Frankly it seemed like a perfect story. It was a barbed, somewhat nasty tale, and it made all the right people look .
Wrong. For Frank, the satirical magazine notorious for scoops on the press, a chance to take i poke at The Financial Post was too good a pass up. When whispers of injustice eddied through the halls of the Post, Frank pounced like a lion on a lamb chop.
The story, written November 1990 questioned the validity of 19-year-old Heather Mallick’s jump from copy editor a assistant news editor. An unusual move ‘or a teenager, all in all. But when Frank revealed Mallick was the bride of the Post’s 53-year-old executive editor, Steve Petherbridge, the pieces fell malevolently nto place. The not-sa-subtle hint of nepotism was enough to make Post folks cringe. It was perfect. Franks iconoclastic muckrackers scored a direct hit. Sort of. Roasting the Post didn’t quite come off is planned. Somewhere along the way ;pite and rumor blended together and Frank raked the wrong muck. Mallick is, n fact, 31, and the editorial skills and )otential of a high-school-level girl can.1ot compare with those of a woman 12 rears her senior. Petherbridge would cerainly agree. Shortly after the story appeared Frank, he announced he would sue Frank for damaged.
A lawsuit might not be the most damaging reprisal directed at Frank. As more and more factual mistakes pile up, the magazine will garner all the credibility of a Beetle Bailey cartoon. Despite its irreverent nature, Frank’s success hinges on the accuracy of its offbeat stories. The Petherbridge piece is typical Frank fare: crude, rude, off-the-mark and well-read by those it lambastes. It is the magazine people love to hate, and hate to love. Of course that’s fine by the merry Franksters behind it all. “People are keen for a laugh,” says the magazine’s editor, Michael Bate. “There’s room for a magazine like us that doesn’t take things seriously. What we do is take a regular story and spin it.”
Some stories have more than a spin. Some should be measured in RPMs. In a business that preaches objectivity, Frank is guilty of journalistic heresy. The magazine-“Frank by name, Frank by nature” -adopts a cheeky bias as it lampoons public figures and attacks the pompous with guerilla-style vigor. “The press is full of stuff that is safe and bland and predictable,” says Bate. “We’re the antidote for that stuff. We’re not trying to be fair. We’re this little speck of fly shit in the whole ocean of information that the dairy press and the electronic press barrage people with.”
To rebel against the establishment Frank writers flaunt their subjectivity Uninhibited by any of the traditional rules, Frank goes after gossip as quickly as a chocoholic goes after a Mars bar This free rein is both a blessing and 3 curse. In its madcap attempt to skewer the haughty, Frank often ends up printing scurrilous rumor.
Whatever the case, the magazine is still an attractive outlet for many mainstream insiders who wish to show cracks in the facade. Frank has a network of people who tip them off to embarrassing stories; that would otherwise go unheard. After The Financial Post Moneywise Magazine fired popular editor Catherine Collins in March 1990, a Frank source revealed some charming staff nicknames for publisher Doug Knight. “I was quite happy to dump allover them,” says the source. “What went on there was pretty outrageous.” Aside from every eager Deep Throat, Frank receives anonymously faxed memos from disgruntled servants in society’s Ivory Towers. All the various tidbits Frank collects are like dots. “What we do,” says Bate, “is connect the dots.”
In its fervor for flash, Frank will sometimes connect a circle of dots and come up with a square. Increasing inaccuracies must be dealt with. “As the magazine has grown, more people have been drawn out of the woodwork,” says Geoff Heinricks, a Frank writer who daylights as a CityTV graphic artist. “Sources do things for all kinds of reasons and we have to figure out why.” Frank’s network needs some fine tuning. Tips are off base because sources are out of touch or malicious, or both. “Maybe people are carrying a few more hatchets than we realized,” saysHeinricks.
Hatchet jobs or not, many readers are to Frank solely laugh, and not information. “They put a little effort accuracy, otherwise be a blip in Canadian journalism,” says Kirk Makin, a Globe and Mail reporter who is both subscriber and quarry to Frank. “Everyone’ll subscribe for a year or so, then it’ll drop out of existence because it pisses everybody off.” Heinricks says Frank is making a concentrated effort to shore up the stories, but that it is unfair to disregard the magazine because of mistakes that are sorely regretted.
Bate also understands the problem, but knows the facts must still jibe with the tone of the magazine. “It’s not always the best kind of journalism,” he admits. “We’re not trying to be mavericks. We’re trying to be true to the magazine.”
