Is Frank Magazine the Scarlet Letter for John Williams’ Journalism Career?

John Williams says he is basically “unemployable” after six-and-a-half years as publisher of the satirical gossip mag.

By: Melissa Evans

John Williams says he is basically “unemployable” after six years as publisher of the satirical gossip mag

By: Melissa Evans

John Williams
John Williams, ex-editor of Frank magazine and founder of Gaze magazine. (Photo: Timothy Richard)

John Williams still has the letter faxed to his parents’ house in the spring of 1998. The letter, written by Frank magazine founder David Bentley, is faint and water-stained.

“I feel that you have a writing talent that would stand you in very good stead in a journalism career,” the letter begins. “Without being too modest, I think we can also say you would get the sort of solid training at Frank that would get that career off to a good start.”

Williams, then 22, had just graduated from the history program at Mount Allison University with a minor in political science. He was considering his job options: working for a call centre, the Amherst Tourist Bureau, the Shelburne Coast Guard, teaching English in Korea, and Frank magazine, which was offering not only a job but the promise of a great future. Williams accepted Bentley’s offer.

Now, at 36, Williams is the ex-publisher of Frank — unemployed, “unemployable,” and assessing his career options once again.

He laughs as he reflects on what Bentley wrote 13 years ago. “It borders on hysterical,” he says, “because ultimately [Frank] has been the nail in my coffin.”

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The magazine’s tagline “Frank by name, Frank by nature” is an accurate description.

[pullquote] It’s been a tad humbling. If I hadn’t planned for this financially, I don’t know what I would do.
– John Williams, former editor of Frank magazine [/pullquote]

English ex-patriate journalists David Bentley and Lyndon Watkins founded Frank in 1987.  Based on the English magazine Private Eye, Frank is “news that you can’t find anywhere else, presented like nobody dares to present it,” according to its website.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many people who have been written up in its pages — ”Franked” — aren’t happy. Frank has been the subject of many lawsuits and even more threatened ones. In 2000, retired Nova Scotia Member of Parliament Gordon Earle sued the publication for defamation and won.

The biweekly magazine is drenched in satire, revels in local scandal and reads a lot like a small town version of a Hollywood tabloid. In short, the perfect outlet for someone who grew up with an inherent sense of gossip and an unapologetic approach to reporting it.

John Williams, for example.

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Williams was born and raised in the small town of Lockeport in Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, where he ran his high school paper. True to his character and his mother’s recollection, John had “a mind of his own” —  and a vision for how the paper should be run.

“You reported on things that were going on at the school, but you know, if there were interesting things going on outside of school, like, someone got in a fight or something, you threw that in too,” Williams explains. Many parents and teachers thought “I was perhaps too outside the parameters of what a paper should be.”

The school principal, a no-nonsense kind of guy, thought so too. He pulled 17-year-old Williams into his office and told him if he were to continue as editor he would have to trim the extras and write only about in-school events.

 “So I said, ‘I’m not doing it,’” says Williams, “and I stopped doing it.”

It wasn’t until after university, when Williams received the job offer at Frank magazine in Halifax, that his unapologetic approach to reporting was truly appreciated.

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In May 1998, a nervous young Williams wandered into the Frank newsroom, unsure exactly what he was in for.

Within the first week he learned a recent graduate from the University of King’s College journalism program had been hired at the same time, but only one of them would get to stay on.

Williams knew what he had to do. At his next editorial meeting he pitched a story about an affluent family from his hometown whose rich son was marrying a girl with no money — the sort of juicy tale, Williams knew, on which Frank thrived.

The story was a hit with the newsroom, but not so much with the folks back in Shelburne County.

“I’m still paying for that one,” says Williams. “It was a long time before I could go home and have anybody speak to me… For a long time, I just didn’t go home.”

As detrimental the story may have been, it won Williams the job.

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Under the careful scrutiny of Bentley and Watkins who, Williams says, “did not suffer fools,” Williams honed his gossip journalist’s craft. In 1999, at 23, he had just been married to an airline IT analyst whose work took her to the southern United States. Williams followed, but after two years “things got kind of crappy,” so he split and headed back to Nova Scotia and his job at Frank. In 2003, David Bentley’s daughter and then-acting publisher, Caroline Wood, offered Williams ownership of the publication. No money would change hands. “I had just moved home, I needed a job, I didn’t want the thing to go under. So I said, ‘okay, fine. I’ll take it.’”

