Let’s be Frank
Thousands and thousands of Canadians have been Franked. Even I've been Franked - indirectly. So what was it about the satirical magazine's new owner that didn't make me want to throttle him?
It felt like -50 C in the Frank magazine office. Taylor suggested his attire would set a good scene: scarf, black toque and gloves with cut-off fingers. There was a thin film of frost inside the window.
“We’re giving up on satire and gossip,” Taylor said, leaning back with his feet up on the desk and gloved hands clasped behind his neck.
“Medical oddities,” Kim Honey chirped in.
“Just weird pictures of people, like, with gaping holes in their faces and stuff like that,” Taylor continued.
“You know those doctor photos with skin cancer?” Honey giggled.
“Yeah. Syphilitic noses and stuff like that.” Feet off the desk, he leaned forward. “No, I’m just joking. We haven’t really changed anything. I mean, since we last spoke. When was that, October? Before Christmas? Was it a telephone interview? I swear I’m losing my memory. Back into the spider hole.”
“The bat cave,” Honey added.
Taylor is Frank’s new publisher, and Honey is his newly-hired editor. These old buddies have long shared a love for pranks and mischief, even when they worked for The Globe and Mail. Now that they’re out of “the graveyard,” which is Taylor’s term for the newsroom, they’re happily making mischief for a living.
It is now January, 2004, and for five months I’ve been watching the dead cat bounce – or at least its aftermath. “Dead cat bounce” is a term used in stock markets to describe the final, futile upsurge of a declining stock. In Frank’s case it was the freakish spike in sales after Taylor published his first issue, number 414, in October 2003. Since that one brief, floating moment, the gossipy cat has been in free fall.
o o o
The first time I met Taylor, at a downtown restaurant, he was enthusiastic about the new Frank. It was in early October 2003, and the relaunched issue was due out in three weeks. Taylor was boasting about taking down “the arrogant, sleazy, rich Bay Street guys.” He said, “We want them to be able to laugh at themselves.” At that point there was some continuity with the old Frank, since former publisher Michael Bate was helping with content and sharing a list of contacts. Bate claimed that even though Taylor made the final decision they worked well together because they had no difference of opinion. The new publisher was taking the high road, saying his Frank wouldn’t consist of cut-and-paste stories based on anonymous faxes or email sources – a weakness of Bate’s tabloid. On CBC’s As It Happens, Taylor jokingly described himself as a “truth warrior.”
The “truth warrior” was good-looking, but in a nerdy way. When I described Taylor to my boyfriend he started referring to Taylor as my “dreamboat.” He was tall, a bit gawky and wore glasses. His self-deprecating comments were funny, but he hardly ever laughed, and I found his relaxed manner unnerving. He told me he hadn’t yet figured out how to make money on Frank and had 10 days to come up with the new issue’s content. “Do you have any stories?” he inquired, sounding tired and emotional. “I may have to make some up.” He was hoping to raise Frank’s circulation to 15,000 in the next 18 months. “We’re at eight [thousand] now,” he said; his dead-cat chart showed newsstand sales were at 3,600 when he bought it.
I visited Frank’s new Toronto headquarters for the first time in early November. The space, shared with a law office, was beautiful, with hardwood floors and large windows. I counted nine empty rooms, with a kitchen space and a bike with a babyseat leaning against a new couch. It was sunny outside, which made me think Taylor could really use a tan. He was haggard but in good spirits, despite phone lines not working properly and the fax machine beeping like crazy even though no faxes were going through (“You know how to fix that?” he asked.) The night before, Taylor was awakened by the thought, “I am done – we’re finished.” He was dreaming about post-production disasters.
The chaos was a signal of a new beginning. Taylor wanted the new Frank to get rid of the “juvenile humour,” to attract more advertisements and to include Canada’s financial community on Bay Street as a target, instead of focusing entirely on media and politics. Bate’s magazine had pissed off those two groups for 15 years, printing stories that sometimes got it right and sometimes didn’t.
