Humor and Humanity

These remarks were made by Jim Naughton, president of The Poynter Institute, to leadership seminar participants at the first Poynter program conducted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

Getting on an airplane to be here today was an act of will, an act of courage, an act of leadership.

That's a start.

Now I want you to laugh.

There have been moments over the last two weeks when I thought it would be inane of me to go forward with remarks to you about the importance of fun as a component of leadership.

I'm going to do it anyway. Because it remains true.

We'll start at the obvious place. Frogs.

Not everyone knows that the great Gene Roberts was known to most of his staff in Philadelphia as "The Frog."

Roberts came by his nickname the way he did many things –- totally unaware.

Not long after he arrived at The Philadelphia Inquirer there was a story in Philadelphia magazine about the intense, to-the-death competition between the family-owned Philadelphia Bulletin and the Knight Company's morning Inquirer and afternoon Daily News. Everyone knew one company was going to succumb.

The story pointed out that George Packard, editor of The Bulletin, was a big-city sophisticate who looked like –- indeed, he later became -– a diplomat.

And Roberts, the good-old-boy Carolinian, said the magazine, talked slow, sat with his legs crossed and hunched over, and looked sort of like a frog.

The story had a line near the end that was memorable, and, as it turned out, correct. The Inquirer staff took up a collection and hired a large billboard directly across the street from The Bulletin. The billboard contained the memorable line from the magazine story:

"In Philadelphia, the smart money is on the Frog."

Well, several things are noteworthy about this. Some even may be relevant to our topic tonight.

First, the staff sometimes took action without having been directed to do so by the big boss.

Second, they did things that were cheeky and fun.

Third, and I bear some responsibility for the growth of this trend, the office pranks often seemed to involve animals.

Fourth –- and most important –- there was a delicious sense of conspiracy at work.

Few things are as likely to breed collaborative effort in a newsroom as conspiring to have fun at the expense of a big boss.

Imagine it.

[An active plot to play a prank was discussed here. For obvious reasons, it cannot be disclosed yet. Leadership Academy participants became co-conspirators.]

Now you're part of the conspiracy. You can try this at home. It will be part of loosening the place up.

Or getting you fired.

Do some reporting on whether the boss would laugh. Or go bats.

Ideally you'll have a boss who'll tolerate someone like The Quiet Man.

One of the most famous episodes in The Inquirer involved a reporter known as "The Quiet Man."

He was a veteran, a holdover from the pre-Roberts days when The Inquirer was genuinely corrupt.

The Quiet Man used to sit around on night rewrite being generally sullen and quiet.

But he also sat there during the down time between urgent stories and used his mischievous -– verging on downright nasty -– creativity to make fun of the bosses.

He started making puppets that were pretty accurate images of the managers. Roberts was, of course, frog-like in appearance. There were puppets of most of the top editors. Mine 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."

Well, to this day I have no idea why even a journalist as paranoid and cynical as The Quiet Man would portray me as a cutthroat killer. There's no question I was hurt by the image.

As you might guess, several of the top editors started musing about how to discipline The Quiet Man or what to do with the growing array of puppets in what was called MBO Theater -– smack in the middle of the newsroom.

There were suggestions of edicts against this sort of thing. 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 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.

When The Quiet Man branched out into office political cartooning –- wicked strips that mimicked the style of Tony Auth, the editorial page cartoonist, and were signed "UnAuth" –- we published some of them in the newsroom house organ.

I don't think we ever diminished the cynicism of The Quiet Man.

But we didn't give him reason to validate or to spread it.

We tried our best to use humor –- his, among others, and often dark humor –- to create a sense of togetherness.

And we all discovered something that I'll never forget about being a leader:

It really does help to create a laid-back atmosphere in a newsroom. But it is not easy to be laid back. It's damned hard. You have to work at it.

There came a day in this deliberately laid-back newsroom when the knowledge that the bosses could take a joke began to flourish, big-time.

I won't tell you all of the pranks that were played. Like the one with the Goodyear blimp. Or the kazoo band. It would take until breakfast time.

But I do want to go back to the fact that frogs were an important element.

We realized that Gene Roberts had a 46th birthday coming. And we thought about the image of him as Frog.

So we commissioned the staff –- including, importantly, the night rewrite staff –- to find us 46 frogs, one for each year of Gene's life.

