Covering the 185th Annual General Conference
A two-day marathon has just concluded.
This weekend I was asked to assist my Deseret News colleague Tad Walch in covering the 185th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
As a member of the church, it’s a thrill to be in the Conference Center, to see the leaders of the church in person and feel the power of their messages. I’ve definitely felt the spirit of the Holy Ghost more in the Conference Center than I have while hushing my rowdy children from the couch at home, where I’ve also been known to doze off from time to time.
But as a reporter, it’s a little more intense. Even as you are sitting in the media room with copies of the talks in hand and snacks nearby, sometimes you can’t listen to the talks very closely because you are focused on writing a story. You may start out following a talk or two, but you get writing or editing and suddenly you look up to see someone saying the closing prayer and you wonder, “Where did the last two hours go?”
For example, Sunday morning President Thomas S. Monson surprised us all by announcing three new temples, causing us to scramble and piece together an article for our website, DeseretNews.com. (When he didn’t open the conference with a temple announcement on Saturday morning, we all figured it wouldn’t happen. He totally caught us off guard this time.) Once we got the basic details online, it was a matter of using the social media network to connect with people with ties to those areas of the world for their reaction, which really adds to the color of the story.
Covering conference is also a small sacrifice because attending each session means you aren’t chillin’ at home with the family, laughing, relaxing and stuffing your face with yummy food. I also missed being lazy on Sunday morning, one of two weekends each year when Mormons don’t have to go to regular church meetings. My family left Friday night and spent the weekend visiting both of our families. I heard later how I missed out on a waffle party with most of our family at my parent’s home on Sunday.
Even so, I love my job and feel I’m very fortunate to be employed. I was honored to receive this assignment and gave it my best.
To give you an idea of my conference experience, here is a recap of the last 48 hours.
Saturday, April 4, 2015
6:30 a.m. — I woke up, got dressed, made and ate breakfast.
7:45 a.m. — Drove to Salt Lake City. The traffic was pretty light, which surprised me.
8:30 to 9 a.m.— I parked at the Deseret News/KSL Triad Center and walked the 3-4 blocks east to the Conference Center.
I’m always amazed at the numerous groups of people who have the faith to dress up, travel great distances and show up for conference without tickets. They stand with little pieces of paper that display how many tickets they need. They look at you with long faces and kindly ask if you have any extra tickets. “No, sorry, I wish I did,” I usually say. I imagine their faith is often rewarded and they probably find a way in.
It’s also worth noting this year seemed to have fewer protesters. I didn’t walk all over Temple Square, but there didn’t seem to be as many this time.
9:30 a.m. — By this time I have found the media entrance at Door 13 and successfully passed through the security check. The media room is located on the lowest level of the Conference Center. As you walk in, there is a door on the right that leads to a sound proof room with large windows, giving us a great view of the speakers and crowd. Having been a sports writer, it’s like the press box.
I was a little surprised this year to see a low contingent of media covering the conference. It was mostly students from college newspapers and photographers, with a few TV guys.
In the media room they have snacks, water, and 15 minutes before each session, they had you copies of all the talks for that session. They also hand you a list of rules about social media use. You can’t tweet or post anything until you have heard the speaker say it. A reporter who wants to be accurate has no problem with these rules.
10 a.m. to Noon — While snacking on swedish fish and M&Ms, I helped Tad with an article regarding a break in President Monson’s tradition of opening the conference, often with a temple announcement, as I mentioned earlier. He didn’t speak for the first time until the Priesthood Session Saturday night. No temple announcements coming, we thought.
12:01 to 2 p.m. — Lunch was provided by LDS Church Public Affairs. The box included a turkey wrap, banana, pudding, chips and bottle of water with the option of a lemonade mix. It was pretty good.
2 – 4 p.m. — The action picked up in the Saturday afternoon session, which began with President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, announcing the changes in leadership and sustaining of the officers of the church. We had heard a group was planning to oppose during the sustaining. I was sent up to observe on the third level while Tad stayed below. Turns out only about 5 people stood opposed and President Uchtdorf took it all in stride, saying “Noted,” after each tiny protest, then went on, unruffled. At the end, President Uchtdorf instructed those opposed to speak to their stake president. For 5 people, we decided it wasn’t worth a story. But I did need to churn out a story about the changes in leadership and the new statistical report, which I was able to do by the end of the session.