With an anomaly like Frank, the truth can be a little hazy.
It has the production values of a high school newspaper: cheap newsprint, ink that comes off on your fingers and spelling errors galore. Page design has been an alien concept. Frank has a loose, funky look that befits its stick-it-to-the-big-guys attitude. The underground feel is further emphasized by its masthead-there isn’t one. Most of the writing is done in first person by the fictional chairman of the Frankland Capital Corp. The fortnightly magazine, referred to as “my organ,” carries no ads. This bargain basement appearance is planned.
“I was just looking for some way to produce a publication very cheaply with no advertising,” says publisher and cofounder David Bentley. Frank is an experiment to see whether people will dish out two dollars solely for writing and not for a glossy and grammatically correct product. Franks quirky style is simply a means to an end. “We thought the fairly sensational sort of stuff would sell and the two went hand in hand,” says Bentley.
New publishing ventures are no novelty to Bentley. In 1979, he started the Halifax Daily News, bringing circulation up to 19,000 before selling it seven years later. Then, with a tip of the hat to Britain’s Private Eye, Bentley and fellow local journalists Dulcie Conrad and Lyndon Watkins unleashed Frank in late 1987. It was more an investment in time than money. Circulation started at zero as more than 1,000 copies of the early Frank were dropped off at stores. Most of them were returned. It took almost nine months for word to get around, and when it did, Conrad says, Nova Scotian readers caught on quickly. “A lot of people saw us as the ones who aren’t afraid to tackle a story,” she says. “We don’t do anything that is covered by the rest of the press. We do the stuff they won’t.” The Halifax edition has a more straight up, newsy flavor than its Ottawa counterpart. The difference is market related. Halifax is smaller, with less media competition and more stories to be dug up.
Frank built a solid audience in the Atlantic region, but Bentley decided a move to Ontario would open up a larger market. Leaving Halifax Frank and its 5,500 circulation in the hands of Conrad and Watkins, Bentley set up shop in Ottawa in September 1989. The younger Frank has grown steadily, climbing from 3,000 copies last summer to a current circulation of more than 5,000. Frank needs to sell 10,000 copies to be viable. With 50 to 70 new subscribers per issue and Bentley now in Toronto to beef up newsstand sales and coverage, that viability level will be reached within the year. Until then, Frank will tread water. Bentley says the magazine stays afloat because no one makes any money from Frank and the bottom line is somewhere below the surface. It does manage to pay contributors roughly $50 per item, but that seems little more than a token gesture. Geoff Heinricks has complained that it costs him money to write for Frank. Still, a penurious existence hasn’t dulled Frank’s smarmy wit. Page three of the premiere Ottawa edition showed a photo of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney accompanied by a prophetic warning: “And I welcome Frank-and advise the rest of you it’s no longer safe to scratch your bums in public.”
While the Parliament Hill population scrambled to deal discreetly with the occasional tuchus itch, Frank brought Michael Bate into the fold. “He was the sort of person we were looking for,” Bentley recalls. “A perfect co-conspirator with a skeptical sense of humor.” The 46-year-old Bate had a history of wading in and swimming against the mainstream. He mixed stints at The Ottawa Citizen and Canadian Press with a turn as co-creator of CBC’s “World’s Worst Film Festival.” Eclectic exposure was good training, and after writing a few articles for Frank, Bate took on the role of editor. He has one rule: there are no rules. Everything is fair game. Frank has stabbed the Canadian Armed Forces, real estate moguls and the CBC with the same ticklish sword. The more diverse a story the better. Bate wants to keep Frank’s content as broad and as fresh as possible. “When something comes along that’s a little different, people want to label it-to file it away so it doesn’t bother them,” he says. One thing Frank can surely claim to be is a persistent bother. And not just satirically. Last summer, Frank ran a series of articles on the demise of CKO, the all-news radio station, and the business deals that surrounded it. The stories were like Izzy Stone on laughing gas-serious, but stinging. Bate sees no problem with more investigative stories in the future. Just so long as they raise a few eyebrows. “People are hungry for something that is entertaining,” he says.
Journalists seem to have the biggest appetite. Of Frank’s 600 Toronto subscribers, 70 percent are in the media. Many Frank stories come out of hushed newsroom events. “We go after the ludicrous corner stuff in the media,” says Bate.
