Being Frank: Inside the newsroom firings, the mag’s decision to write about it, and what’s next

Halifax-based Frank Magazine fired the majority of its newsroom last week, and then wrote about it in the current issue — with typical Frank sauciness, of course. Associate J-Source editor Lauren McKeon reports on the story behind the decision to print, why the newsroom was gutted, and where Frank goes from here.  Halifax-based Frank Magazine…

Halifax-based Frank Magazine fired the majority of its newsroom last week, and then wrote about it in the current issue — with typical Frank sauciness, of course. Associate J-Source editor Lauren McKeon reports on the story behind the decision to print, why the newsroom was gutted, and where Frank goes from here. 

Halifax-based Frank Magazine fired the majority of its newsroom last week, and then wrote about it in the current issue — with typical Frank sauciness, of course. Associate J-Source editor Lauren McKeon reports on the story behind the decision to print, why the newsroom was gutted, and where Frank goes from here.

It’s all about the nature of Frank.

Last week, while in production, the infamously irreverent Halifax-based magazine sacked three of its staff; one resigned in protest. Most magazines would keep mum, or leave it to the media to cover. Not so, Frank. Instead, the one remaining full-time editorial member, Andrew Douglas, penned a column (and then some) about the shake-up in this week’s issue, no. 614.  He’s also the man who handed out the pink slips.

“We had no choice [to write about the staff changes], we’re Frank Magazine,” says Douglas, who is the magazine’s managing editor. “We can’t just pretend it never happened. We’d be flushing all our credibility down the toilet if we just said nope, dum-de-dum, everything is all right here.” He pauses: “Not that everything isn’t all right, uh, but you know we’re Frank Magazine, we had to take a look at it.”

Surely, he has a point:  Since its founding in 1987, the magazine has dedicated much of its own coverage to media gossip; it would be hard-pressed to plead “no comment” when it becomes the centre of its own juicy story. “It isn’t surprising to me that when we part company with a couple of people that the media is talking to us about it,” says Douglas. “And I think some of it was maybe gleefully reported, like ‘a-ha, the tables have turned, it’s time for Frank Magazine to comment on this.’ And that’s fine, you know, that’s fine.”

After all, Frank got the last word.

FrankblowupThe top article on the staff shake-up is dubbed “Blowup at the Bunker”, in which Douglas writes: “You live by the sword, you die by the sword. I guess that axiom applies here, except of course that Frank isn’t dead, nor is it dying.”  The majority media interest in the inner goings-on at Frank, he adds, are directly related to how closely the magazine follows — and, it must be said, gleefully reports — the same events at the Mother Corp., other organizations, and what it calls the Chronically Horrid.

That article is followed by one entitled “Frank on Frank”. Here, Douglas takes issue with allNovaScotia.com’s use of the word “exodus” to describe the staff changes: “Point being, an exodus is a trip generally made under one’s own free will.” Following is “Other views…” Douglas uses that space to reprint articles on the firings/resignation – and then comment on them. Quips include: “Paul also reports that, ‘on Tuesday morning, reporters Neal Ozano … and Jacob Boon say they were told to pack up their desks and leave.’ An inaccurate statement, save for the fact that Jacob was allowed to retrieve a bottle of Wild Turkey. This week had bourbon written all over it.”

Then there’s the Eddie Cornwallis article. As CBC reported, this new under-pseudonym column — written by Douglas — started it all. First firee Mairin Prentiss told CBC News that, on June 13, she questioned the column’s salty take on sexism, which was printed the previous week and has received some criticism for going too far. She was canned shortly after, prompting senior reporter Dan Walsh to resign. The next day Neal Ozano and Jacob Boon were fired, leading Walsh to remark to media, “to lose one reporter is a misfortune, but to lose an entire newsroom looks like carelessness.” When reached by phone, Boon told J-Source that three of the former reporters had received notices warning them that Frank would pursue legal action if it perceived any defamation against the magazine on their part. Boon added he hasn’t received a notice — yet.

“I really don’t want to comment on a lot as we are pursuing legal action,” says Boon. “I can tell you I really did love the freedom of writing at Frank. We got to hold powerful people up to their statements and do so in a really humourous way — or we tried to.” As for what happened? “It was a very stressful and shocking day for everybody,” he says. “I do wish we had been given a chance to talk about the issues in question with management. It was very confusing to not know why I was fired or what problems my employer had with my performance.” That confusion only heightened when Douglas and publisher Parker Rudderham told media that staff changes were planned.

“The changes were planned,” Rudderham confirmed when J-Source spoke to him. “It’s very important to have the right mix of people. In the various businesses I’m involved in [Rudderham also owns Montreal-based company Pharmacy Wholesale Services Inc.] probably team building is the most important aspect. After much discussion, Andrew had decided the best way to move forward … was to change the team. So in essence that’s what he did, he changed the team.”

Rudderham, however, is careful to add that he doesn’t want to give the impression “that we knew what exact day this was supposed to happen.” A situation evolved, he says, and Douglas reacted to it. “I don’t know much more to add to that.”