They located a frog farmer in New Jersey. (You can find anything in New Jersey.) The guy raised frogs to be dissected in high school biology class. So we knew we would be sparing their lives to involve them in our prank.

On Roberts' 46th birthday, when he came into his office and went to his executive bathroom to hang up his suitcoat, there in the bathroom were 46 big, fat, ugly Louisiana bullfrogs.

Some had got stuck behind the radiator and made something of a mess. Others had left frog residue all over the executive water closet. Some made their way toward frog freedom when Gene opened the bathroom door.

Roberts' assistant, Carol Damiano, was not amused.

Roberts, thankfully, was.

And then he did something that, for a manager and leader, was just right:

He turned the tables.

Some of the office pranksters were not expert in these matters. They let slip, alas, that they had cut a special deal with the frog farmer. He would not charge us any rent for the 46 frogs, so long as the frogs were returned to him. But for each frog we could not give back we would be charged $7.50.

When Roberts learned that, he began summoning to his office everyone he could think of who lived near water or woods or anywhere remotely pastoral, and giving away frogs. Here, take two!

I don't recall how many frogs Roberts handed out. But it would have cost us $345 had he given away all.

Fortunately, the rewrite bank took the frog farmer to the nearby Press Bar and got him schlockered, and he said, Aw, the heck with the money, he'd never had so much fun. No charge.

The frogs led to chickens in the newsroom. Multiple times. Ducks. An elephant.

At one farewell party in our fifth-floor newsroom we had two people riding motorcycles around between desks. Lord knows quite why, except that the departing editor was in charge of New Jersey coverage and it seemed appropriate.

The general manager issued an edict that vehicles –- along with animals and alcoholic beverages -- were not permitted on the fifth floor.

It had limited effect. Nothing could have kept out the most famous, or infamous, visiting animal, the camel.

Forgive the time I'm taking, but these stories require it. Feel free to leave if you need to.

But I've not yet met a journalist who didn't want to know about the camel in the newsroom.

It was in celebration of the episode in the development of Gene Roberts' newspaper that may say the most about how laid-back leaders and laughter worked hand in hand.

It involved the best reporter I've ever known, Richard Ben Cramer.

When I got to the Inquirer five years into the Gene Roberts era, he had made a lot of things better. But the paper was still pretty much confined to a local and regional perspective, even though the readers had a far wider and worldy view.

I was brand new as the National/Foreign editor of The Inquirer.

There had been a strike at the newspaper earlier that year and in my ignorance I presumed that meant there was money in the National/Foreign budget that had not been spent.

This was at the time that the peace talks between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel were happening. Jim McCartney of the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau was covering the story.

Except that the second round of talks, in Cairo, was scheduled for Christmas week, and McCartney's family was on his case about being absent over the holiday.

So the Washington Bureau asked if any Knight-Ridder paper had a reporter who could go to Egypt.

Hell, yes! I said. We'll send Richard Ben Cramer.

He was temporarily on assignment in New York. I barely knew him. But he was obviously good. And I wanted to do something meaningful overseas to establish the paper's bona fides with foreign news.

So I called Cramer and explained the deal. He was to go to Egypt, cover the Sadat-Begin meetings, then spend about two weeks tooling around the Middle East and explaining what was happening.

Cramer said great. Off he went. He did a fine, but not exceptional, job on the Sadat-Begin talks in Cairo.

Then he disappeared.

We had no idea where he was. This was before cell phones and pagers and even before laptop computers. We began to worry.

Until the telex started clacking and in came a story by Cramer from The City of The Dead.

It wasn't overly long, maybe 30 inches. But it was unlike anything I'd ever imagined him doing.

I thought I'd given Cramer guidance on how the big kids at, say, The New York Times would cover this story.

I was, after all, his editor. And I was from The New York Times!

Cramer, bless him, disregarded all that and took the risk of doing it his way.

That first story was from a huge cemetery in which Egyptians lived, some in mausoleums, some in the open, because they had no homes.

Cramer told how excited the people were in The City of the Dead at the prospects of real peace. There was a refrain that went through the story:

"When there is peace, Inshallah . . ." – Allah willing – I will have a stove. A car. A television. A house!

Five things happened because Richard Ben Cramer had the good sense to ignore what I would have done in his place:

First, we put his story and many like it, on Page One. There's no way we might have conceived a story from the City of the Dead sitting on our butts in Philadelphia. But we knew what to do with it when it arrived. We abetted the risk that Richard took.

