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Jim Naughton summed it up best: Gene Roberts, he said, cannot be explained.

And unless you were there, it isn't easy to explain the challenge, chutzpah, and camel found in the glory days of the Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom in the 1970s and 1980s.

Roberts, who served as the Inquirer's top editor for 18 years, made two appearances at The Poynter Institute on Friday, Aug. 29, both pegged to Naughton's retirement as Poynter president.

Roberts delivered the first James M. Naughton Lecture in Leadership to the final session of a week-long Leadership Academy. Then, he joined former Inquirer colleagues Naughton and Gene Foreman for a more informal discussion of the Inquirer's resurrection.

"I know of no American journalist with higher standards," Naughton said in introducing his former boss to the leadership conference.

Naughton recalled being called into Roberts' office one day shortly before another of their compatriots would retire. Roberts wanted to honor the man with a silver tray commemorating his contribution to raising standards at the Inquirer. But he was stumped at exactly what it should say.

Naughton went back to his desk and thought about it.

Finally, he settled on language that said that the retiree "helped to create an excellent newspaper." That done, Naughton went back to the business of putting out the daily paper.

The next morning, Roberts awakened Naughton at 7:30 a.m. Which was odd, because he knew Roberts didn't get to bed until 3 a.m. So for him to be calling that early was extraordinary.

"I've been thinking about this tribute," Roberts drawled in his familiar manner, "and I just can't say that about the paper."

Roberts, chief architect of what many other journalists characterized as excellence at the Inquirer, couldn't bring himself to say so in silver. "He was never satisfied that it achieved what it should," Naughton explained. "The moment you arrogantly assume your leadership has achieved the pinnacle is the point at which you will step in a crevasse."

That's why Roberts tempered his opinion on that silver tray.

There was also another side to the serious newsman, a side that once led the Inquirer staff, accompanied by an elephant, to Naughton's house for a birthday surprise. Roberts also led a plot to steal Naughton's car from his driveway and pretend it had been crushed into a nice neat box of metal.

During more than four decades in journalism, Roberts understood the importance of setting the right tone for the workplace –- take the work seriously, not yourself.

He talked about the difference between a newspaper's real rules and its many assumed rules — even when the latter are not necessarily correct. For example, when a herd of steers escaped from a tractor-trailer and into Detroit's largest department store, the story demanded front page coverage. But the paper's news editor recalled an alleged Jack Knight rule at the Detroit Free Press that forbid animal stories from being on the front page. Questioned, Knight insisted there was no such edict from up above. But many hours later, Knight figured it out. When he came to Detroit, he brought his race horses with him. And when one of his horses won a minor race, someone trying to curry favor ran its picture on page one. The second time it happened, Knight called the newsroom and shouted at the first editor who answered the phone: "Get that Goddamn horse off page one!" Subsequent editors interpreted that in the following years to mean no animals on the front page.

"One good rule is to review all the rules as soon as you take over a responsible newspaper position," Roberts advised. "A leader will not be able to lead if he doesn't establish principles. Know the rules. Don't let your newsroom be run by an unwritten body of common law." When the unwritten rules rule, he said, the person with the longest memory is in charge, not the actual newsroom leader.

Write your newsroom's rules down, he said. Invite discussion.

Continuing the theme of writing things down, Roberts spoke at length about the importance of having a detailed coverage plan for the really big stories.

"Imagine the biggest story that could befall your coverage area," he said. "A terrorist attack on your town's largest corporate headquarters. The assassination of your mayor. A troubled school kid machine-gunning his classmates. A riot. A hurricane. An earthquake. A massive electrical power failure. A sniper methodically shooting his fellow citizens. You don't need a separate plan for each. Just imagine one so big that your regular news staff is insufficient to cover it. Think about peeling away your sports and business staffs and onto the big story. And your feature staff. And your stringers. Bring every available clerk and secretary to answer the phones. Maybe even the janitor. Think of having two news editors if the worst should happen. One to design the open pages devoted to the big story for the big story, and the other one for everything else."

Q: “Why are so many great American editors named Gene?"
Jim Naughton: “Obviously, genetics.”
Put all your detailed plans in writing. Discuss the plans over and over with your staff until you're sure they know what they can do. "Most newspapers and TV stations think they can rise to any emergency. But most do not," Roberts said. "They come up with a 'B' or 'C' effort (in emergencies) when the situation demands an 'A.' They simply haven't done enough advance planning."

In the 1960s, as a civil rights reporter for The New York Times, Roberts covered uprisings in Detroit, Newark, Cincinnati, Waterloo, Iowa, and Tampa's Ybor City district. He said that only one paper based in all of those communities rose to the challenge of those events: the Detroit Free Press. He recalled a riot starting early one Sunday morning in Detroit. Roberts arrived Sunday night. The Free Press' first edition was already out. The first reporter he saw on the scene was the Free Press' food writer. "And she wasn't covering the food angle," Roberts said.

