Tales of a serial prankster: How bringing 46 live frogs into the newsroom fosters a philosophy of fun

Jim Naughton’s new memoir, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster,” begins with a story about a leader he admired — and tormented — more than any other: the legendary Philadelphia Inquirer editor Gene Roberts.

As the chapter unfolds, we learn that a local magazine’s media writer described Roberts as “a shy, wrinkled little man from North Carolina and The New York Times who has spent all of his adult life in newspaper offices and looks like a frog off the Okeefenokee Swamp in Pogo.”

Naughton, the former president of Poynter, picks up the story from there:

“Ever after, Roberts was affectionately called The Frog and staff members who traveled on assignments often found and presented to Roberts wooden, ceramic, metal, plastic or cardboard frogs. When the newsroom created its first house organ, the staff named it rib-it.

“And, for no particular reason, as Roberts’ 46th birthday approached in 1978, someone got the bright idea of putting in his office — or, more accurately, in the executive bathroom in a corner of his office — 46 live frogs.

“It should be noted that the Inquirer staff understood that Roberts was not the kind of boss who would take consequential offense at a practical joke. He played quite a few himself, especially on me. As you’ll discover in this memoir, our impish competition tended to escalate in cost and extent to involve kazoo bands, elephants, chickens, a stolen car, even a dirigible. But at the time of Roberts’ 46th birthday, the newsroom was still testing the tolerance level of his bosses. Celebrating with frogs just seemed like the right test.

“…It turned out frogs could be rented (as can almost anything) in New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philly, from a frog farmer.

“…I’ve often been blamed for putting the frogs in Roberts’ office, but the truth is I merely sponsored the caper. I was out of the office that day, at a Knight-Ridder company training program.

“… When I returned to the newsroom, the frog caper was long over.  The farmer delivered his frogs to the newsroom. The staff put them in the executive editor’s bathroom, all 46 of them. When Roberts arrived at the office, fashionably late because as usual he had stayed the previous night until well after midnight, he went habitually to hang his suit coat on a hook in the bathroom.

“He did not scream. He did not quaver. (There were reports, never substantiated, that he did at one point declaim, ‘Where’s Naughton?’ but I was safely across town.) He did what would prove to be not only a hallmark of his administration of the news staff but the smartest thing a boss in any company can do. He laughed.

“And he responded in kind. Roberts was nothing if not wily. He asked some of the staff members who’d taken part in the caper about the frogs and quickly discovered that the farmer had agreed to lend the frogs to the newspaper with the understanding that for each frog that was not returned to meet its eventual fate in a biology class, the pranksters would have to pay the farmer $7.50. Roberts began summoning to his office anyone he knew in the building — from the composing room where the paper was put together each day, from the advertising department, from the press room, from the circulation department, anywhere — who lived in the country or near a lake or a farm. He gave each a frog to take home.”

***

As I taught leadership and management seminars, I’d sometimes ask Jim Naughton to share his philosophy of fun at work with the group.

It usually happened when he popped in our seminar room to offer a spontaneous Poynter welcome. Participants couldn’t help but be impressed that the president of the institute would take time to personally greet them, chat them up and invite them to stop by his office.

Naughton wearing his Swami hat in The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom.

And they couldn’t help notice when Naughton was sporting one of the many chapeaus from his collection of crazy hats: The Swami. The Cheesehead. The Viking. The Wizard. The Construction Guy (complete with beer can holders attached to the hard hat – my sons gave him that one!)

I think Jim liked to take the temperature of the day, then scan the colorful hat collection he kept in his office for all to share. He’d choose the lid that made a perfectly timely or imperfectly silly statement.

He’d stand before the aspiring great bosses and tell them that laughter and leadership could be inseparable. That supervisors should understand the need for the staff to constructively let off steam. That along with the power to hire, fire and shape careers, bosses can build workplaces where folks have fun at work and play pranks on the people who sign their paychecks.

Naughton didn’t always wear hats when he delivered his message. Sometimes he dressed like a grown-up; it depended on the day. But he always taught that when you’re a strong, respected leader, one of the best gifts you can give your team is the encouragement to laugh with — and even at you.

This is one of four chapters that Poynter faculty have highlighted to recognize “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster,” a new memoir by former Poynter president Jim Naughton. The self-published book highlights the pranks Naughton pulled in newsrooms throughout the years and speaks to the need that we all have for laughter in the workplace.

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