In the waning days of 2021, I received a Slack message from one of my longtime colleagues, Rudy Bush, who happens to be the interim editor of our editorial board at The Dallas Morning News, asking if I had a few minutes to chat. He said he hoped he had an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Since I’ve worked a couple of interim stints in the editorial department in recent years, including for two weeks leading up to Super Tuesday in 2020, I knew what Rudy was hitting me up for. He wanted to see if I’d make another brief but frenzied run with his team — five journalists who discuss and debate local, state, national and international issues and developments, meet with and interview public officials at all levels, and craft the editorial-page content for The News.
When I joined the board for three months in 2018, I temporarily left my regular multiplatform copy-editing position. Same two years ago when I went upstairs, weeks before the pandemic hit, to help the board interview primary election candidates and write recommendations (that’s what we call them, not endorsements) for our editorial pages.
What I learned from talking to Rudy in late December was that if I again said yes to helping out with candidate interviews and writing “recs” (our lingo), it wouldn’t take the place of my regular work — it would be in addition to the 8-9-hour editing shifts I work Tuesdays through Saturdays. That means all the work — prep and research, panel interviews and writing recs — would need to happen on my own time. My editing shifts begin at noon, so I’d have to use my mornings and nights after my shifts to do all the work.
Since Rudy assured me I’d be paid for the extra duties and I’d enjoyed my previous election experience — and I knew he and his crew badly needed an extra hand during this arduous process — I said I’d be happy to help. I touched base with my boss, who confirmed that she couldn’t spare me leaving the copy desk and that I’d need to fulfill the election responsibilities outside shift time.
So, starting Jan. 19 when my first election panel interview was scheduled, with candidates for a State Board of Education race, I jumped in on no fewer than 12 primary races. Overall, the editorial team sat down for over 40 virtual interviews with over 100 candidates (those of the invited 153 who bothered to show), eating up more than 50 hours.
The way our recommendation process works, two board members are designated as first and second chair in candidate meetings for the Democratic and Republican primaries involving North Texas seats in the Legislature and Congress, as well as statewide offices. First chair conducts the meeting and asks the majority of the questions; second chair often asks follow-ups and additional questions. Each meeting is scheduled for an hour.
First chair also is responsible for writing the newspaper’s recommendation in a race after engaging in a post-interview decision-making discussion with the second chair and any other board members who attended. Rudy, as leader of the board, has written several recs while also sitting in on all but a handful of the group interviews. Anywhere from one to three of the recs have published in our print editions every day over almost four weeks and on our website, dallasnews.com.
It’s a hell of a lot of work.
Of the 12 races I took part in, I was first chair for eight and second chair for the other four. My last panel was Friday, as second chair for the Texas attorney general GOP primary. Only one of the four candidates, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, took the time to join us — AG Ken Paxton, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert and state Land Commissioner George P. Bush didn’t attend.
My participation in the interview/rec-writing process was crammed into three weeks, a grueling stretch when you consider it was on top of my regular job. I’m finishing up my last rec today and also need to write short summaries of the eight races I first-chaired — those will publish along with all the other race summaries next Monday, Valentine’s Day, the first day of early voting in Texas.
I have no idea what other newspapers do when it comes to publishing election recommendations, but I’m sure few put in the intensive work on so many races that the DMN has always done. That goes for March primaries, May city/school elections and the general election in November. The research, interviews, writing and editing for over 40 primary races leaves the editorial staff mentally drained and physically fatigued.
My experience included a couple of 18-hour days in which I started prepping for interviews at 7 a.m., sat through panels later in the morning, worked my editing shift, then spent a few more hours writing recs and prepping, wrapping up at 1 a.m. or later the next day.
I’m sure I spent more time than most people would, partly because it’s not something I do regularly like the rest of the ed board — plus, I was fearful of screwing up. As my dear wife Kay also said, I tend to be overly conscientious and detailed about my work, not to mention slower when I’m doing something I’m not as experienced at.
But one thing I do know: I consider election recommendations to be a vital service to our readers, one that, like newspapers’ very foundation, plays a role in ensuring that democracy works. Our newsroom has nothing to do with the content of our editorial and op-ed pages — it’s all entirely on the members of the ed board. To be given the opportunity to be a part of this essential election process means a lot to me, and I take it very seriously just as my colleagues do.
As we wrapped up candidate meetings, Rudy gathered ideas from the board about what we learned during the process, and then he wrote a Sunday editorial. It’s a great piece, and I hope you’ll read it here if you can access it.
I have to offer thanks and huge kudos to the editorial board folks I’ve been working with these past few weeks: Rudy Bush, Juli Chiquillo, Jim Mitchell, Elizabeth Souder and Ryan Sanders. There’s also longtime DMN administrative assistant Bonnie Bishop, who admirably handles the Herculean task of reaching out to all the candidates to set up interviews. The work they all do, although being entirely separate from our newsroom’s reporting efforts, is a critical component of the broad scope of coverage The News offers 365 days a year, online and in print.
Rudy and his team have expressed their appreciation for my help several times throughout the process. Last week as we wound down interviews, in response to my note complimenting his wrap-up editorial, he responded with this wonderful reply-all comment:
“You’re very kind Frank. You being with us these last few weeks was like that moment in Get Back when Billy Preston walked into the Beatles studio, lifted everyone’s spirits and made all the music better.”
In addition to nearly bringing me to tears, that reminded me that Kay and I need to watch that Get Back documentary that came out last year. So she suggested it Sunday, saying it’s available on Disney+, and we watched Part 1. (If you’re even a sort-of Beatles fan, I strongly recommend it.)
Now that I’ve caught up on sleep, Kay and I can actually look at ballots and figure out whom we’re going to choose when early voting begins next week. I hope all of you will be doing the same. Americans’ fundamental privilege of voting is too important to skip out of apathy or make no-time excuses about. With two weeks to cast your ballot early (Feb. 14-25), there’s plenty of opportunity for you to do your part.
UPDATE: The day after I posted this, my colleague Rudy Bush dropped his interim tag and was named editorial page editor at The News. He’d been deputy editorial page editor since 2018. Rudy deserves this promotion like no one else. Congratulations, Rudy!