Tales of a serial prankster: Turning the boss’s office into a fun & inviting place

In the sweet leisure of his retirement — if you don’t count the chemotherapy — former Poynter president Jim Naughton has penned a 257-page opus titled “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.”

Without the help of WikiLeaks or Romenesko, sources at Poynter have gotten their hands on one of the few available copies produced by Naughton himself. In spite of its playful title, Naughton’s professional memoir describes his experiences in such influential jobs as White House correspondent for The New York Times; managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer; and president of The Poynter Institute.

From his earliest days in journalism to his retirement four decades later, Naughton has littered American highways and byways with the detritus of his practical jokes.  Some cost hundreds of dollars. Others tiptoed up to a line labeled “Against the Law.” And almost all involved animal husbandry, a circus cavalcade of dinosaurs, gorillas, elephants, camels, goats, sheep, chicken, crabs, and, of course, frogs.

The stories are entertaining enough. As beast fables they carry real lessons, about journalism and leadership, about life itself. Members of the Poynter faculty have mined this material and come up with a handful of gems. Over the next four days, Poynter.org will share some of Naughton’s stories in his own words. We will also explore what contemporary leaders can learn from such eccentric parables.

Given the state of the economy, the shrinking of journalism, the layoffs and buyouts, is it even imaginable that the healing balm of laughter can work its magic against the cynicism spawned by a collective loss of ideals? By publishing an excerpt from the book each day this week, we at Poynter vote yes. We need more laughter in the workplace than ever.

Here’s the excerpt I chose to highlight:

“The first challenge when I arrived full-time at Poynter was what to do about Bob Haiman’s former office. It was in a corner of the second floor, off the Great Hall. That was advantageous, near the action. But it had two levels, the second level four steep steps up from the first.

“On the second level, where Bob had positioned his desk, it was effectively cloistered from everyone. To even know if the office’s occupant was there, a visitor would have to enter the lower office and climb the stairs or at least kneel on the steps and peer around a corner. After 42 years as an inhabitant of open, messy, noisy but hugely collegial newsrooms, the idea of being shut up in any office was disconcerting, and Bob’s office was anathema.

“So I moved the desk to the lower office, where it supplanted a small conference table and was in plain view of most of the building, and put an undersized pool table on the upper level. It instantly had the desired effect of signaling that the new regime would be more accessible, looser and, what the hell, fun.

Participants from a 1999 leadership seminar, led by Poynter’s Jill Geisler and Paul Pohlman, stand around Naughton’s pool table, while wearing some of his funny hats.

“Nine ball became the game of choice. Faculty and staff members popped in to play while I worked below them. Seminar guests grabbed cue sticks between presentations. Challenge matches became commonplace. Over the clack of numbered balls striking one another, ideas were discussed, plans hatched, stories told.

“It worked like a charm — until it gradually became apparent the pool table was mostly a guy thing. With her ear to the ground and unbounded loyalty to her boss, Joyce Barrett, my executive assistant, let me know that the distaff staff thought it discriminatory.  Eventually the pool table went into storage until Poynter could establish a better place to house it. And I learned another lesson about how even the fun things at work can be complex to manage…

“Imagine my surprise when I was summoned by the faculty and staff of The Poynter Institute on September 3, 1996, for what had been billed as a ‘fall kickoff’ lunch in the Great Hall. Roy Peter Clark, the senior faculty member, announced that my honeymoon as president was over.  He said I had been guilty of turning the Taj Mahal — the two-story president’s office — into a pool hall. And that, 20 years after I confronted Jerry Ford in a chicken head, ‘the chickens have come home to roost.’ Clark led everyone in a rendition of the Chicken Dance, presented a few trinkets, directed the serving of ‘jerk chicken’ and read a letter from Gene Roberts retroactively firing me from The New York Times for “carrying your apparently uncontrollable addiction for pranksterism to the very heights of American democracy,” cut a large cake — and brought out the one, the true, the original Chicken Head….We had fun at Poynter. Once again, I was fortunate.”

***

I met Naughton long before his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1996 as Poynter’s new president, a job I once thought I wanted. I learned first hand of his integrity as a journalist and his values as a person, expressed by familiar phrases in his speech and messages, words like “peace,” “cheers,” and “bless you for that.”

But there were fleas that came with the Irish Setter. If you worked with Naughton, you were always looking over your shoulder for the next prank or pratfall. I had been a target on more than one occasion. He arranged for an actor to crash my seminar party posing as an outraged local drunk with a Russian accent. He staged a seminar event in which fake baby poop was spilled on Poynter’s immaculate green carpets. He took me to a favorite restaurant in Philly, where an opera-singing waiter regaled us with one of my favorite songs “Under the Boardwalk” — in Italian.

So I knew that the transition from my former boss, the elegant Bob Haiman — known for his monogrammed French cuffs and his gorgeous cherry-wood desk — to the merry prankster of journalism, would be dramatic. To replace Haiman with Naughton was akin to replacing Colin Powell with Sgt. Bilko.

Naughton recognized the value in the workplace of symbolic geography. We all know how this works: the teacher decides to walk around the classroom to help students on a project rather than to hide behind a big desk; a boss moves his office from the top of the tower down to where workers roll up their sleeves; an editor visits the reporter’s desk rather than calling her up to the principal’s office.

Replacing a fancy desk with an old pool table came close to jumping the shark; but it worked, until it became clear through the ministrations of Joyce Barrett, that it might not be such a hot idea to turn the president’s office into a pool hall. As a symbol, the pool table did send the message that the culture of the institute was about to change. No longer would mahogany and marble send the message that we were the Taj Mahal of Know-It-All. Instead, we would become something a little grittier, more accessible, and much more experimental, a skunk works housed in a cathedral.

Get to work, insisted the new boss, and you better have some fun doing it.

When Naughton retired from Poynter, he carried much of the hi-jinks with him.  He has needed the yucks as he continues over 14 years to manage the effects of prostate cancer. Not long ago, he sent photos of himself standing next to a table about to receive radiation therapy dressed in what appeared to be the costume of a sumo wrestler.

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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