4:01 – 6 p.m. — I killed time between the Saturday afternoon session and Priesthood by visiting and taking some photos. I was fortunate enough to bump into Arnold Augustin, just back from being a mission president in Texas. Arnie was my supervisor when I was an intern at Church Public Affairs in 2003. It was great to see him and catch up. He now works in the church’s publishing services.
While standing around, Tad and I were fortunate enough to meet Brother Devin Durrant, a former BYU basketball star and NBA player who is now in the second counselor in the Sunday School general presidency. When we introduced ourselves, he flattered us by saying he already knew who we were, “You’re famous.” Yeah, Ok, thanks, haha. He was cool.
A few minutes later I looked up to see my good friend Ryan Olsen staring at me through the media room window. It was fun to give him a hug and visit with him and his son, Jared.
I also visited with Jacob Reis, one of the stars of the Preach My Gospel District 1 videos. I had worked with him on an article in 2014.
6:01 to 8 p.m. — For the first time, reporters were allowed to use the media room to cover Priesthood session. There were even a few women, at least two BYU-Idaho students and a former Deseret News intern. So that was nice.
For the first time all day, I was mostly able to listen to the messages. President Monson was the final speaker and ended the meeting 15 minutes early. He is full of surprises, as we would also come to find out Sunday morning. (Although the meeting may have ended early because Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was unable to speak due to health reasons, he may have been scheduled to speak and couldn’t at the last second.)
After a phone call to my wife, I drove home and celebrated my survival of the day by having a Root Beer float!
Sunday, April 5, 2015
The day started much like Saturday, although this time I had to get off a little earlier to drive down and be at the Conference Center before the Sunday morning broadcast of “Music and the Spoken Word” by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — Sunday flew by after our morning was rocked by President Monson’s announcement of temples to be build in Haiti, Ivory Coast and Bangkok, Thailand. I remember looking at his talk a few minutes before the meeting. The talk was titled, “Blessings of the Temple.” “Would he surprise us with a temple announcement now?” I wondered, and he did.
Tad wrote the first version of the story and turned over to me to add anecdotes and quotes from people connected to the church in those areas. One of the first people contacted was Marjorie Desius, and their story was perfect. We were even able to arrange to get some photos of them in between sessions. To read their story and everything else I compiled, click here.
I should also add that I turned to Facebook for help. Within 15 minutes my phone was buzzing with FB and text messages with suggestions on people I could contact. I was overwhelmed, there must have been 50 messages, and there was no way I would get to them all. They continued coming in all afternoon.
After the photo with the family, I tried to get back in the Conference Center but was halted by security, elderly volunteers wearing cowboy hats that reminded me of retired Texas Rangers. They said security was had 30 minutes off before people could come back in for the next session. I know they were just doing their job, but I needed back in, so I texted public affairs and was thankfully granted access.
Back inside, I consumed another box lunch and continued working on my story.
One of the highlights of my search turned up Charles Abouo, a former BYU basketball player from the Ivory Coast. He was in Egypt playing for a club team, but was excited about the temple news and Facebook messaged me some thoughts I could use in the story. I was fortunate enough to finish our final version of the story by the close prayer of the Sunday afternoon session.
Toward the end of the session, Tad posted this on Facebook:
You know the Deseret News sent two sports fanatics to cover LDS general conference when it is announced that former BYU quarterback Gifford Nielsen is going to give a prayer and Tad says, “Giff!” and Trent B. Toone says “Go, Giff!” Then, when Trent lands an interview with former BYU baskeball player Charles Abouo about the announcement an LDS temple will be built in his native land of Ivory Coast in West Africa, we turn to each other and both say, “Sir Charles is in the house!” (Apologies to Elder Nielsen and Brother Abouo.)
Unfortunately, I don’t have many highlights to share about the messages. I missed most of them even though I was right there in the building. But I have copies of the talks, and I have the next six months and beyond to read and listen to these inspired talks. Thanks LDS Library App. It’s something I definitely plan to do. See you in another six months, general conference.