Herald says farewell to leader of newsroom family

Last month I marked my 35th anniversary at The Herald. This column isn’t my goodbye — not yet.

How anyone stays with one employer that long is a blend of gratifying work and resilience. Do your job and care about it. Get along with people. As for bad bosses — and who hasn’t had one? — this is my mantra: “We can outlast ‘em.” I outlasted several.

I never wanted to outlast the Herald editor leaving today.

Robert Frank has been The Daily Herald’s city editor since 2002. After 36 years of newspaper work, he’ll start a career outside of journalism. On his Facebook page, he described his new gig as “an exciting opportunity to put my brain, skills and experience to use in growing a business.”

For 14 years, Robert’s skills, experience and a brain that can finish a New York Times crossword on a lunch break have shaped the news you read. He has been the first reader of my work. Over the past couple years, he shepherded coverage of inconceivable tragedies, the Oso mudslide and the Marysville Pilchuck High School shootings.

“We focused on telling the community as calmly and clearly as possible what people knew, and what we didn’t know,” he said Tuesday. “You can’t not think about the tragedy, but you have to find ways of helping people make sense of it. This is where service to the community comes to the front.”

The work of editors isn’t showy. Readers don’t see it. For us as well, what Robert brought was right before our eyes but barely noticed. His tenure has been a stabilizing force after a decade or more of management and industry upheaval.

Witty and wicked-smart, Robert has been a head of household, the leader of a close-knit, complicated and sometimes messy work family. We on the city desk are all writers and reporters. Like siblings who share genes but not personalities, we have different habits and strengths.

Robert came to The Herald from the Eastside Journal and previously worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Southern California, including The Orange County Register. When he arrived here, he shared something I won’t forget. He said a newsroom is like a treehouse. Sometimes we have fun in the treehouse, but sometimes we fight — like a family. As different as we are, each one contributes to the whole.

Diana Hefley, who covers courts for The Herald, has been part of Robert’s newsroom family the longest. She was 23 when he hired her at the Eastside Journal in 1997. “He has always taken an interest in our lives outside of here,” she said. “He knows our stories.”

Robert knows our kids, our troubles, our obscure tastes in music, and which overused phrases we habitually slip into our work. We know his proclivities — an understandable fanaticism for The Ramones and Elvis Costello, and an inexplicable fondness for “Star Trek.”

For our Christmas gifts each year, Robert updated the mix-tape idea. He compiled a crazy-quilt CD of holiday carols called “Jingle Claus.” I have quite a collection of hard-to-find Yuletide tunes, Nat King Cole and church choirs to punk.

Another holiday tradition has been Robert’s one-man war on cliched writing. His annual emails of banned verbiage included “’Tis the season,” “Grinch” (any form or use), “ho ho ho” and many more, and ended with “You get the idea.”

Robert has an outsized gift for mentoring young reporters. He told me about his easiest hiring decision. Yoshiaki Nohara, who had come from Japan to earn a master’s degree at the University of Montana, had applied for a Herald internship. It took just a question or two during the interview for Robert to see a gem.

Now a journalist in Tokyo, Yoshi covered east Snohomish County for The Herald. He also wrote an award-winning two-part narrative about Mas Odoi and other Japanese immigrants who settled near Mukilteo.

In 2006, Yoshi thanked co-workers for their help with that project. “Robert Frank, my boss, trusted me to do this project and gave me time to execute it well,” he wrote.

His editing of the story was like “magic,” Yoshi wrote.

Each of us has been a lucky beneficiary of Robert’s magic.

Work is more than a task or a place. It’s people, each one a unique character — like in “The Office.”

When that comedy ended in 2013, Daniel Ralston wrote an article for Esquire called “What I Learned from Watching Every Single Episode of ‘The Office.’” The last tip, No. 27, was this: “Have an exit plan.”

I’ll add it to the long list of things Robert taught us.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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