Frank by name, Frank by nature?

By Jennifer Adams

Secrets revealed of Atlantic Canada’s most infamous scandal sheet! Intrepid KJR reporter stalks the true story of the little check-out-stand magazine that regularly embarrasses, titillates and provokes this region’s political, media and business elite. Find out who runs it, who writes it, and how they do it.

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The Atlantic edition of Frank will celebrate its 20th birthday in November 2007. The magazine has published over 500 issues since inception.

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By Jennifer Adams

While Frank is notorious for snooping through the lives of notable Atlantic Canadians, the magazine doesn’t want anyone knocking on its own door. The unmarked, glass and metal door that guards the entrance to the world of Frank on the fourth floor of a Duke Street office building is locked. In fact, if you are determined to gain access to this mysterious place, you must walk up another flight of stairs to the fifth floor, convince the people at Origin Biomedicinals Inc. to let you use the elevator inside their offices, and ride it back down one floor.

“I think there is a sense of secrecy about what goes on inside these walls, and a bit of a desire within these walls to keep it that way,” says Frank reporter Andrew Douglas. After nine phone calls and one face-to-face conversation, this is the only statement that Douglas will commit to the record.

With fake bylines and a myriad of unidentified sources, Frank is a subject of curiosity in Halifax. Who are the writers behind the pseudonyms? How do they discover the details of their stories? Increasing the mystery is the fact that many people don’t want to talk about the magazine. Most of the reporters refuse or ignore requests for interviews. Some of Frank’s most famous victims, including current ATV employees Steve Murphy and Rick Grant, and former ATV host Nancy Regan, declined to comment or didn’t return calls from KJR. Even Frank’s founder, David Bentley, didn’t want to talk about the publication, with which he is no longer involved.

“I am many miles away from you and thousands of years away from Frank,” Bentley says.

Frank was first published in November of 1987 by Bentley, who had previously founded and sold the Daily News, and by Dulcie Conrad and Lyndon Watkins. Bentley later went on to start a Frank in Ottawa, which has since folded and reappeared online. The Halifax publication is a separate entity and has been headed by several different editors over the past 20 years.

Every two weeks Frank offers readers a 32-page look at the lives and scandals of a veritable who’s who in Atlantic Canada, from politicians and media personalities to school principals and ministers. Marriages, divorces, legal troubles and estates are all common topics for the magazine and are usually reported with a heavily opinionated, snide tone. For example, in the Oct. 2, 2007, issue, there is a three-page story about the wedding of Nancy Regan’s ex-husband. It details the ceremony but focuses on the guest list and makes various quips about those in attendance. Such stories are usually written with a pseudonym, such as Meg A. Bucks or I. Dunno, that echoes the story’s theme.

Editor John Williams says the pseudonyms are for entertainment and are a hit with readers.

“It’s more a stylistic thing, than it is us trying to hide behind some sort of veil of secrecy,” says Williams. “I don’t think, ‘Here I am, no one knows who I am so it’s easy for me to sneak around and do things.” People ask me all the time what I do for a living. I tell them that I am reporter. If they ask me where, I fess up.” Though Williams often goes by Billy Bob McWilliams in the magazine, he says when a story is very personal, Frank reporters use their real names.

Williams disagrees with the perception that there is a sense of secrecy around Frank.

“I think it’s really very much like any other paper. But because its focus is a bit different, people think there’s much more cachet to what we do, or the mystique of the whole thing. I don’t think there really is a mystique, I think that people like to think there is.”

Subscriber Dave Paterson is one of those people. “When I picture Frank,” he says, “I picture one guy sitting in a dark, smoky room, who has top secret sources and information.”

The real Frank office doesn’t match that description. For starters, the one-room office is well lit, with windows on one wall facing out to the street. There are desks and several old computers, but mostly there are piles of paper everywhere. The floor, desks, chairs and cabinets are littered with stacks of newspapers, back issues of Frank, and computer printouts. The office seems to lack a decorating theme – though it vaguely resembles a garage sale in the making – and any sense of organization. The clock that ticks down the seconds toward each deadline – which is subject to change depending on the issue – features several colourful birds. The office is home to four full-time reporters: Williams, Douglas, Clifford Boutilier, and Daniel Walsh.

The journalistic backgrounds of these reporters varies. Williams began writing for Frank right out of university and hasn’t had any other formal journalism experience. Douglas worked in radio for several years in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but Frank is his first print journalism job. Walsh does have previous print experience, writing for newspapers such as Halifax’s Chronicle Herald and The Coast. Boutilier was not in the office when calls were made. As the employee with the most Frank experience, Boutilier works every other week.