On this November day Taylor vowed, “We’re trying to cut ties with the old Frank as much as possible.” Still, people who’d been “Franked” doubted his sincerity. My boyfriend, Russell Smith, the novelist and Globe columnist who’d been Franked numerous times, told me I was naive to trust Taylor, but I had a hard time seeing him as nasty. Taylor claimed he had no views. He said he was agnostic and apolitical. He hated being a journalist. He believed Frank would work. This from someone who described himself as “a guy who was a superstar at The Globe and Mail.” Some of his ex-colleagues encouraged me to ask him what his wife – and mother of his two kids – thought of the career change. Some wondered if he made a big mistake trying to relaunch the magazine too quickly. He had an answer for that one – he said he had to because Frank subscriptions made the ideal Christmas gift.
o o o
In December, when I visited the Frank offices for the second time, Taylor’s ties with the old tabloid had been cut a little more quickly than anticipated. After 14 years of gossip peddling, Bate had left. He had launched Frank nationally in Ottawa in 1989 with the help of David Bentley, its original founder. Bentley, along with Lyndon Watkins and Dulcie Conrad, had started the Haligonian Frank two years before.
Over the next few years, Bate bought out his partners to become the sole owner. The original circulation was 600, rising to about 16,000 during the Brian Mulroney years when Frank was read widely on Parliament Hill. The circulation dipped to 8,500 in the late 1990s and was about 7,500 in August 2003, when Taylor and his partners bought it. The dreary newsstand sales confirmed a lack of interest in Frank when Taylor developed his dead-cat chart in December.
Bate was supposed to remain the editor, but he quit two weeks after Taylor’s first issue came out. He said he was simply tired. One knowledgeable source says the parting was less than amicable: “A higher degree of friction existed between Fabrice and Michael. Fabrice was rumoured to be very unhappy with the relaunch content and made threatening suggestions that changes might have to be made – Michael walks the plank.” Taylor joked that Bate was now teaching kids media ethics at his wife’s Montessori school. Bate took his contact list with him.
Turning Frank around has been a “very painstaking process,” according to Taylor. It had to be turned slowly so it wouldn’t scare away old readers, but he wasn’t really interested in catering to the “perverse, embittered sentiments of disgruntled, bitter losers,” people he said made up most of the readership. He wanted the magazine to be funny and gossipy, but also to break important stories other papers wouldn’t touch. He wasn’t very interested in writing about other journalists. A few weeks after Taylor told me this, the sixth issue of the relaunched Frank placed Russell Smith – among Frodo the Hobbit and The Poor – on its Wankers 2004 list, at number 99. Russell was predicted, in the year 2004, to most likely “gravely wear a smart postmodern periwig and breeches. Still get more half-his-age fashion victim tail than Znaimer.”
o o o
So I was Franked, however indirectly (and Russell is “shurely” only 1.53 times my age). Maybe it was because in late December I, like, decided to wear my funky Guess glasses when I went to meet Taylor and, Omigod, he must have liked them because halfway through our interview I looked up to see him with his feet up on the desk, his mouth in a smirk, like, take off his geeky specs and put on mine. He was perhaps pointing out how the Frank office was all about fun.
The empty rooms were filling up. Some of them even had doors and there was a newsroom space. A gorgeous bright red-and-silver antique barber chair stood in the corner. Taylor was looking for more writers. I joked he should make them sit in the chair during interviews.
“Well, I’m having a lot of fun,” Craig [not his real name], the newly hired reporter said when I asked about his brief experience so far. Taylor admitted to a couple of “disasters.” Frank’s bookkeeper quit almost immediately after the relaunch and Taylor’s wife ended up with the job. Quinton – Taylor’s brother – smiled nervously as he slaved over an ancient computer. I wondered if he was making up some of those fake personal ads that were supposed to attract actual personals, which was Taylor’s idea to create revenue (the idea was quickly dropped). Another brilliant idea was a fabricated Frank cover with your wedding photo on it – only $399. Five issues into the relaunch, they hadn’t sold any.
I asked Taylor about the design changes and additional costs of thicker cover stock and printing on smooth paper, both departures from Bate’s newsprint edition. He said there wasn’t enough demand to justify the production costs, so they were returning to cheap paper, “You’re not selling ads, why do you need it?” the printer asked Taylor.
