Tales of a serial prankster: How newsroom humor can create a sense of togetherness

In his new memoir, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster,” former Poynter president Jim Naughton recalls how Doug Campbell, a member of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s crack night city desk, became an unlikely newsroom celebrity when he created a series of caricatures that mocked his bosses — the beneficiaries of the company’s MBO (Management By Objective) bonus program.

Campbell began with comic strips that featured the Inquirer’s Executive Editor Gene Roberts, who made Campbell’s stomach do a turn or two on the night “The Frog” first saw the cartoons and … laughed. Campbell then took his satire to the next level. Here’s how Naughton remembers it:

“When Halloween was approaching that year, 1984, Doug needed a mask, and when he set about making one of papier-mâché, he found that he had created a likeness of Gene Roberts. He wore it into the office, creating a modest stir and drawing my attention. I suggested he let the young son of Art Chambers, the night city desk clerk, wear the mask into the executive editor’s office.

“I’m sure we never diminished The Quiet Man’s skepticism of Roberts’ purposeful benevolence. To this day, Doug contends that Roberts’ management style was to favor a few talented reporters and consign the great mass of them ‘to do the grunt work of putting out a very conventional and uninspired newspaper.’ I disagree, but honor his rebellious spirit. We tried our best to use humor — his among others, and often dark humor — to create a sense of togetherness. And we discovered it really does help to create a laid-back atmosphere in the office. But it’s not easy to be laid back. You have to work at it.

“It is Doug’s recollection that this episode ‘further demonstrated that this stuff that I was doing — that seemed to be pouring from me or through me with little need for skill on my part and that was striking some kind of nerve in the newsroom — was being embraced by management for whatever purpose it served.’

“Hell, I just thought it was fun, and that fun was what the newsroom could use in abundance.

“Campbell then began making string puppets, using some of the same technique and skill he had shown with the Roberts mask. First he lampooned the metropolitan news editor, Steve Seplow, with a big bushy mustache and spindly limbs. Doug hung the puppet above his desk in the middle of the newsroom after using it in a performance of what he called MBO Theater. Several more puppets appeared on Campbell’s newsroom proscenium. They were pretty accurate images. Roberts was, predictably, frog-like in appearance. My puppet was in an altar boy cassock. It had a halo over the head. And if you pulled one of the puppet strings, an arm rose and you saw that below the cassock was a knife. Its identification, hanging above The Quiet Man’s desk, was ‘Killer Choirboy.’

“I wasn’t happy at the characterization as a sneaky cutthroat manager and had forgotten what inspired Doug, the way Tom Crouse characterized my reporting technique in the 1972 campaign book, The Boys on the Bus. Some of the other subjects of Doug’s fertile imagination started musing about whether and how to discipline The Quiet Man or what to do with the growing array of puppets on display. There were suggestions of edicts against this sort of thing, especially when a puppet likeness of a woman manager struck some as cruel. There was talk of banishment of The Quiet Man to some place like the Outer Ring of Suburbia.

“Roberts never made a move against The Quiet Man.

“And the rest of us managers learned a level of tolerance we had not expected to employ now that we had POWER. We left the puppets in place. We left The Quiet Man alone. We embraced his creativity. We published some of his cartoons in the newsroom house organ, Rib-It.”

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Naughton played quite a few pranks on Roberts while at the Inquirer. Once, as shown here, he brought a camel into the newsroom.

When Roberts was leading the overhaul of the Inquirer, he had a mantra that described the kind of coverage he believed would win over readers of the city’s long-established paper of record, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.

“Zig,” Roberts said, “when everyone else zags.”

He was talking about uncovering trends instead of chronicling council meetings; spending an extra day on an in-depth profile instead of dutifully producing 12 inches on a stock market roundup. He wanted the staff to trade the stories that newspapers felt they had to do for stories that people would remember.

The mantra stuck. Thirty years later, Inquirer veterans still know exactly what you mean by a story that “zigs.”

Truth is, Roberts could have applied the same mantra to his management style. Let’s face it: in most newsrooms, The Quiet Man would not have survived his first puppet.

Today, in fact, many newsroom leaders would apply the “No Assholes” rule to the situation. What could be more disruptive than a staffer who parodies the newsroom’s managers, depicting them as bumbling or, even, deceitful?

I was The Inquirer’s New Jersey editor when the events Naughton describes took place. Looking back, here’s what I observed about leadership:

  • Dissent exists in every newsroom. Why try to outlaw it? In fact, an editor who takes a paycheck for enabling free expression outside the newsroom should be comfortable with it inside, too. In a free speech zone, something good — like collaboration — might happen.
  • Collaboration. I know the newsroom is not, and should not be, a democracy. But it’s a good day for leadership when the newsroom environment enables many, if not all, to contribute to (and therefore buy into) a shared vision for success. I am much more likely to be an active collaborator in your newsroom if you make it clear I don’t have to agree with you — and you’re even OK if I express that disagreement.
  • A leadership trait worth aspiring to is defenseless-ness. Imagine that a staffer walks into your office and tells you what a wrongheaded decision you just made. What’s your reaction? When I’m at my best, I ask the staffer to sit down and tell me more. I ask, “What do you think I did badly?” Unfortunately, too many leaders see any challenge to their performance as outright insubordination.

Finally, I think the MBO Theater offers this important reminder: Nothing a leader does or says goes unnoticed. In a very real sense, Campbell was not the most important player in this play. Roberts was. And he knew it. Roberts understood that his response to the criticism would have much more impact on his ability to lead than Campbell’s commentary would. Having made it clear that he wanted his newsroom to be fun, loose, and a meritocracy — a place where everyone’s talents and voices mattered — Roberts knew the puppets offered a test.

As Naughton said, Inquirer leadership “embraced” Campbell’s creativity. Not tolerated. Embraced. Roberts’ response, in this situation and a hundred others, was consistently clear: We won’t tolerate acts that violate our values: sabotage, plagiarism, dishonesty.

But criticism is allowed, even encouraged.

Especially if it makes us laugh.

Even at ourselves.

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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