Max Frankel Liberates Himself From the Weekly Grind of His New York Times Magazine Column

And now Max Frankel has departed The New York Times . His ruminations on the future of the news-gathering business for the July 9 issue of The New York Times Magazine were the last ones he would put into the column he started after he retired as executive editor of the paper in 1994 and entered the regular Times man’s late-life cycle of opinion-writing, memoir-writing and A.M. Rosenthal-fighting.

His departure from the venerable institution follows that of Mr. Rosenthal, his predecessor as executive editor and career-long nemesis. Mr. Rosenthal left last November, and moved on to the Daily News .

Mr. Frankel, 70, said he was unsure of what the future may hold for him. For now, he said, he plans to take the summer off, relax in Fire Island, and, according to his wife, Joyce Purnick, a columnist for The Times ‘ Metro Section, visit his 1 1/2-year-old granddaughter Julia in Los Angeles.

“I’m available for some longer-term projects,” Mr. Frankel said. “I’m also going to be in touch with some young people again, which I haven’t been since I was an editor, so I may want to do some teaching or mentoring somewhere, but nothing is set.”

Mr. Frankel, whose contract with The Times would have expired at the end of the year, said he and publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. mutually agreed to break the contract earlier than planned. “This was going to be the last year … and I normally take a summer break,” Mr. Frankel said. “We suddenly realized it was foolish to come back in October for two months, so, we just moved up the date.” He added that he might take some individual assignments from the Times Magazine in the future.

Mr. Frankel’s career at The Times started in 1952, while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia University and was hired as a staff reporter. His big break came in 1956, when he happened to be on night rewrite duty and news of a collision between two ships, the Andrea Doria and Stockholm , came into the Times newsroom. His writing of the next day’s lead story earned the 26-year-old an assignment to the Vienna bureau to cover the Hungarian revolution.

Mr. Frankel later went on to be Sunday editor, editorial page editor and, finally, executive editor in 1986. During his term–generally considered the post-Abe Rosenthal glasnost period–he brightened the paper’s staid voice and tried to make the pages more reader-friendly. After he left, he published a well-reviewed memoir in 1999, The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, notable for its take-no-prisoners attitude toward Mr. Rosenthal. The chapter in which Mr. Frankel takes over the top job is titled “Not-Abe.”

Mr. Rosenthal immediately retaliated with a series of combative quotes. The two men went into grizzled-warrior mode in print, having an open-air gun battle for anyone who cared to watch.

Of his most recent job at The Times , Mr. Frankel said it was time to give up his Word & Image column, in which he examined the media. “This column, as much as I enjoyed it, was quite a burden, so I feel quite liberated,” he said. “It just takes a hold of your life, this kind of a column, obsessively reading the papers and worrying about what the next one will be about. George Bernard Shaw had a column and he gave it up in his 20’s and he was asked why and he said, ‘Well, it’s like standing under a windmill, no sooner have you ducked one blade than the next one comes down.'”

The eight-page advertisement for Contentville that ran in New York ‘s July 17 issue describes an idyllic land, starting with the image on the first page suggesting a quiet Vermont town. The lengthy ad copy tucked inside promises a bounty of information–small-run academic titles, television transcripts or magazine articles, for the most part instantly downloadable–for a small price. The caption asks, “What Kind of Place Is This?”

We thought we’d log on to find out.

Contentville comes in two parts. The first attempts to pay the bills by selling stuff. There’s nine categories of buyable content, including magazines, books, speeches and transcripts. Its highly touted Cross-Content Search simply means a search for Richard Nixon will pull up any item for sale that mentions Richard Nixon in its description, whether that is Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary ($20.96), a transcript of the first televised debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy ($1.95) or the Last Will and Testament of Richard Nixon ($2.95).

Of course, particularly with the popular historical documents (which tend not to be copyrighted), it’s hard to imagine many people paying nearly three bucks for the former president’s will when a search for “Last Will and Testament of Richard Nixon” in the search engine Google.com pulls it up for free.

Part two of Contentville consists of columns from a slew of experts about what they read and what they think is good. These reports can be interesting. Keith Olbermann, an anchor for Fox Sports News, for instance, ranks as No. 1 a sports periodical few outside the sports industry have probably heard of: Sports Business Daily , an e-mail and fax newsletter which collects the reporting and commentary of dozens of media outlets. Novelist Sherman Alexie writes, “What I look for in a magazine article is either humor or white-trash people killing each other.” He urges Contentville readers to check out Rolling Stone ‘s interview of Julia Roberts, but to steer clear of books by Richard Ford because “one time he had the most arrogant blurb on the cover of somebody’s first novel.”

Concerns that Contentville’s investors, which include CBS, NBC, Ingram Book Group, Microsoft and Primedia, might taint its critics don’t seem to have materialized. Yet.

In the “Trove” section of the site, there’s an eclectic mix of self-described “notable magazine articles,” available free. There can be found a poem from the Winter 2000 issue of Poetry ; a funny piece on NBA player Vince Carter’s growing popularity as an Internet search engine term from Toronto’s quirky Saturday Night , and a touching piece entitled “To keep busy after my son Chris’s arrest for murder … ” from a North Carolina monthly. Then there’s “Un-Easy Bear” from Bowhunter , which begins, “After all those lean years, I asked for just one good evening of bear hunting–and got it.”

But, yes, you guessed it, Bowhunter is published by Primedia, which publishes New York , which ran the eight-page ad. Said Brill Media spokeswoman Cindy Rosenthal: “Primedia and other partners have invested a combination of cash and services, including advertising, that may or may not include those pages.”

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at gsnyder@observer.com.