I suspected the mounting disappointments didn’t faze Taylor, since his motivation seemed to be masochism. Five issues into the new Frank, Taylor was obsessing over his “Trends in Circulation” chart where the long painful descent of the dead cat was marked. “Here, do you want me to show you the chart again?” Taylor asked when I said Frank hadn’t changed much. “Let’s look at the chart one last time. Whoa! Here’s a happy looking chart, eh? It’s true, there’s something to that, which is why I realize we need to really quickly staff this thing up and really start to show some changes – otherwise we’re dead.”
I proposed he make an office poster out of it, in place of those cheesy motivational pictures of mountain climbers or surfers pursuing their dreams. “Yeah, that would be really depressing,” Taylor said, scanning the chart again. “I talk to Bate and I say: ‘You know this thing [Frank] is really toxic, that’s the problem with Frank. Toxic.’ He disagrees with me because he thinks it’s a reflection on him, but he has to live with that. He made Frank what it was – and we’re trying to make it what it was again. He built it up to what it was, then he took it down.”
o o o
Old Frank really started to lose readers – and money – when the libel suits piled up. The cat began falling around 1996 when Frank was successfully sued for $75,000 by a Quebec judge for suggesting he slept with a key witness at a trial over which he presided.
Frank’s annual revenues were about $300,000 and falling when Taylor raised around $500,000 to buy the magazine and to beef up the enterprise with the help of five anonymous investors. He said they were all “millionaires who believe in the true press and who suspect one hardly ever gets a story behind the story in regular dailies. They are all sympathetic to hard-hitting journalism.” Because Taylor refused to reveal the investors’ identities, Frank’s long-time lawyer, William McDowell, threatened to leave – he never did.
But Taylor didn’t need a lawyer anyway, he said. If he were ever sued, especially by rich people, they would withdraw their claims once they realized the discovery process would expose their lives to a wider audience. Or if Taylor ignored the suit, it would simply “dry up.”
He denied that the new Frank had any legal problems. “No libel. Not major libel. Probably not enough libel, actually. I would like to get more libel notices. It actually concerns me that we don’t get more.”
o o o
The most important commandment of journalism is “Know your reader.” When I met with Taylor right before Christmas, he said the new Frank did not have a reader profile – it was too expensive. In all his attempts to change Frank, Taylor had never considered the readership. After dumping one of the most popular features, the curmudgeonly Dick Little column, and exiling its author to a Frank Web site to run a blog instead, a groundswell of old readers demanded Little’s return and threatened to cancel their subscriptions.
Dick Little returned to the back inside cover of the magazine, a normally lucrative source of advertising revenue. The personal ads meant to pay for the space never materialized. Asked about Frank’s ideal reader, Taylor said he (or she) was a “wealthy, older, educated, downtown Toronto businessman… or politician,” not a Dick Little fan, but Taylor needed any reader he could get.
Taylor’s biggest problem was hiring more reporters – nobody took the job ads seriously because of Frank’s terrible reputation. Taylor was astounded to hear from one applicant, “You’re actually going to pay me?!” which he said just shows the type of place Frank used to be. He said, “People are afraid to be working for Frank because they think it’s going to be the end of their career. It’s the stupidest thing.”
o o o
The one experienced journalist who didn’t see Frank as a death knell was Kim Honey, whom I met on my last visit to Frank in January 2004. By then, most of the rooms now had doors, the partitions were complete and there was a solid coat rack with a woman’s black Isaac Mizrahi coat hanging off it.
Honey was five days into her tenure as editor of Frank, and the circulation had fallen to 7,200. Honey quit the Globe 10 days before her scheduled return from maternity leave. “I’ve been training for this job ever since I was six,” she told me. “I’ve been pulling pranks since then. Fabrice and I pulled a few at the Globe and I’m well qualified for this job.” She was tired of being told what to do at the Globe and having her ideas quashed for no apparent reason.
