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Mormon Media Observer: What I learned about journalism from general conferences

Published: Monday, Oct. 3 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Nothing was more enjoyable for me as a beginning journalist than covering general conference in the old Tabernacle.

Whereas the general public had to line up hours before the session started, we’d show up to the southwest corner a few minutes before a session started, tell the hosts our names and wander to our reserved benches that sometimes weren’t full, meaning they weren’t as packed as those below. It was almost comfortable, and the view was excellent.

Sure, we had news stories to write on the deadline, but the helpful LDS Church staff provided us with fully typed copies of the general authorities’ talks before the session even started. We could scan for exciting temple announcements or the names of news general authorities and figure out our stories quickly.

It was as easy a writing task as any in journalism. To be sure, the photographers were scrambling to find the right shots — and they always did, but we writers basically sat back and enjoyed an extra special good seat at conference and whipped out a quick story about the talks we had placed before us — written out so we wouldn't have to take detailed notes — and that was it.

I almost hesitated telling my friends that I had it so good. I loved going, and miss that sense of participation at conference as much as anything from being a full-time writer.

Aside from the most important things at conference — the powerful doctrine I learned, the fervent testimonies I felt, and the repentance I desired through those sessions, I also learned a few things about journalism by attending general conference and by watching our leaders in those settings over the years. I'd like to think that the example of my leaders has made me a better writer and communicator.

Here are three principles their examples have taught me, and I would follow as best I can:

First, preparation is essential and can too easily be undervalued.

When I heard Elder Dallin H. Oaks tell an interview with the Mormon Channel that he writes numerous drafts of each conference sermon, I wasn’t surprised that he would work so hard, but what occurred to me is that here is a man who could quite easily fake speeches, and I wouldn’t know the difference. He is a gifted thinker and writer and seems as good of a writer off the cuff as I am after days of preparation. Yet, he prepares at a remarkable level — more than many of us do. Journalism, with its tight deadlines, sometimes teaches us as writers to cut corners as far as possible.

But memorable writing and research of all kinds requires rewriting and dedication to craft. It requires patience and, of course, prayer. Journalism, with its focus on conflict and simple stories, would be better if more time were spent with reworking and rethinking many stories.

Second, the message is the thing.

I learned this from President Howard W. Hunter more than anyone else. I was outside the Tabernacle waiting for my turn to cover a session once, watching through a back window. Memories fade, but I think I had a full view of the podium through the back window I found — maybe it was close-circuit TV screen.

During his long, dedicated service as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, he had been put into a wheelchair. He delivered a few talks from his chair, but then at that session, he had stood again to speak. It was wonderful. Miraculous, it seemed.

As I watched through the back window, I scanned the audience around me, sitting on the Temple Square lawns. His talk suddenly stopped. I looked back through the window, and he had fallen.

The way I remember it is that he got back up with the help of two of his brethren and finished the talk. I remember him picking it up at mid-sentence. He knew what he was to say and did not deviate from that message, even though he was in pain, as far as I know.

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