You probably never heard Frank McCulloch’s name, but if you read a major newspaper in California over the latter half of the 20th century, you saw his work every day. As a top editor of the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and San Francisco Examiner, McCulloch oversaw some of the state’s best journalism — his aim, as he said with characteristic modesty, to make every story just a little bit better.
McCulloch used that Zen-like approach to make the newspapers he ran a lot better. McCulloch, who died in Santa Rosa in May at age 98, was one of journalism’s most legendary editors, the West Coast equivalent of The Washington Post’s better-known Ben Bradlee.
His biography is a Cook’s Tour of California journalism. In the early 1960s, he took over as managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and transformed it from a Republican party mouthpiece into one of the nation’s best newspapers. After stints in Vietnam, Washington and New York for Time and Life magazines, he returned to California as editor of the Sacramento Bee; when he retired in 1985, his grateful staff, sensing that he wasn’t exactly headed for a sedentary senior lifestyle, gave him a bicycle.
Indeed, he didn’t stay retired long. Within months, he was managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner (for Publisher Will Hearst), bringing a steady hand and incredible smarts to an underdog newspaper that punched well above its weight under McCulloch.
McCulloch was unflappable. One colleague marveled that there seemed to be no situation he hadn’t seen before — and knew exactly how to handle. Tall, bald, an imposing former Marine, McCulloch firmly guided his newsrooms and raised a couple generations of great editors and journalists.
Because he’d been everywhere and seen everything, he had incredible sources. When Clifford Irving tried to con Life magazine with a bogus autobiography of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, it fell to McCulloch to debunk it — by talking to his old friend Hughes. Hours after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he was urging his staff to focus on problems with the shuttle’s booster rockets. Weeks later, it came out that, indeed, the boosters’ O-rings had failed. How had McCulloch known where to look that very first day? “I got a phone call,” he said.
He knew how to find good stories. When a young reporter told him that she’d just moved into a new apartment complex and didn’t know any of her neighbors but was planning to attend a mixer there Friday night, McCulloch perked up. “Bring a notebook,” he told her, “write down everything they talk about and bring it back to me” — a goldmine of potential stories for his paper to chase.
McCulloch had his playful side, as well. In Time’s Saigon bureau, he famously threw a football through a window to stir up his reporters. At dinner at an Examiner offsite, he sternly assessed a crayon fight that had broken out among his editors — and returned fire. Meeting with a newly hired editor who was thoroughly intimidated by him, he interrupted the conversation to take a call from a corporate executive complaining about trivial details of the paper. His eyes quickly rolled upward, and with a sly grin, McCulloch began repeating the complaints out loud for the benefit of his visitor. “Uh-huh, you thought the photo was too small. Yup, you didn’t like that column. Got it.” Hanging up after a few minutes, he looked across his desk and said, “God, I hope that doesn’t happen very often.” How could anyone not want to work for this man?
David Halberstam, in his journalism history book “The Powers That Be,” called McCulloch “a journalist’s dream.” He didn’t just make stories and newspapers better. He made everyone around him better.
Alta Managing Editor Mark Potts was privileged to work for Frank McCulloch at the San Francisco Examiner. His goal is to make every story in the magazine just a little bit better.