Swan Song for Swami

We’ll talk about the pranks, the weird hats, the unexpected that became the norm. But when we think about Jim Naughton, we feel his passion for journalism.

His office looked unusually clean earlier this week, that’s because he is emptying it.  We sat for about 90 minutes, the current president, and I, his successor, talking about his hopes and concerns, the lessons and highlights of his career.

In the 1960s, Naughton completed news assignments for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In the ’70s, he reported for The New York Times. By the ’80s and into the ’90s, he was an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. Tonight, he completes a seven-year assignment as President of Poynter.

Jim says the highlights of his newsroom career include covering such stories as the election of the first black mayor in Cleveland, the 1972 Presidential election campaign, and the Watergate hearings and Nixon impeachment proceedings –- all part of an era that included the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam.

It was during Jim’s early years in the business, while covering politics in Cleveland in the 1960s, that he picked up the Swami nickname. It turns out that he became a better politics reporter than a politics predictor, but the name stuck anyway.

He covered momentous events, yet found the greatest joy in his career just being in the company of journalists.

“I love being in the company of people who care about the written word, the oral word. I love the dark humor and a mix of skepticism and a self-effacing understanding of the role,” he said.

During the last seven years he has been with journalists as a colleague, teacher, collaborator, and mentor for Poynter staff and participants, and for many around the world who call him for advice. He’s serious and thoughtful, but never far from a prank.

Jim is notorious for them: a sheep slipped into a fellow reporter’s hotel room during a presidential campaign; a fake report of a plane crash meant to throw off a competing reporter that ended up dispatching rescue agencies; a chicken suit worn to get the attention of, and a question to, President Gerald Ford; an airlift of martinis to editors bonding in a remote spot for leadership training; a live camel slipped into the fifth floor office of Inquirer Editor Gene Roberts. Jim says he provided only technical assistance for the last one, but takes pride in serving as a role model for prank-enabling bosses.

The role models in his life have included his father, a man he describes as “a low-key prankster” who brought home stories of gags at work; his father-in-law, a juvenile probation officer whose success in sending youngsters to the Marines inspired Jim to join the Corps; and Don Bean, a police reporter who found in young Jim a kindred prankster. At the top of Jim’s list of role models is Roberts, the former Inquirer editor who also worked (before and after his years in Philadelphia) as a reporter and editor at The New York Times.

“Gene was a very talented reporter, one of the most instrumental journalists during the Civil Rights era,” Naughton said. “He was a great boss, understanding, empowering, supportive, abetting and an incredible mentor.”

So is Jim.

He has been a tremendous help and encouragement to me. His favorite expression is, “piece of cake.” He convinces you that taking on great tasks, like succeeding him as president of Poynter, is a piece of cake. You watch him and listen, and you believe him.

At Poynter he has been a quiet force for Institute growth. He expanded the campus, nearly doubled the building, and vastly expanded our reach by creating Poynter Online, recently named the number one publication read by journalists. Most importantly, he has shepherded a culture of caring about individuals, caring about news, about the people who produce it, and the people who need it.

As he leaves, he is concerned about the news business.

“As you know, I don’t enjoy making speeches and I don’t like being a scold,” he said of Poynter’s role in speaking out on behalf of journalistic quality. “But I’ve come to believe that there are very few institutions that are truly independent and not beholden to the moguls and the organizations and the corporate culture that shape much of what goes on in our society. If the truly independent people will not … speak out about values, then maybe nobody will. So I think it has become, whether we like it or not, a burden for Poynter to try to focus on these issues.”

When nudged, he’ll offer some advice.

For journalists just starting out: “Be careful about not having too much presumption about what’s next. I learned so much that I didn’t expect to (on the police beat at Cleveland Plain Dealer)… A lot of what happens in journalism is quite literally serendipitous. If you try to shape it too much it may be a fundamental mistake.”

For journalists struggling against cutbacks in newsrooms: “Do the quality even if it requires more effort. Do it for yourself, even if the company that has put these burdens on you doesn’t deserve it, because the people who are going to benefit are in the audience not in the corporate hierarchy. And if you short them you short … your career, because your work will suffer for it … If you can’t do that, start getting the hell out of there. Nelson Poynter talked about … ‘Go to Hell money,’ having enough saved up so you can quit on principle, so you can go somewhere where they understand it takes time, effort, resources, collaborative work to really do first class journalism.”

For journalists approaching retirement: “Chances are you have a lot to offer as a mentor. There’s a risk of curling up (and becoming resentful about) not being made the big cheese, and I understand that. It’s a shame because the insight someone at that stage has acquired can be invaluable to someone less experienced … Try to maintain as positive an outlook as you can, passing on the best of what you’ve experienced to the people who have yet to experience those things.”

The best advice he ever got himself? “Use your head.”

He said he got that advice “from a lot of people,” but he remembers hearing it especially from Bob Phelps, the news editor of The New York Times Washington bureau.

“When I would come back from an assignment (Phelps) had the most congenial way of seeming to just be curious about what I had discovered. He was so collaborative. I remember vividly one of these chats that I thought were just chats but were very purposeful. (He) would say, ‘You know, on your way back to the office in the cab, be thinking about ‘What’s my lede?’ I valued that. When Bob Phelps retired some years later, I sent him a note thanking him for that, but telling him he screwed up my whole life because I couldn’t write a lede without being in a taxi cab. I think what he was saying was ‘Use your head.’”

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