Frank is something of a ludicrous corner itself. While it searches for a new home, the temporary headquarters of this scourge of the fourth estate, the Hearstlike Frankland Capital Corp., is a little office in downtown Ottawa that is as low rent as the magazine it puts out. The office strives to go incognito. There is no name on the building directory or on the door. Inside is a combination of slouch-hatted seediness and high-tech software. If Sam Spade were a computer nerd, this is how his office would look. All the hallmarks of desktop publishing are there-three computers, a printer, scattered floppy disks and operating manuals. The equipment is teased. The computer chips, though, clash with the paint chips and the choice of wallpaper would make a decorator nauseous. The furniture looks to be a hand-me-down set from a used car dealership. Michael Bate doesn’t mind the furniture. He looks quite comfortable in his swivel chair as he talks on the phone with a source. A saucy grin is on his face. “Yeah, I heard the Citizen is promising serious consequences to anyone caught giving information to Frank,” he says, his smile broadening. You almost expect a maniacal cackle. Nothing bloodcurdling, just a mock-nasty laugh. Bate and Glen McGregor, the only full-time employees of Ottawa Frank, deny that they have any hint of Snidely Whiplash in them. There is no moustache twirling at Frank. “People expect we’re mean-spirited and vicious,” says Bate. “But we’re just your average journalists who want to write news stories unencumbered by all the outside pressures.” There are no sacred cows as far as Frank’s writers are concerned. “They thumb their noses at icons and taboo subjects like a corrective,” says Saturday Night editor and occasional Frank target John Fraser. “They’re important in that it’s kind of a whistle-blower on largely unmonitored parts of life, like the media. The media monitors so much, but they’re served up in Frank. It’s an extra means of scrutiny, although they’re not always right.” “I’d say there is a 60 percent truth factor,” says Bate, “which means the other 40 percent may be factually incorrect, but the point is there.” There is always a foundation for Frank stories, but sometimes it isn’t sturdy enough. Frank implies rather than states, and allows the reader to infer rather than being spoon-fed huge chunks of indigestible data.
“The papers all present so many bland facts,” says Bate. “That’s all there is, so what eventually happens is the facts become invisible. There are so many we stop noticing them. Our readers are pretty well informed, so what we’ll do is say things and let the reader decide if it’s true or not.” This approach leaves Frank stories in a realm between fact and fiction. Readers don’t believe all the stories, but they don’t necessarily not believe them either. The result is gut reaction journalism, a ring of truth to each story. “The ring of truth can have a devastating impact, more so than something that is merely factual,” says writer Rick Salutin. “Take the cover with the Mulroneys and the Mansbridges in bed together [last summer’s Frank paste-up job that placed both says Bate, “which means couples in the four-in-a-double-bed scene from the sixties film, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice]. You assume it is at least the other 40 percent factually dubious, but even though it’s not true, people can sense the ring of truth, that the CBC is soft on the government. may be factually incorrect It’s devastating.” Bate believes the ring of truth enables Frank to look at stories in a way no other media outlet can. “The major media are but the point is there” all telling the same story. They’re all chasing their own tails and each other’s,” he says. “There is no fresh view. But we give one. We’re a small counterpoint to, say, the Globe.”
Frank is also a small thorn in the side of Canada’s national newspaper. Served up under the heading, “George Brown’s Body,” its reports teem with tales of the Globe’s floundering fortunes and disaffected ranks. No one is spared as the Globe plays fire hydrant to Franks mangy mutt. From the top of the hierarchy down, from editor-in-chief William Thorsell to columnist Jeffrey Simpson to arts editor Katherine Ashenberg, they all take their lumps and Frank, zeroing in on a prime target, dishes them out with gleeful abandon. “The Globe has stopped being a newspaper and started being a house organ for the government,” says syndicated columnist Claire Hoy, who writes Franks Correspondence page, a series of fictional letters between Mila Mulroney and Maureen McTeer that presents both women as catty, materialistic and less than intelligent. “The Globe is an apologist for the Conservatives. They should be more honest and move into Langevin Block. They deserve a kick. They take themselves so bloody seriously.”
They certainly take Frank seriously enough. The official response is no response. Thorsell’s office called to say he had no comment. Ashenberg said she hadn’t read Frank so she can’t comment. Managing editor Tim Pritchard didn’t call back. Former deputy managing editor Gwen Smith had a more direct reaction. Last fall, she ripped down several photocopied Frank stories that dotted the bulletin board in the Globe and Mail newsroom. Frank, in turn, named Smith its new Director of Copyright Enforcement and Corporate Security.
