Former Poynter president, Inquirer editor James Naughton has died

Two days before what would have been his 74th birthday, former Poynter President James Naughton has died.

Naughton, Poynter's president from 1996 to 2003, was previously editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he started in 1977. Before that, he was a Washington correspondent for The New York Times from 1969 to 1977, work he described this way:

He covered urban affairs, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, The Nixon White House, the 1972 presidential candidacies of Edmund Muskie and George McGovern, Congress, the Senate Watergate Hearings, the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Impeachment of President Nixon, the Ford White House and the 1976 Republican candidacy of Gerald Ford. This made him, in effect, the Times' expert on losers. ...

He was the only newspaper editor in America who had a chicken machine in his office, perhaps because his most notorious moment as a journalist was when he wore a chicken head to a President Ford press conference in 1976.

As word spread Friday evening that Naughton, who fought cancer for more than a decade, was nearing the end, friends and former colleagues posted messages on his Facebook page.

Jim Naughton (aka "Swami") was honored by his successor, Dr. Karen Dunlap, when he retired from Poynter in 2003.

Hank Klibanoff: "Jim, just think: hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of journalists, at least two generations of us who have made our mark for the past 40 or so years, point to you as our mentor, our model, our inspiration and our source of laughter. I have to steal your ever-present closing: Peace"

Bill Marimow, current editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Dear Jim: Please know that there will always be a Grolsch for you in my refrigerator. I thank you very much for inspiring me -- long before we ever met -- when I read your wonderful reporting and writing when you covered the Watergate hearings for The New York Times (I loved that lead: "The eagle never blinks"); for your guidance when you were my editor at The Inquirer; and for the generous, expansive helping hand you extended to me when I was forced to leave The Baltimore Sun. I am thinking of you and Diana and your family. As you would write, Peace."

Glenn Burkins: "Jim, I wasn't so impressed by your attention to me at the Inquirer. I figured all good editors should do that -- and you were a great editor. What impressed me far more were the times you reached out to me when you were retired, I had left the paper, and you had no more reason whatsoever to care. That told me far more about your true character. You are an inspiration to many. Thank you."

Matt Thompson: "Jim, I just got my new title last week, and every time I see my business cards it reminds me of you: I'm now NPR's 'Manager of Digital Initiatives (and Mischief).' (It's the mischief part that reminds me of you, if you were wondering.) I will never forget that I started my journalism career as a Naughton Fellow [at Poynter]. Just wanted to say what a constant inspiration you are and always will be to me and clearly so many others."

In an email Saturday evening, Poynter President Dr. Karen Dunlap writes, "Before Jim arrived at Poynter I heard that people seemed to feel better when he was around. Over time I realized that was true because he cared. He cared about people and the organization that employed him. He cared about his family and about journalism. He could look so serious while plotting his next zany stunt. I'm glad he came to Poynter; I'm glad he was a part of my life."

Naughton is survived by his wife Diana, his four children and his five grandchildren.

In honor of Poynter's 35th anniversary, NBC's Tom Brokaw spoke at Poynter and visited with his old friend Jim Naughton.

Poynter honored Naughton recently with a visit from his friend the chicken, and with a series of stories about his penchant for practical jokes.

Jim Naughton was reunited this year with the mascot whose chicken suit he borrowed for a 1976 press conference by Gerald Ford.

During his tenure as president, Naughton wrote occasionally for Poynter Online, whose development he spearheaded. Those writings included an essay on "Why Fun Matters" and on "Humor and Humanity."

Naughton also wrote about the evolution of news:

Editors like those at my old newspaper understand – and there was a time corporate media officers did also — that journalism’s sacred trust with its audience is not to tell people the latest diet craze. It is not to advise parents what’s on next Wednesday’s school lunch menu. It is not to provide film buffs with the Internet address of the nearest multiplex. It is not to make selection of 401(k) choices simpler. It is not to provide price comparisons on BlackBerry pagers. It is not even to alert consumers to the chance to buy a new SUV at 0.9% interest or to get a sack of potatoes with a discount coupon at the supermarket. Those things are ancillary.

News is the part people don’t ask for and should know. News is what can help people govern their nation, their city, their neighborhood, their school. By definition, news does not soothe. News breaks. Those big investigative projects help people understand how and why it broke and sometimes how to put it back together.

A quarter-century ago, Nelson Poynter worried that his St. Petersburg Times news company would not be able to do independent and meaningful journalism if the company got swallowed up by a media chain. He felt so strongly about it that he gave his company to a school for journalists. The Poynter Institute now is preparing to inscribe in marble in its new central courtyard one of Nelson Poynter’s most memorable statements:

“I’d rather be a newspaper editor than the richest man in the world.”

Journalism is at risk today in part because too many executives of too many media companies see profit in turning Nelson Poynter’s aphorism upside down. If that’s evolution, I’ll keep my dinosaur costume, thanks.


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