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Connie Coyne, former Tribune editor and reader advocate, dies at 76

(Tribune file photo) Connie Coyne, who worked at The Salt Lake Tribune from 1993 to 2010, as desk editor and reader advocate. She has died at age 76.

Connie Coyne, a rough-and-ready journalist who dispensed her wisdom and gruff wit to Salt Lake Tribune readers and colleagues for nearly two decades, has died.

Coyne’s death was announced Friday on Facebook by her friend and former Tribune colleague Sheena McFarland. Coyne was 76.

She was found dead Wednesday in her apartment at Friendship Manor, a senior living complex near Rice-Eccles Stadium, said Tom Barman, a friend who also lives there. Barman said he believes she died Tuesday or Wednesday.

No cause of death was announced, but Coyne had suffered from back problems and heart ailments over the past few years, including a stroke in 2012.

David Noyce, interim editor of The Tribune, called Coyne “a dedicated, hard-nosed journalist. But she had a joyous, infectious sense of humor and the deepest, most delightful laugh.”

Coyne joined The Tribune in June 1993, relocating from Minot, N.D. She started on the copy desk, was named assistant state editor in 1994, and moved into the weekend editor position the same year.

Noyce recalled working with Coyne on the desk, “batting around headline ideas — many of which we would never dare publish. She never stopped ribbing me about my habit of running around the newsroom, especially after I tore my tendon darting down the stairs to our old pressroom.”

Coyne took the job of reader advocate in June 2002. The position, she wrote in one of her early columns, “is like a bridge over sometimes troubled waters. But be warned: This bridge does not allow nuts, bolts, screws, bigots, hotheads, the terminally bored or the constantly disgruntled across the span.”

Being a reader advocate, Coyne wrote, was about connecting to the community, not about nitpicking every action of the paper’s reporters and editors.

“If someone in your family has been busted for running a methamphetamine lab and The Salt Lake Tribune ran his or her name, don’t call me. Call a good defense lawyer,” she wrote. “If you have so much time on your hands that you are able to read every sentence in The Salt Lake Tribune three or four times looking for grammatical errors or imperfect spelling, get a hobby.”

Coyne jumped into a firestorm with her first column, defending the Tribune’s initial coverage of the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart. Some readers complained the early stories were sensationalized and overly harsh against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Smart’s family belonged.

Coyne used the criticism as an opportunity to instruct readers about how news coverage works. “No media outlet wants to write single-source stories, so they usually seek out a variety of sources in any given piece,” she wrote. “But reporters and editors are wise enough to judge the worthiness of a source — and oftentimes the motivations of a source.”

Coyne’s job as reader advocate was eliminated in April 2010 amid budget cuts, and she decided that was a sign to retire. She remained active in Utah’s journalism community, mentoring students and volunteering with the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The Utah SPJ chapter gave Coyne an award as a “Giant in Journalism” in 2010.

(Tribune file photo) Connie Coyne and friends.

McKenzie Romero, deputy news director at the Deseret News and a past president of Utah Headliners, called Coyne “an impressive and intimidating figure in Utah journalism.”

Romero was a breaking news reporter when she was elevated to president of the SPJ chapter. Some of the chapter’s older board members, including Coyne, were at first skeptical that a young journalist could take on the role, Romero said. Coyne softened when Romero assured the board that she would rely on Coyne’s advice.

“She was a strong, guiding force in my first few years on the board, and as president,” Romero said Friday. “She was hilarious at every board meeting. She spoke her mind. … She said it straight, whatever the concern we were discussing. She didn’t hold back.”

In recent years, when her health prevented her from regular involvement with SPJ, Coyne made it a point to attend the chapter’s annual awards banquet, Romero said. “She loved good journalism, and she loved seeing good journalists being recognized."

In a tweet Friday, FOX 13 reporter Ben Winslow called Coyne “a straight-shooter and advocate for students in journalism.”

“Connie was somebody who was very loving and warm, but had some pretty big walls,” said McFarland, who first knew Coyne as a mentor when McFarland was a student journalist at The Daily Utah Chronicle, the campus paper at the University of Utah.

A few years later, after McFarland reunited with Coyne at The Tribune, Coyne was experiencing pain from her chronic back troubles, and McFarland made up a care package of DVDs and treats. "That was the day that she was like, ‘OK, I’m going to let you in,’” said McFarland, who now works at the U.’s Eccles School of Business.

Theodora Constance Coyne was born Feb. 23, 1944, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. According to McFarland, she was adventurous as a youth; Coyne once showed McFarland a photo of herself at 19, dressed as a rodeo clown.

“Connie never said ‘no’ to things,” McFarland said.

Coyne taught elementary school in Fort Lauderdale in 1966 before embarking on a journalism career — first as a reporter at a Catholic newspaper from 1967 to 1970, then at the Sun Sentinel newspaper, as a reporter, assistant city editor and editorial writer. She left the Sun Sentinel in 1978 and ran a public relations firm for a few years.

Coyne self-identified as an alcoholic, and she had been sober since 1969. She was proud of her work as a mentor and sponsor to others through Alcoholics Anonymous, McFarland said. “She learned so much about how to give up control to that higher power that AA talks about, and let experiences come as they come."

“She needed to get out of the environment that was Fort Lauderdale, and that Florida sunshine. So she was like, ‘I have to go to the absolute opposite place, so I can continue sobriety,’” McFarland said. That place was Minot, N.D., where Coyne landed at the Minot Daily News for several years before relocating to Utah and joining The Tribune.

Coyne is survived by a brother, Tom Coyne, and his wife, Betsy, living in Atlanta; and numerous nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews, McFarland said. Memorial services are pending.

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