He spent the next six-and-a-half years happily reporting the news no one else would, pissing off contacts and dealing with hate mail from one ticked-off reader after another.

Williams remembers one story that made people particularly angry.

If you were in a grocery store or a gas station in February of 2008, you saw it. In big, bold, bright yellow letters, the headline “IS ELLEN GAY?” covered the front of Frank magazine. Local actress-turned-Hollywood-celebrity Ellen Page had just received the coveted Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as the quirky pregnant teen Juno in the Diablo Cody film of the same name. And Frank magazine was dragging her sexuality into public question.

John Williams reading Gaze
John Williams reads the 2011 summer edition of Gaze. (Photo: Melissa Evans)

“Lovely Little Ellen Becomes Latest Pop Culture ‘Dykon,’” read the article’s headline.

“People were livid,” Williams remembers. “I don’t think we’ve ever received as many hate letters and angry phone calls as we did over that.”

A year later, karma came knocking.

Someone had found Williams’ profile on a gay dating website and circulated it in the Frank newsroom.

He decided to address the situation in a very “Frank” way.

“Certainly indications I’ve received of late have suggested that my sexuality might soon become a matter of public interest,” Williams wrote in the magazine’s May, 2009 issue. “Has that threat accelerated the (coming out) process? Absolutely. But, quite frankly, I would rather deal with this disclosure in my own way — and on my own terms — than leave it in the hands of someone with an axe to grind.

“Truth be told, were it not for the fact family members and friends may be negatively impacted by an unexpected third party revelation, it wouldn’t even be an issue for me. I am who I am. Take it or leave it.”

And that was that.

Williams dropped a copy off to his parents and told them to prepare themselves because the story was hitting shelves the next morning.

“My mother didn’t take it very well,” says Williams. “She struggled for a while, not because it was a big deal to her but she was afraid that it was going to be a big deal to other people. My father was fine. He was like ‘you know, you did what you had to do. If putting it out there in the magazine saves you the anxiety of someone constantly breathing down your neck with this, then that’s fine.’”

Williams smiles. “What goes around comes around, I guess,” he says with a shrug.

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The following year, 2010, Williams — while still publishing Frank — launched Gaze magazine.

Gaze, Atlantic Canada’s Queer Quarterly, was “designed for members and supporters of Atlantic Canada’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered community,” according to the publication’s website.

“The whole thing is about trying to broaden people’s knowledge and perspective. There’s a huge difference between being tolerated and being accepted,” says Williams. “If you can gear people that extra step so that they actually understand and accept things, then that’s a true change.”

But all the time he was putting into Gaze — combined with long hours and inner-office drama at Frank, as well as an unpredictable future for print media — forced Williams to question how he wanted to spend his time.

“I was just getting burned out and, like anything, when you start to get burned out, you start to lose interest and then you start to wonder,” says Williams. “The last thing you wanted to do was be the one who was in charge when [Frank] went under.”

He started looking for someone to take over.

“Nobody really wanted it,” says Williams.  “It was like being stuck with the hot potato and having nobody left to throw it to.”

Parker Rudderham, a wealthy businessman from Cape Breton, was prepared to play catch.

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On Saturday, November 6, 2010, the Chronicle Herald reported Rudderham had paid Williams “more than $100,000 for Frank.” Though Williams won’t give an exact figure, he insists it was “a whole lot less” than that, especially after lawyer fees. He adds: “It was more about me getting out and hoping someone else would keep it going than it was about getting any amount of money for it.”

For his part, Rudderham says “the company was not in good shape when we took it over. The thing had been milked for a long time… [Williams] got out at a good time in terms of capital.”

An honour and a pleasure

John Williams wrote this letter, “Signing Off from Gaze Magazine”, for the fall, 2011 issue.

