Frankly Speaking: Frank Daniels Jr.

Frank Daniels Jr. has the right name. If he’s anything, he’s frank.

When he says something, it’s direct and to the point. With the bark off. And maybe with a profanity thrown in. You don’t have to guess what he’s thinking.

Maybe they’ll teach some of that at the new executive-in-residence program named in honor of Frank at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

It’s a richly deserved and fitting honor for a giant of North Carolina journalism.

Frank’s nephew David Woronoff, publisher of The Pilot in Southern Pines, said, “Everyone can use a Frank Jr. in their lives.” I’m lucky to have had Frank Jr in my life. I started my career at The News & Observer, where Frank was president and publisher from 1971-1996. 

Full disclosure: Frank is a member of the board of directors of New Day for NC, the nonprofit that publishes my blog and newspaper column. For about three years, until the Covid quarantine chased me home, I rented an office from him downtown. I had a chance to see and talk to him a lot, and sometimes he invited me to sit in when people came asking him for money.

He gives me frequent feedback on my posts, generally terse, one-line emails:

“Good column.”

On one about past elections: “Interesting column. I had forgotten most of the history.”

On one he wasn’t sure about: “Wonder if everybody agrees with you.”

On one he disagreed with: “Of course, I could be wrong.”

After we had been in lockdown: “Good column. Sure would be nice to be able to go out to eat.”

It reminded me of the advice David Woronoff said Frank gave him when he became publisher of the Pilot: “Don’t screw it up.” But Frank used an earthier four-letter word.

Frank also told him: “If you’re the smartest person here, we’ll fail.”

That is, a good leader isn’t afraid to hire smart people. That’s something else they should teach at the Journalism School – and in every management class.

Frank hired smart people at The News & Observer. Under him, the paper thrived financially and journalistically.

Whenever the subject of the Daniels family and the N&O comes up these days, there’s a reference to its white-supremacist past under founder Josephus Daniels, Frank’s grandfather.

That past is undeniable. Also undeniable is the vital role the N&O played for decades in promoting and bolstering North Carolina’s hard-earned progressive record – on race, education and economic development. The N&O also exposed generations of crooked politicians and corrupt officials.

That’s to Frank’s credit, too.

I have a vivid memory of Frank from when I worked at the N&O back in the 1970s. Every afternoon around 5, he would walk through the newsroom to Editor Claude Sitton’s office, where I assume Claude gave him a rundown on the next day’s paper.

The newsroom was always bedlam at 5 pm. Deadlines loomed. Editors shouted at reporters to finish their stories. Reporters cursed them back. Phones rang. Tempers frayed, and nerves frazzled.

One afternoon, as Frank walked through, a phone rang incessantly. Nobody answered it. Frank stopped and picked up the phone. It was the president of a local civic club, calling in a notice about an upcoming meeting.

Frank sat down at a vacant desk, rolled a piece of copy paper into the typewriter and took down the notice. He dropped it into the city editor’s in-basket and walked on to Claude’s office.

He didn’t screw it up, as I recall.

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