This is a reprint of a 1994 profile I wrote on David Bentley, the founder of the Halifax Daily News. The paper, which published my two weekly columns, ceased publication on February 11, 2007.
By Stephen Kimber
"Journalists tend not to be that sort of people," David Bentley begins seriously, then adds almost pleadingly: "You know that yourself, Steve?" I'd called to ask for an interview but Bentley, at the other end of the line, was dancing around my request, sounding more like a boy who has to go to the bathroom than the key founding father of Canada's most notorious publication. "I like to keep my head down, you know," he says at one point, then asks solicitously, "What is that you think you want to know about me that you don't already know?"
David Bentley is one of Canada's most interesting but least well-known journalists. In an era of bland chain publishing, where newspapers often co-exist cheek-by-jowl under the same corporate umbrella as soup makers and trucking companies, Bentley, 51, is a refreshing throwback to the days of Joseph Howe and the feisty journalist-entrepreneurs.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bentley almost single-handedly created a daily newspaper - this one - out of the whole cloth of his own ambition. If that wasn't rare enough (The Daily News and the Toronto Sun are probably the only successful North American daily newspaper launches started by journalists in the last 25 years), Bentley then helped launch Frank, a fortnightly gossip sheet that has transcended its sloppy layout, frequent typos and almost incidental paid circulation to become one of the country's most widely-quoted and controversial publications, regularly denounced by politicians and media critics.
According to one recent estimate, nearly 100,000 people buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy of the latest Frank - now published every two weeks in Halifax and Ottawa - to find out the dirt on Canada's "equestrian classes."
They find out plenty. About Brian Mulroney's drinking habits, Peter Mansbridge's marital woes, Pierre Trudeau's "love child," John Buchanan's trust funds, Karla Teale's banned court proceedings, Gerald Regan's alleged sexual peccadilloes, even what's supposed to be on some "sex videos" made by members of Sydney Academy's graduating class on their prom night.
For all its in-your-face openness, Frank's readers won't likely find much in its pages about who "Frank" is and why he/she/it says nasty things about everyone.
Although Frank is a collective venture, Bentley is clearly first among its equals. Sitting in the magazine's Halifax offices on a recent Saturday morning, dressed casually in blue corduroy pants and an open-necked shirt, Bentley resembles almost anyone but his swaggering, sniggering alter ego. In person, he is earnest, serious and thoughtful. "I tend not to be a social person," Bentley admits.
Who is this guy and why does everyone say such nasty things about him?
Born in 1943 in the south of England, Bentley grew up in an era when people followed newspapers like sports. "Bill Connors, one of the great tabloid columnists, was the kind of person who was a hero in our day," he recalls.
Bentley quit school at 16, worked briefly at his local newspaper and eventually became a reporter for The Northern Echo, a small but influential paper edited by Harold Evans, an icon of modern British journalism. Evans, who later became editor of the London Sunday Times and now heads a major American book publisher, "would disassemble every paper the day after it was published," Bentley remembers, "and woebetide anyone who had cocked things up."
Like most ambitious young British journalists, Bentley dreamed of a job on Fleet Street, but believed a few years' foreign seasoning might improve his prospects. "I planned to go to the States," he says with a laugh, "but my geographic sense was appalling."
He arrived in Halifax in 1966 as part of an influx of English reporters who joined the Chronicle-Herald during its sixties flirtation with all things British. "I only planned to come for two years," says Bentley, "but I'm the kind of person who tends to bore down, to dig holes and plant myself in one place."
Bentley did just that, developing an important network of contacts, friends and business associates he maintains to this day. He became friends with Lyndon Watkins, for example, another English import at the Herald. Bentley later hired him as publisher of The Daily News and then invited him to help him launch Frank. As a legislature reporter, Bentley also worked with Dulcie Conrad, another Herald reporter who became Frank's third founder.
Although regarded as a first-class reporter with a keen sense of social justice, Bentley says he's always had "an entrepreneurial 'thing.' But the UK is so buttoned-down I never considered the idea of going into business for myself until I came here."
In the late 1960s, he and a fellow Herald reporter considered buying the Lunenburg Progress-Enterprise but the asking price - $100,000 - "was more than we could afford." Instead, he joined the Financial Post in Toronto to learn about how business worked and make plans to start his own publication.
In 1970, he returned to Halifax and started Fleur, a controlled-circulation fashion tabloid. "It was quite a good idea," says Bentley, "but poorly executed. We spent too much money up front. There were a lot of things about publishing we didn't know we didn't know."