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Stories in Frank start as tips called in through the newsroom hotline or as items heard by the writers. From there, tips are followed up and stories are researched.

“We check everything as much as we possibly can,” says Williams. “If it doesn’t pan out, we don’t do it. If we can find something, like any other outlet, we pursue it and go from there.”

Devin Maxwell, a Halifax lawyer who has been featured in Frank multiple times, has a different version of events. Reporters at Frank have written about Maxwell’s blog, and also referred to him as the “sacrificial lamb” of the 2006 Nova Scotia provincial election, in which Maxwell ran for the Liberal Party in the Halifax-Citadel riding. Maxwell says, despite these mentions in the magazine, he has never been contacted by a Frank reporter.

“When they wrote about me [in regard to the election], nobody ever spoke to me, and as far as I know nobody ever spoke to any of my friends or other people to get any information from them. So it was basically an article that was written out of nothing.”

When asked about Frank’s off-the-record policy, Williams declines to comment. He does say the magazine follows an ethical guideline, but that it isn’t written down. Williams says that Frank is open with anyone calling to complain about a story.

“If they call and say, ‘who did this story?,’ I say, ‘I did this story, here’s who I am if you want to talk to me.'” Later he adds, “I certainly try to explain where I’m coming from.”

Sometimes explanations aren’t enough. A search of Nova Scotia Supreme Court records shows six civil lawsuits against the magazine. Nova Scotia Provincial Court records show seven. Frank lost its first lawsuit in 2000 against Nova Scotia Member of Parliament Gordon Earle. Frank was found to have defamed Earle in a 1996 article that said he was going to be fired.. The truth, said Earle, was that he was going to retire early.

Some aspects of Frank are not meant to be taken for truth at all. The last pages often feature “Just Not So Stories,” with the accompanying line “Yes, we make them up.” Pictures of celebrities are sometimes used as stand-ins for story subjects, with a caption stating that the subject is “not exactly as illustrated.” While Frank does not sell real advertising space, it often publishes fake ads.

Halifax journalist Kevin Cox thinks the fictitious elements in Frank may contribute to skepticism about the validity of other stories in the magazine. Cox, who works for Frank founder Bentley at the online business publication, urges journalists away from secret identities and tactics.

“I think the media should be upfront about what they do, upfront about who they are, where they are located, and how they do their business.”

Reader Paterson says he has no idea who is behind Frank. A recent graduate of Dalhousie University and the University of King’s College in Halifax, Paterson first picked up the magazine at the King’s library and says he most enjoys the writing style and the comic elements of the magazine.

“I think the secrecy that surrounds Frank is okay,” he says, “because it’s not serious journalism.”

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photo2 : frankmag Cox does believe there is a place in the Halifax media for Frank. He says the magazine provides leads for many journalists in the city who follow up on the stories with more research for their own publications.

“I think that many journalists look at Frank as being bottom feeders. Anything in Frank is seen as open to question and probably not reliable,” says Cox. “But I would turn to the same journalist and say, honestly, how many tips have you picked up out of that magazine and followed up on? And I’d imagine it’s dozens.”

He also notes that Frank has done some excellent investigative research over the years, breaking important stories such as the August 2006 cover story on Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald’s marriage troubles. Frank was the first news outlet to report that the premier was no longer living in his matrimonial home with his wife and son, and the first to speak with MacDonald’s wife about the issue – though even this important story was written under a pseudonym. Cox says Frank did a great service to the public because people deserved to know why the premier may have been distracted from leading the government.

Maxwell agrees, saying that Frank’s style – best summed up by the magazine’s tag line, “Frank by Name, Frank by Nature,” allows it to print gutsier pieces.

Frank often says things the other newspapers are afraid to say,” says Maxwell.

When asked if the paper is more willing to print such stories because its own reporters’ bylines are not usually accompanying the information, Williams says this is not the case.

While Williams says that any idea of mystique surrounding Frank is false, he is far from transparent when asked about the magazine. He is vague on what he calls “trade secrets,” namely how the magazine gets story ideas. He won’t talk about details such as how many subscribers Frank has, or how many copies of the magazine sell in stores. And though he says the pseudonyms are for fun, when asked for the name of one reporter whose identity was unknown at the time of the interview, he point blank refuses to say.

“I will neither confirm nor deny that,” says Williams, when the name Daniel is suggested, as has been mentioned by an outside journalist. This turns out to be correct.

Still averse to the word secrecy, Williams talks instead of methods, comparing his business to that of the culinary arts.

“If you’re a chef and you have a secret recipe, it’s just one of those things where you have a set way of doing things and you don’t necessarily tell everybody,” he says. Allowing the word in question to slip into his answer he finishes: “Because what kind of business would you have if you gave away all your secrets?”