SALT LAKE CITY — Two Deseret News journalists with impeccable credentials were honored last month by the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, one for being a pioneer and one for her work walking an ethical line on a difficult story that is well into its second year.
Gerry Avant ends a 45-year career with the Josephine Zimmerman Pioneer in Journalism Award, and Katie McKellar is the recipient of the Quintus C. Wilson Ethics Award. Gerry and Katie’s careers began more than four decades apart at the Deseret News, yet both have made an important mark on the local news industry.
Gerry long ago made a decision to pursue journalism over teaching and landed as one of only two women on the City Desk in a profession that was dominated by men.
As R. Scott Lloyd wrote in an article chronicling the end of Gerry’s career as editor of the Church News:
“At the time, she and Maxine Martz, ‘a brilliant re-write woman and outstanding reporter,’ were the only women on City Desk, though there had been others previously; all other female writers worked in what was then called “the women’s section.
“She found the work interesting and exciting with its variety of assignments that might find her covering news at a junkyard and at the governor’s office on the same day.
“But after about three months, the managing editor told her she was to report to work for the Church News, a venerable weekly supplement to the Deseret News. It had been established in 1931 with the exclusive province of covering news of the church and eventually with a circulation extending beyond the market reach of the Deseret News itself.
“She did not welcome the new assignment and said so.
“‘Bill said, ‘That’s OK. But on Monday you can report as a scanner typist.’”
“In those days, journalists typed their stories on paper, then made corrections with a bold, black pen preparatory to feeding the hard copy into a scanner. If the corrections were too extensive, the page had to be retyped, a task that fell to ‘scanner typists’ on staff. That work did not interest Gerry.
“‘So I went down to Church News, and the editor, J Malan Heslop, said, ‘Give us three months, and if you don’t like it, I’ll make arrangements for you to go back to City Desk.”
She made a career of it, 18 years as the first female editor of the Church News and traveling to more than 60 countries as she chronicled the events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We hope to mine some of those experiences when she returns as a contributing editor in the fall.
Katie has been doggedly shining a light on the Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office and its current elected occupant, Gary Ott.
This column has dealt with the issues surrounding Ott several times: elected official, responsible to voters, but apparently no one else; protected by others who seem more interested in their jobs than the health and well-being of Ott.
So many issues came into play over the past 18 months, but chief among them is respecting an individual whose mental health was in question. For her careful navigation of the story she was honored with the ethics award.
Here’s how it was described at the awards ceremony:
“Faced with rumors surrounding Salt Lake County Recorder Gary Ott, who had won re-election months earlier but now seemed to be suffering mental lapses, Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar set out to tell the daunting but important story, at all times ensuring her reporting kept to a narrow ethical line. On one side was Ott’s private life, including his personal relationships and health. On the other was his duty to voters as an elected official employed by taxpayers. McKellar scrupulously balanced those conflicting concerns to produce a series of revelatory stories that were comprehensive while avoiding prurience, supplanting speculation with verified fact.”
Gerry can mine the past for future columns. For Katie, her ethical foundation portends good things ahead for those who trust her with stories and information.