The publication soon "went down the tubes" and Bentley, tail between his legs, rejoined the Herald, which sent him to "Siberia" - its Port Hawkesbury bureau - as punishment for having left.
"I loved it," Bentley says now. "It was a super area." His posting there coincided with a brief but newsworthy government-goosed local industrial boom and a bitter 13-month strike by area fishermen, giving him "a catbird seat to see Nova Scotia patronage politics close up."
In 1974, still aching to be a publisher, he quit the Herald again and - with wife Diana, British school friend Patrick Simms and his wife Joyce- launched The Bedford-Sackville Weekly News. "This time we went about it quite differently," Bentley says. "We lived in adjoining duplexes and we didn't pay ourselves at the beginning."
The sacrifices paid off. The newspaper built up circulation and advertising. In 1977, they bought their own printing press. Two years later, they transformed their successful weekly into a Bedford-Sackville daily. It was a risky move. Not only did circulation plummet - from 9,000 to 3,000 - but the decision risked the wrath of Herald publisher Graham Dennis. Since they knew he could scuttle their fledgling venture simply by starting an advertising price war, Bentley approached Dennis directly to assure him their new paper had no ambitions beyond Bedford-Sackville. Dennis obligingly left them alone.
When reminded of those assurances today, Bentley turns sheepish. "How can I explain that?" he says, then changes the subject.
Whatever his original intentions - "we eventually realized we just couldn't crack it by sticking with Sackville," Bentley insists - The (bold)Halifax(end bold) Daily News set up shop on Barrington Street in 1981 and began competing directly for Herald readers.
Although the paper - modeled on working-class British tabloids with plenty of crime reporting and sensational headlines - developed a small but loyal readership, the constant struggle to keep it going took its toll.
In 1984, Simms and his wife left. "Partnerships are hard to steer," Bentley allows. "We'd been together for nearly 10 years. We disagreed on the question of expansion, and Patrick said the hell with it. He and Joyce got out." For one of the few times his career, Bentley found it impossible to maintain business and friends. His lifelong relationship with Simms was a casualty of the split. "We don't see each other any more," Bentley says with genuine regret.
A year later, Bentley and his wife also sold their interest in the paper - to Harry Steele's Newfoundland Capital Corporation, which was then gobbling up newspapers and broadcasting outlets. In part, Bentley says they decided to sell because the paper had reached a critical point and needed a major infusion of capital to become viable. But he admits the decision was personal too. "Diana felt she would like to get out. She wanted security and she didn't want me and my ambitions to interfere with her security. She'd raised the kids, handled the financial end of the business, and the business had dictated her life for a long time. She was for selling it."
Although he declines to say how much they got, he calls published suggestions of $4.5 million "absurd. Diana and I chopped our share down the middle.
Today, the Bentleys are still married and "we do see quite a lot of each other," but Bentley concedes it "would be fair to say we pursue different interests." His wife spends a good deal of her time in the U.K.
When they sold the newspaper, Bentley was only 41 and his fascination with publishing unsated. He moved briefly to Toronto where he launched and quickly folded a "local 'People' thing" called Who's News. "I made the same mistakes as with Fleur," Bentley says with a shrug. "I tried to do it top down, spending money up front."
Returning to Halifax, he called his old friends Watkins and Dulcie Conrad and asked if they'd be interested in creating a local, low-rent version of the British satirical publication Private Eye(end italic.)
The first issue of Frank appeared on newsstands in late 1987. In September 1989, Bentley started an Ottawa edition. The Ottawa Frank is editorially distinct but controlled by the Halifax-based company. Together, the two publications now have a combined paid circulation of about 25,000 every two weeks.
Frank, which carries virtually no advertising, isn't making its owners wealthy - "we still each have to do other things in the off-weeks" - but Bentley says he's satisfied. "At this point, there's no re-sale value in Frank. And there probably never will be. So I'll never be financially secure. But that's all right. I have a small apartment, an old car. I don't need all that much."
Why does he bother?
"I don't think of this as my life's mission," Bentley says, "but I do think Frank serves a useful purpose. It's very unlikely someone else would take it up if we weren't doing it. Besides," he adds as if this explains it all: "It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I'm the kind of person who likes to bore down. I do one thing at a time. And that's it."
Afterword: Bentley has since become the publisher — and founder — of allnovascotia.com — a subscription-based online daily business publication.