By James Briggs
for Motor City Muckraker
I got the most important phone call of my career on March 21, 2003.
“This is Hawke Fracassa,” said the voice on the other end. “Do you know what I was doing last night when bombs were going off in Baghdad and everyone here was working on Iraq war coverage?”
The U.S. invasion into Iraq had started the night before.
“No,” I said.
“I was editing your fucking figure skating story. It’s terrible.”
Fracassa was the Macomb County bureau chief for The Detroit News and I was a 21-year-old journalist who was trying to get some bylines as a freelance writer. The figure skating story — I don’t even remember the premise of it — was the third story I had written for him.
Fracassa had already told me my first story was one of the worst he had ever edited. The second, he said, was even worse. And the figure skating story was the worst one yet. He spent at least 15 minutes telling me why it sucked.
I thought for sure he’d be done with me by the end of that phone call. Who wants to keep working with someone who’s as horrible as I apparently was? But Fracassa never even hinted at that. He just wanted me to be better — not just better, but great. He loved projects and I was his new project.
Fracassa died April 30 at 55 years old. The news, for me, was gut-wrenchingly sad, but it wasn’t shocking. The Hawke Fracassa I knew — brilliant, competitive, hilarious and demanding — had been fading since 2006 when his wife, Anne, died.
Fracassa was as loving and adoring of his family as anyone I’ve ever met. Hell, he only assigned me a figure skating story because his daughters skated and he was interested in anything they were interested in. Anne, who also was a journalist, was his rock.
After she died, Fracassa took a buyout from The News, launched a group of niche publications (on topics ranging from dogs to, of course, figure skating), had several odd romantic relationships, ran for political offices and seemed to stop taking care of himself. It was a messy, tragic path for someone who had so much to offer the world.
Yet, during the relatively short period of time he devoted to journalism, he gained a loyal following of reporters and editors who would do anything for him — because he did everything for us.
Fracassa especially loved to help out underdogs because he was one. He went to Wayne State University — a respectable school, sure, but no hotbed of journalism talent — and worked his way up to The News with stops at places like the (defunct) Ypsilanti Press and The Daily Telegram in Adrian (I would eventually hold the same editing job he had in Adrian, albeit briefly). He fought and scrapped for every bit of success he had in this business and favored young journalists who took similar paths. He was not impressed by a degree from Columbia.
He started giving me freelance work because he read a column I wrote for my hometown weekly in Roscommon County (where his family had a vacation home) about cops pulling over people for no reason. It was an amateurish column, but he said it made him laugh because he had recently been pulled over in the area for an arbitrary reason. He seemed to like that I was a small-town kid trying to make it in Detroit.
I was thrilled that Fracassa was willing to take a chance on me and did everything I could to earn it. Once, when he asked me to find people who had moved from Oakland County to Macomb County to get cheaper property taxes, I spent two days in municipal offices poring over land records and trying to find leads on sources.
I even went door-to-door in an area of Macomb that had a lot of new housing, hoping to find someone who fit the story he wanted. As a freelancer, I had no guarantee of being paid for that work. But I eventually found some sources and contributed to a front-page story (somewhat rare for a freelancer at The News). I think that was the proudest I ever made him.
For reporters, earning his favor was a mixed blessing. He’d never give up on you, as I learned. But that also meant he’d never stop berating you, assigning stories that seemed impossible or sending your work back for fifth and sixth rewrites.
“This isn’t the Hank and Fred News,” Fracassa would lecture, one of many sayings I still don’t understand but took to mean that I had filed weekly newspaper-quality copy for the prestigious Detroit News. And he’d ask me to try again.
Oh, those rewrites. I’d make every fix and find every kind of source he’d asked for (“I need you to find an Oakland County renter in his 20s for this story,” he’d say, or he’d ask for a senior citizen in Lenox Township) and it’d never be enough. He’d hammer me — on grammar, on sourcing, on story flow — until I wanted to reach through the phone and strangle him.
But the thing is, he was right. He was always right. If you jumped through his hoops, tracked down his bizarre source requests, adopted his style preferences and learned to anticipate every stupid question he could ever ask about your copy, you’d end up with a good story.
Even better, journalism would start to seem … easy. Especially when you wrote for another editor. Writing for Fracassa was like journalism boot camp. If you graduated, you were prepared to report on anything. And he would become your devoted advocate, writing letters of recommendation and pitching you to any editor who would listen.
In recent years, even as Fracassa’s clout diminished, he maintained a passion for helping young journalists. Last year he took a job that would have been unthinkable during his Detroit News years — as managing editor of the twice-weekly Cody Enterprise in Wyoming. He spent six months there, which was long enough to propel it to No. 1 in the general excellence category in the state’s newspaper competition.
I chatted with him about that — and a few other things — in February via Facebook. He described what ended up being his last journalism run in classic Hawke fashion.
“I got buy-in from my reporters and page designer and we came in No. 1,” he wrote. “Nobody from fucking Wyoming is going to defeat me.”
For the first time in a long time, he seemed like himself as we chatted about his Wyoming stint. He was proud of his work there, but it wasn’t the award he cared about.
“All of my reporters got better jobs in January after I quit to return to Detroit,” he told me.
Among the last words he’d ever type to me, he showed where his heart was — where it had been in all the years that I knew him and loved him.
“What I feel good about especially was developing these rookies into hard hitters,” he wrote. “They’re pros now, advancing.”
That’s what he wanted from everyone who worked for him — for us to buy into his maniacal genius, improve our skills and show the world everything he already saw in us.
There was no reason for a Detroit News bureau chief to spend time breaking down a shitty freelance article about figure skating. But if I’ve accomplished anything in journalism, it’s because Fracassa made that phone call and refused to give up on me.
James Briggs, a Michigan native, is the deputy managing editor for the Baltimore Business Journal.