Richard S. Frank, who spent two decades as the top editor of National Journal, a weekly publication that for many years was the ultimate embodiment of wonkishness, with detailed articles examining the inner workings of Washington, died March 1 at a hospice in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 84.
The cause was complications from an infection, said a son, Peter Frank.
Mr. Frank joined National Journal in 1971, two years after its founding, and became editor in 1976. He guided a generation of reporters, many of whom went on to stellar careers at other media outlets, to produce a distinctive brand of sober, nonpartisan, data-driven journalism directed at Washington decision-makers.
National Journal never had more than a few thousand subscribers, who paid annual rates of $1,000 or more. But its readers were at the highest levels of Congress, the White House, lobbying groups, think tanks and the media, giving the publication an influence that belied its size.
“Our readers are people with a professional need to know about government,” Mr. Frank told the New York Times in 1982. “They aren’t curiosity seekers.”
Mr. Frank cultivated a mystique as a “cinematically crusty newspaperman seemingly lifted from ‘The Front Page,’ ” one of his former reporters, Ronald Brownstein, wrote in the Atlantic last year.
Each week, Mr. Frank prodded his staff to produce in-depth articles on budgetary matters, regulatory policies, congressional committees and other arcane topics that the general press often ignored.
“The wonkishness was sort of the point,” Jonathan Rauch, who was hired as an intern by Mr. Frank in 1981, said in an interview. “Dick Frank believed the real stories in Washington were below the surface. He believed in looking under the hood in Washington and knew how that worked.”
Before numbers could be easily found on the Internet, National Journal reporters delved through hard-to-find government documents, weighing the long-term effects of an aging population on Social Security and discovering a hidden, off-the-books “black budget” at the Pentagon.
Under Mr. Frank, Journal reporters developed the “conceptual scoop,” or a fine-grained analysis of patterns in federal policies that had escaped scrutiny.
“We recognize that we’re covering very difficult, abstruse stuff,” Mr. Frank told the Times. “We try as hard as we can to write our pieces as sprightly as we can, but the last thing I want to do is to trivialize a subject in the interest of bright writing.”
As a result, he demanded a journalistic approach that aimed for scrupulous — some would say inscrutable — objectivity. He strived to make National Journal free of any agenda, with nothing that could be seen as favoring one political view over another.
“Dick made it clear that it’s not about spin, it’s not about the horse race,” said Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of several books. “It’s about policy. It’s about what the government is actually doing and why it matters.”
Richard Sanford Frank was born July 28, 1931, in Paterson, N.J. His father was a shopkeeper who died when his son was in his early teens.
Mr. Frank was a 1953 graduate of Syracuse University in upstate New York and received a master’s degree in political science from the University of Chicago in 1956. He was a reporter for the Bergen Record in New Jersey and the Baltimore Evening Sun before serving as chief of staff to Baltimore Mayor Theodore McKeldin in the mid-1960s.
He spent six years as a legislative reporter and Washington correspondent for the old Philadelphia Bulletin before joining National Journal as an economics and trade reporter.
For years, National Journal did not accept advertising and had a bland appearance, not unlike a federal document. Under Mr. Frank and publisher John Fox Sullivan, the weekly magazine acquired a little more visual flair and began to take some advertising. It had a series of owners, including Times Mirror, and eventually became a property of Atlantic Media.
At a 20th-anniversary celebration in 1990, Sullivan described National Journal’s secret formula to The Washington Post: “This place was fueled with a lot of money, a lot of creativity, a lot of ambition and a lot of good whiskey.”
Mr. Frank retired in 1997 and later served as an editor at Boston University’s Washington Journalism Center from 2000 to 2009. He lived in Bethesda, Md., before moving to Palm Desert in 2015.
His wife of 45 years, Margaret Schwartz Frank, died in 2001. Survivors include two sons, Peter R. Frank of Palm Desert and Daniel M. Frank of Southborough, Mass.; a sister; and two grandsons.
National Journal published its final weekly print edition in December 2015. It continues in an online format only. Many of the approaches pioneered by Mr. Frank are now followed by mainstream news outlets, from The Post and New York Times to Politico and Vox.
“Dick believed every National Journal article should be completely trustworthy to any reader,” Rauch said. “In an age that prizes opinion and spin, he was a master practitioner of journalism of substance.”