Gaze has always been a labour of love. Never intended to be a cash cow or a permanent replacement for regular, paid employment, this undertaking was born solely from a personal desire to provide Atlantic Canada with a queer-themed publication capable of transcending the boundaries of both age and sexuality. That it has fulfilled that mandate makes this announcement all the more difficult: this issue of Gaze will be its last.

While profit was never paramount among my concerns, generating enough ad revenue to cover production costs remained crucial to the magazine’s long-term existence. Regrettably, that goal remains unmet.

The decision to cease publication was not an easy one. In fact, from an economic standpoint, it’s one that probably should have been made before now. But pulling the plug without properly signing off just didn’t seem right.

So with that, I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you to each and every person whose support made this project possible. Though its run has been brief, Gaze has nonetheless proven itself to be thoughtful and engaging, not only in terms of its coverage of queer issues, but in its dedication to giving up-and-coming writers, artists and photographers, regardless of their sexual identity, a chance to showcase their talents.

It’s been an honour and a pleasure being part of this very worthwhile undertaking.

John Williams”

Williams admits he no longer had the time or resources to put into Frank, but says selling the magazine was one of his “worst decisions,” particularly because he hasn’t been able to find a job.

It’s been nearly a year since Williams received a paycheque.

He’s applied for positions at CBC radio, CKBW (a radio station in Bridgewater), the Chronicle Herald, and the business website AllNovaScotia.com, but hasn’t been able to even land an interview. He attributes this frustrating fact to his time as publisher of Frank, writing and overseeing stories that dragged the who’s who of Halifax, including potential employers, through the muck.

After applying for an open night editor position at the Chronicle Herald, Williams says “Dan Leger (director of news content at the Herald) basically told me I had ‘a snowball’s chance in hell.’”

“An accurate assessment,” says Leger. He refused to comment further.

“It’s been a tad humbling,” says Williams. “If I hadn’t planned for this financially, I don’t know what I would do.”

To continue the spiral, his labour of love, Gaze, is also becoming a victim of his financial situation.

Each issue of Gaze costs Williams between $3,500 and $4,000, with circulation teetering between five and six thousand for most issues. He doesn’t receive government subsidies and advertising isn’t much help either.

“It’s sad to pull the plug because I think it’s just getting to a point now where it’s really starting to grow outside of the community it was targeted at,” Williams says.

Chris Cochrane, a.k.a “Elle Noir” — an entertainer and one of the most “‘Halifamous’” figureheads in Halifax’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — says she “really believe[s Gaze] is something we should keep in our community,” because of the “in-depth look and translation” of the LGBT community it offers.

“I didn’t expect to make any money off of it, but I also thought I would have a regular day job to even things out,” says Williams. “The only thing I have to fall back on is my savings so it’s me or the magazine… I can’t afford to keep both afloat.”

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Even the man who initially saw such potential in Williams back in the spring of 1998 has given him the cold shoulder.

When Williams inquired about an open position at AllNovaScotia, David Bentley, who’d gone on to found the online business weekly, wrote back: “Nice to hear from you. Nothing moving on that score right now. [We’d] strongly suggest, in any case, that [AllNovaScotia] is not the daily grinding place for your talents. Keep in touch.”

Williams says the email was pleasant, but “it definitely stung.

“In no way did I expect to walk into his office and have a job, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to at least consider me should something come up,” he says. “I don’t really know what that’s all about.”

Bentley declined to comment.

Friend and former Frank colleague Neal Ozano says it’s “heartbreaking” Williams can’t seem to find a job, because he’s a “fantastic reporter.”

“He has tons of sources, tons of information, great stories… He knows how to engage people… Anybody blaming the stigma of Frank magazine is a fool for leaving him behind.”

Bruce Wark, who doesn’t know Williams personally, is a retired University of King’s College professor of journalism. He thinks Williams may simply be a victim of the times. “Since the local media have been laying off staff over the last few years, [can] Williams rightly claim that the only reason he isn’t getting hired is his past affiliation with Frank?” he said via email.

So what’s next for John Williams, former Frank publisher and current local pariah?

He says he’s hanging up his poison pen and revisiting the idea of teaching English in Korea.

Williams laughs. “To my knowledge, I haven’t pissed off any amounts of people in that part of the world yet.”

 

 Click on the images below to view the online editions of Gaze.