FrankCornwallisBut back to the Cornwallis article. Douglas, who pens the article, writes: “Yep, I’m back. I’m surprised as you are, truth be told. When your maiden column results in the ‘gutting’ of an entire newsroom, the general expectation is you won’t be invited back for a sophomore effort. Yet here I am, starting at the blank page … Listen, I had no idea this thing would blow up like it did. I write a couple of lines about how much I like boobs, and what an idiot some chick in Toronto is, next thing I know the Frank bunker comes unhinged. It’s madness. Those people are brainsick.”

Later, when interviewed, he says: “There’s obviously some thought put into how we’re going to approach it [writing about the firings]. Obviously you can’t get into the minutia of details, because even though we are Frank Magazine, we aren’t going to be badmouthing people in the magazine, and there’s nothing to badmouth.”

Questions on publishing satirical articles about your own staff changes aside, though, there are bigger questions to ask when it comes to Frank. Mostly: What now?

As for staff, both Douglas and Rudderham say Frank is re-hiring and has already added two staff. Even so, questions remain about the tone of Frank, which some say has, of late, crossed the line from funny to crass, and its future editorial direction.

Rudderham bought Frank in late 2010. At the time, former publisher and editor John Williams stayed on for six weeks to help the magazine through the ownership transition. Williams had been editor/publisher of the mag since 2004, when he took the helm from Carolyn Wood, daughter of the magazine’s original founder, David Bentley. Indeed, while the Ottawa version of Frank has come and gone, the magazine was founded in Halifax and has been there since its very first issue. But in nearly 25 years of publishing, many believe it’s only really starting to change now with Rudderham.

He doesn’t disagree: “With our new beginnings, it’s a totally different magazine now in terms of outlook and form.” Some of these changes are fairly innocuous: The magazine has moved from 32 pages to 36 and hopefully one day soon, says Rudderham, to 40; by fall it will be printed on higher quality paper, the same high-gloss as another Maritime rag, Saltscapes; it recently gave up its old cave-like digs for nicer offices; and Douglas now has an assistant.

Then there’s the paywall, which, coincidentally, launched the same day as the staff changes. As for the paywall, and the structure’s touchy success history in general, Rudderham says he’s not worried. Because of Frank’s salacious nature, he says, a good chunk of people don’t want to pick it up at the check-out — just like they may not want to pick up the National Enquirer. Paying for it online curbs the issue. “There are two types of people,” he says, “those who read Frank Magazine and those who read it and say they don’t.”

After innocuous, there are some changes that are just kinda weird — like the decision to make nice with longtime target CTV senior news anchor Steve Murphy by donating $10,500 to the charity Murphy was hosting a telethon for after he raised issue with a recent Frank article. Not overly weird in itself, but more bizarre once you read the entire email conversation leading up to the decision — all printed in the magazine — and the accompanying article in which Douglas says the cash was donated in spite of Murphy’s demands, and even more weird when you watch the YouTube video of Murphy thanking Frank. FrankMurphy

After weird comes substantial. The magazine is focusing more on Cape Breton than ever before — sales in that area have gone up 31.4 per cent. (Rudderham wouldn’t give circulation numbers, saying only that his goal is for everybody in Nova Scotia to have a subscription. In pre-Rudderham days, it was reported that the magazine had a print run of 10,000 – 12,000 per issue.) It’s also done away with the fake, jokey bylines familiar to many Frank readers — not counting the most recent issue, in which the magazine reverted to this style because there weren’t enough writers. A restaurant review has been added. And, the old made-up articles, dubbed “just not so”, are gone. Plenty of this change — especially the addition of bylines and the ditching of made-up articles — is meant to give Frank more serious journalistic cred. “We’re trying new things,” says Rudderham, “and getting beyond some of the resistance we’ve had: ‘oh well, you know Frank Magazine never did that, that’s not what Frank Magazine is.’ Well you know Frank Magazine is whatever works.”

Other changes, such as the perceived tilt in tone, are harder to pin down. Certainly, being funny isn’t so easy to pull off. Former editor/publisher John Williams knows this just as well as anyone. “There is a very fine line between funny and not funny, and clever and crass,” he says, “The key to Frank was always knowing where that line was and trying to get as close to it as humanly possible without falling and/or jumping over that line.”  Being clever on a regular basis is no easy task; being clever enough that your audience, and not just you, are going to appreciate it is even harder. “I mean a certain element of Frank was always about offending someone,” says Williams, “But at the end of the day you don’t want to be offending the very people you’re printing the magazine for.”

“I have seen a change in tone,” he adds, “And I think it’s progressively, in terms of time at least, changing as the magazine evolves under new management.”

With only a few issues under the new management’s belt, it’s hard to say yet if the new Frank will end up alienating its old readers, or thrilling new ones. In the meantime, Rudderham is sure of one thing: “I can assure you Frank Magazine is going to be around for a long time, as long as I have anything to do with it at least.” Whether it looks, reads, or even operates, anything like the old Frank, however, remains to be seen.