Coyne sets the scene on narrative journalism
by Tara Witterholt
After years of waiting for our invite to lunch, Anchorage Press writer Amanda Coyne admitted she felt like “the dorky girl at the dance.” But on January 6, Alaska Press Women motioned her to the popular table and asked her about working for the alternative press.
Her list of credits is impressive: New York Times magazine, APRN, NPR, Bust Magazine, all buttressed by an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Her first story, published by Harper’s, was written after she stopped working as a corporate spy.
“It takes a lot of nerve to be a freelancer,” she said. “I spent a year circling the phone before I made the call to an editor.” Her animated re-enactment, including bent-over walking and pacing, only punched home the feeling.
“The fantasy of writing is so different than the reality. I don’t know any dental hygienists who say ‘I want to be a hygienist’ then never do it. But I know a lot of people who say ‘I want to be a writer’ and then never write.”
Then she read an ad that she couldn’t resist: “Come see moose as big as your house! Come watch eagles snatch small dogs! Come to Alaska and write for us!” And since the end of 2001, Coyne has been a full-time writer for The Anchorage Press. She’s currently finishing her stint as the features editor.
The Press began 12 years ago with 12 pages and a circulation of about 8000. Today, they regularly print 56 pages weekly and have a readership of 20,000. Across the U.S., there are over 425 online alternative sources and countless other print publications. With these kind of numbers, and the variety available, the question is “what is alternative journalism?”
Coyne’s definition starts with what it isn’t. In other parts of the country, what passes for alternative writing is really snide commentary with a “we know better than you” attitude. But for her, it’s telling the truth like it is and having a point of view. She prefers to know her position first and write from that position. There’s also an assumption that alternative presses are very left wing, an idea that gets the Press in trouble sometimes for not being liberal enough. Sticking to the honest approach works for Coyne.
“My motto is ‘work from the bottom up,’” she added. This means if she’s writing about panhandling regulations, she doesn’t start with the Municipality or Assembly members. She goes to the people holding up cardboard signs on street corners asking for help.
This motto has lead her into sticky situations at times and might rankle the most hardened of us. Still, it’s meant she’s spent lots of time with people who don’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream press.
“I’m so present, people think I’m weird,” Coyne admits. “I’ve been accused of being crazy.”
This accusation comes from her style of collecting information for her stories. She spends hours and major parts of her day just observing, listening and asking questions of her subjects. A piece on the Christian Left involved attending several church services over several days, ranging from an evangelical meeting in the Valley to a gay Christian service in Anchorage. She takes risks. While gathering background about the Sex Offender Registry, Coyne knocked on the doors of registered offenders and got their take on it. Stopping short at wearing disguises, she goes to the front line to get the story.
“I’ve even hung out with white supremacists and drug dealers,” she says casually.
Being that present only makes her style of narrative journalism more authentic, her supporters say. She is setting the scene and telling every story in the context of that scene. If that means practically living in a halfway house, then that’s what it takes. It’s the way of the Press to get their readers engaged in their surroundings in an authentic way.
“Alaskans are invested in their community and the Press can shed light on various parts of that community,” Coyne noted.
As for Amanda Coyne, she’s traveling for a few months, sort of a honeymoon/vacation in Southeast Asia with her future husband, current editor of the Anchorage Press. When she returns, she says she’ll probably always work at the Press.
“I get a lot of freedom there.” A freedom that comes from being present.