Any hint of discomfort at 444 Front St. W. will only further the Frank cause. The magazine is a printed Robin Hood, robbing the reputations of the rich to give to the, um, boors. And few have richer reputations than Roy Megarry, Globe and Mail publisher and perennial Frank whipping boy. Bate and his cohorts crawl into the nooks and crannies of Megarry’s paper, searching for the potential egg-on-the-face story.
But an overzealous attempt to knock the Globe down a peg can often leave Frank covered in yolk. This was the case with Franks report on former Globe and Mail columnist June Callwood’s departure from the paper. The story, in May 1989, recounted Callwood’s meeting with Megarry and the publisher’s explanation that his paper would no longer donate to AIDS hospices because “those people have too much influence.” Callwood, a well-known humanist, bluntly suggested that Megarry ask the opinion of editor-in-chief Thorsell. At this, the story goes, Megarry’s eyes got ”as big as banjos.” It seems he hadn’t realized Thorsell is “the only gay, right-wing Albertan in the country.” It was supposed to be a coup for Frank, pricking another hole in the Globe balloon. There was a hole, all right. A big one. But there was no air leaking out of the Globe. It was Frank’s credibility that was deflated.
“It’s totally inaccurate,” says Callwood, “and it’s a terrible way of cutting at Thorsell.” Back in June 1987, a $200-a-plate fund-raiser for Casey House, the Toronto AIDS hospice co-founded by Callwood, was organized in her honor. The Globe wasn’t buying a table and when Callwood asked Megarry why, he replied, “Not that cause.” A shocked Call wood nevertheless let the matter rest. “Two years later,” she says, “at my farewell meeting, I told Thorsell that I thought Megarry is homophobic.” That was the extent of it. But several talebearers passed the apocryphal version along and Frank bought it. “They got a whole distortion out of it,” says Callwood.
Frank printed an apology. “There were factual mistakes,” says Bate. “But the whole idea that Megarry is out of touch with his staff, that’s there. We are a humor magazine, so we’ll embellish a story to pop it off the page a little better.”
This story did pop off the page and into the sphere of bad taste. Not only was the tale wrong, it reeked of more homophobia than Megarry supposedly did. And it raised doubts whether Frank was airing out the Globes dirty laundry or dragging more of it through the mud. Bate feels badly about this, and every other inaccurate story, but says a new magazine like Frank needs to learn by trial and error. “In hindsight, you can’t pick your spots,” he says.
Picking the right spot is a dilemma Frank must solve if it continues to print office gossip. And Frank spreads more gossip than 20 teenagers at a slumber party. “It would be totally ridiculous to say we’re an upstanding example of pure, objective journalism,” says Geoff Heinricks, “but if you ran every mistake in the Star or Globe, it would take up two pages.” Yet, if something goes awry, as it inevitably will, the magazine has less to lose than a multi-million-dollar media chain. “There is less of a margin for error at Torstar or Southam,” says Heinricks. “We don’t have to live in terror as much over anything controversial. Our libel is different from their libel, given their economics, their status and their vulnerability to lawsuits.”
Frank is not exactly invulnerable to lawsuits. Aside from the Petherbridge suit, discussions started last fall with Ottawa lawyer Joe Magnet, who took exception to Frank’s less-than-sympathetic portrayal of him. As Frank becomes required reading for the well-known and well-connected, the libel actions will be stacked to the ceiling. So far, it has been easy to dismiss Frank as a marginal annoyance. But it is read almost exclusively by the journalists, lawyers and politicians it cuts up, and as more of these elite are nailed, the more their colleagues hear about it, and the need for vindication increases. This is only a passing worry, according to Heinricks. “One small lawsuit can wipe us out, let’s be honest. And someday, someone probably will, but we can start up elsewhere. That’s the whole beauty of desktop publishing. We have carte blanche to look into things.”
Bate says this carte blanche gives Frank necessary room to breathe. “We’re in the of satire and parody, and some people will be offended by what we do,” he says. “But we’re not going out of our way to be offensive. Still, if you wonder, ‘Who am I going to offend with this?’ you’ll be struck with inertia.”
So Frank remains undaunted. There is no feeling of “once bitten, twice shy.” Frank does the biting, not the other way around. “What we want,” says Bate, “is to avoid being boring.”
Never boring, Frank is like a naughty three year-old who crayons on the wall. Readers will laugh and readers will tsk tsk, but they will always be watching for what comes next.
Michael Bate is about to find out what comes next. He has been tipped off to a judge who owes $25,000 in back rent. Bate scratches his chin thoughtfully and smiles. “Maybe we can use that,” he says. The wall is ready. The crayon is poised.