Honey was well aware of Frank’s reputation. When she went back to clean out her desk at the Globe some people congratulated her, some made a U-turn when they saw her and one reporter gave her a Canadian Tire dollar to keep his name out of Frank. It showed her how egotistical journalists were. “One of them said, ‘Isn’t that a career cul-de-sac?’ I thought, ‘You’re in the career cul-de-sac, I just cut out.'”
Former colleagues of Honey and Taylor have speculated that they were “moles” for Frank when they worked at the Globe. Honey said some friends who work at the paper told her they were worried that they were now going to be Franked.
Taylor furiously started scrolling items on his laptop as Honey explained how working at the magazine allowed for the distance you couldn’t get at a daily. I was about to ask if he was looking at the chart again, when he interjected: “I’m afraid Russell made the Drivel section in the next issue… it was just too irresistible. Sorry.”
“Oh, yeah,” Honey gave a little laugh, “we’re so terribly sorry.”
“We didn’t know you were coming in.” He went back to looking at his computer.
Honey got serious. “These people at the Globe, they’re supposed to be intelligent newsmen and that’s the job of the columnist as well.”
Taylor interrupted again as he continued scrolling: “How do you spell ‘John Barber’?”
o o o
Apart from Honey, Taylor hired two reporters in Ottawa and a freelancer – a former political insider – to write about politics. He also hired a part-time reporter in Toronto. Craig, Honey and Taylor agreed, was a great guy but had to be spoon-fed a little, being fresh out of school. Honey echoed Taylor’s persistent ambition to make Frank as attractive as Private Eye, the established British satirical magazine. “We want doctors, we want lawyers, we want advertising execs, we want teachers. The idea is that you will pick it up and buy it just by looking at a cover that’s interesting.”
“So are investors happy with you so far?” I asked Taylor.
“Let me summarize that in a resounding NO.”
What were the investors unhappy about? “They wonder when the content is going to improve, like, a lot.” His favourite story so far was the pictorial spread of Jaguars, Porsches and BMWs parked in handicapped spaces (“the crips” Taylor called them) in posh Yorkville. None of the cars had handicapped stickers, and Frank identified the owners. Even though some investors weren’t excited about it, Taylor saw it as the ideal Frank story – “Lower deeds of people in high places.” Frank “gives you a whole lot more power than you’d have at the Globe,” said Taylor, adding that ideally the new Frank would break only stories that dealt with abuse of power. The parking story wasn’t very funny, he agreed, but it had “socially redeeming” qualities. He sounded sarcastic.
When was the ideal Frank going to come out? There was a long pause in the freezing office as Taylor looked at Honey and Honey looked at Taylor. “We don’t know… geez… we still haven’t…” Taylor stopped, then started again. “I can’t answer that.”
Honey helped him, saying, “We have a long way to go.”
“Yeah, we have a long way to go.”
“We’re just hoping that the next one’s gonna be… we’re hoping…” Honey was thinking aloud. “We’re really confident that it’s gonna be better than that one [the first issue of 2004]. And we’re hoping, with each issue, to make it better and better. So I don’t know. Give us a few months at least.”
Taylor now had a better answer. “I think by May you should. I can turn my back now, I can leave because I know Kim’s a pro.”
When I first met Taylor he suggested a lead for my story: “One of the most exciting magazines… in this crowded field of these impressive, glossy publications launching all the time and then… there’s this dirty little rag that becomes successful…”
Four months later, still no scent of success. However, in the second issue of 2004, Taylor landed his first scoop: speculation about Toronto Star publisher John Honderich’s imminent departure, which was more of a media story than the craved business dirt. But I admired Taylor’s ambition. Last time I saw him, the guy looked like “a character from Oliver Twist,” as Honey noted, wearing mutilated gloves and a scarf as he sat there patiently answering questions and freezing in the name of Frank. He told me – again – how stunned he was that nobody congratulated him on his new job. “Not even an e-mail, nothing.”
“Are you joking?” I couldn’t figure out if he was sarcastic
“No. I’m serious.”
It was difficult not to quietly root for him. Besides, dead cats can bounce at least twice, and cats have nine lives.
Jowita Bydlowska was the Visuals Editor for the Spring 2004 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.