His rule: Plan for a day that most likely will never come.

"By doing so, you are sending the strongest possible signal to staff that you have the highest of aspirations for your newsroom," Roberts said. "And that, of course, is what leadership in a newsroom is all about."

Another one of Roberts' Rules of Order:

"Encourage your staff to have fun while pursuing excellence. Don't let your newsroom be mistaken for an insurance office, a bank, or funeral parlor. A camel once came to the newsroom of the Philadelphia Inquirer. And a goat. And 46 frogs. And a vending machine with a clucking hen that laid plastic eggs. The Philadelphia Phillies shortstop once jumped out of a cake on the birthday of managing editor Gene Foreman. Of course, the building maintenance department complained at times. So did some of the other departments on the business side. But meanwhile, many of America's finest journalists were beating a path to the Inquirer. Let me assure you, it wasn't the money that was attracting them. It was the chance to practice great journalism and have fun while doing it."

(That, one assumes, explains the camel, elephant, crushed cars, and the puppets resembling certain editors...)

The most important leadership philosophy, according to Roberts, involves your use of personnel.

Roberts illustrated this point through an anecdote about a journalist with whom he worked side by side for six months before realizing how good a writer the man was. One day, he saw the man's byline on a brilliant story — in another publication.

"This story is wonderful," Roberts told him. "Why don't you write like this for us?"

Roberts: "Send the strongest possible signal to staff that you care for the news.""Don't you read our newspaper?" the man replied, incredulous. "They don't want good writing. If they did, they'd have it. If I turned in a story like this, they would think I was trying to be a poet instead of a reporter. They wouldn't take me seriously."

In time, the talented journalist wrote equally well for his own paper, but only when the paper demonstrated it wanted quality.

"Set a high standard," Roberts said.

"Virtually every hire should be part of a long range master plan of journalistic excellence," he said. "The standard approach is to fill vacancies in the departments in which they occur. Lose a sports writer, hire a sports writer. Lose a suburban writer, hire a suburban writer. This is the wrong approach. If your vacancy is in a department of six to eight people and the department is performing at a 'C+' level, the best hire you could make might bring you to a 'B+.' The best hire might be an internal hire. It's better to raise one department to an 'A' than two or three to a 'C.' Mediocrity is contagious. So, thank God, is excellence. It is mandatory that you demonstrate excellence is possible on your premises, in one department first, then the others. That department becomes a beacon, pointing the way for a second and third."

Journalists are human beings. Being human, many have a desire to fit into their surroundings. Some fit in by shooting the breeze during extended coffee breaks. Some will do it by creating the best — or worst — journalism. Whichever culture the newspaper — and its leaders — encourages, its employees will generally do their best to follow it.

Of course encouraging change at a newspaper is a delicate tightrope, as any veteran of the last two years at The New York Times might attest. Roberts acknowledged that "newspapers at the best of times can be angst-ridden. Too much change can cause the angst to run out of control. Change works best when done one department at a time, maybe two at the largest newspapers. Slow and steady can be the best approach for your readers and your staff."

Roberts: "I believe that if you want to do your thing, it’s difficult to do it at a successful paper. But an unsuccessful paper will try anything."He recalled working as a reporter during the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot's first major overhaul in the 1950s. It was accomplished quietly, move by move, a little every week. When it was completed, Roberts laid out the day's paper before the mayor and city manager of Norfolk and asked what they thought of the changes.

"What changes?" they asked, dumbfounded.


He learned then the philosophy of reaching out to new readers "without scarin' the hell out of the old."

Roberts is not sure that anyone could duplicate the Philadelphia Inquirer's mid-'70s turnaround today.

"It would be difficult," he said. "Knight Ridder bought the paper and thought they could turn it around in five years. I got there in the third year and by then they were convinced they couldn't. I believe that if you want to do your thing, it's difficult to do it at a successful paper. But an unsuccessful paper will try anything."

At that time, Knight Ridder operated under a system in which newspapers didn't have publishers. Instead, each property was run by a general manager and an editor and each one reported directly to corporate headquarters in Miami. "From a newsroom point of view," Roberts said, "a publisher system would not have worked there. We wouldn't have (had) the authority to take the degree of risk that was taken."

A 1977 newspaper strike in Philadelphia knocked the Inquirer off the street but allowed its archrival, the Philadelphia Bulletin, to continue publishing. When the strike was settled, the Bulletin should have been the strongest entity. But Roberts encouraged Knight Ridder to come out of the strike spending money "like a drunken sailor," according to Naughton. Many people now mark the Inquirer's rise — and the Bulletin's ultimate downfall — to what the Inquirer did after that strike.