O. McKay."

By 1943, the Church News began to take on a more distinct identity apart from its parent newspaper, as it was mailed separately to servicemen outside the Deseret News circulation area. That continues today as, outside of Utah, it is available by separate subscription in most areas of the world, including non-English-speaking countries. Its reach is expanded by the fact that selected Church News articles are often translated and included in the Liahona, the Church's magazine published in languages other than English.

Four men served briefly as editors while Brother Smith was on other assignments: John R. Talmage, Conrad B. Harrison, Merwin G. Fairbanks and Jack E. Jarrard. Then, in 1968, J Malan Heslop began an eight-year stint as editor, finally leaving the post in 1976 to become Deseret News managing editor. Former chief photographer at the newspaper, he emphasized photography and graphics, giving the publication a fresher look. Succeeding him in 1976 was Dell Van Orden, who increased the use of color in the Church News and built upon Brother Heslop's practice of sending staff writers to various areas of the United States and the world for in-person coverage of significant events such as temple dedications.

Current editor Gerry Avant, a Church News writer since 1972 and associate editor since 1988, succeeded Brother Van Orden in 1999, becoming the first female Church News editor. She manages a staff of seven full-time writers, whose work is augmented by a loose, but extensive network of correspondents, Church public affairs missionaries and directors of public affairs worldwide. In addition to shooting their own photos as required, the staff draws upon the expertise of the Deseret Morning News photo and art departments.

As the Church's only printed publication fully devoted to global coverage of news in the Church, the Church News carries forth a legacy established early in Church history by such luminous periodicals as the Evening and Morning Star, the Times and Seasons and the Millennial Star. The staff felt a sense of historical continuity when, at the dedication of the reconstructed Nauvoo Illinois Temple in 2002, Church News writers assigned to cover the event used as their base of operations the Times and Seasons building, now a visitor attraction in historic Nauvoo,.

As the publication continues into the 21st century to record the events of this gospel dispensation, its mission is expressed in these words from the current editor, Sister Avant:

"We strive to tell the story of the Church by publishing not just details and facts but also by using the printed word as a conduit to help members catch the vision of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint. A central aim is to be the printed voice of those who are building the kingdom of God today, from the First Presidency to members throughout the Church."

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