Second, Roberts somehow managed to keep Cramer in the Middle East, writing stories like that, for a year –- without any budget for foreign news coverage.

Roberts was, of course, an evil genius at budgeting. He once hired an assistant New Jersey editor out of funds earmarked for maintenance of equipment.

Third, Richard Ben Cramer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in the very first year he'd ever done it. The Pulitzer folks recognized that what he had done was to explain the peace process in ways that stories of talking heads of state could not. The Egyptian government's need to stop spending so much on armaments so it could attend to legitimate needs of its people was never more clear than in the piece from the City of the Dead.

Fourth, Cramer's approach to insightful international coverage became a pattern for Knight Ridder.

In cahoots with the editors in Detroit, San Jose and Miami, Roberts persuaded Knight Ridder to fund two foreign correspondents at each paper and to turn them loose in the same way Cramer had been, to find stories that illuminated the events by focusing on their effects on real people.

That system of eight correspondents funded by corporate but managed by the papers lasted about 20 years.

And here's my point. It probably would not have happened in a newsroom that was corporatized and uptight and top-down.

It did happen in a newsroom that empowered the staff to take appropriate risks.

It did happen in a newsroom in which the editors had learned -- or were learning -- that the role of the manager is to get the bureaucracy out of the way of the people going after a great story.

Every news organization needs rules. They define the norms of our jobs.

But every creative leader in a newsroom needs to know how and when to ignore the rules.

Or wink at them. Or make fun of them.

Roberts didn't chew out Cramer for ignoring the National/Foreign desk. He applauded the result, funded its continuation, cajoled the bean counters into establishing a consistent contribution to readers.

And he smiled when, in celebration of Cramer's work overseas, the staff brought a camel into the Executive Editor's office.

Here's what happened.

Some of us had to go to a meeting of the New Jersey State Press Association. On the way, we passed an auditorium where the state Democratic Party was gathered.

Outside, mocking the Democrats, was a group of Republicans who were taking due notice of the fact that the Abscam scandal – where the FBI pretended to be oil sheikhs and bribed a bunch of politicians – scooped up lots of Democrats in Philadelphia and New Jersey.

The demonstrators had a camel and a guy dressed in a galabeyah and burnoose.


The Inquirer staff found out where the camel came from –- a small circus in, of course, New Jersey -– and arranged to rent it and bring it to the fifth-floor office of Gene Roberts.

This took effort.

The camel was delivered to the loading dock at the back of the Inquirer and Daily News building.

It was loaded into the freight elevator.

The freight elevator only went to the 4th floor.

So the camel emerged from the freight elevator right outside the company cafeteria and started down a city-block-long hallway – composing room on one side, offices on the other.

People who had not previously seen any camels on the fourth floor came out of the cafeteria and the offices and composing room, wondering what on earth was happening, and followed along.

They got to the front of the building, turned the corner, went into the passenger elevator lobby and got into a considerably smaller elevator to go up one more floor.

The crowd ran up the steps.

The camel emerged from the passenger elevator on 5, made a sharp right turn into the main Inquirer newsroom and another turn across the newsroom to the corner office of the executive editor.

As it happened -– I am not making this up –- Gene Roberts was in a meeting with architects planning, for the third or fourth time of the eight or nine before it actually happened, the "Newsroom of the Future."

Without pause, Roberts turned to the architects and said, "Oh, yes, we'll need to be near a freight elevator."

Well, there's a point I've left out that you need to know before assessing just how tolerant and laid-back Gene Roberts was.

The camel was accompanied by a goat.

We had not expected a goat.

You've heard of the great race horse, Citation. Well, Citation apparently could not remain calm in the barn if left alone. The trainers discovered that a duck had a pacifying effect on Citation, so Citation lived with the duck.

When they wanted Citation to get all lathered up and run like blazes, they took Citation away from the duck.

Our rented camel had the same sort of relationship with a goat.

So for no extra charge we got a goat.

It turned out that the camel was very well behaved.

The goat, however, was wildly incontinent, all over the Executive Editor's office.

All the people who went in there to see the camel mashed the goat droppings into the carpet.

Proving definitively that it's foolhardy to carpet a newsroom.

If ever we were going to be fired, that would've been the day.

We weren't.

Roberts simply got even.

By, among other things and over time, stealing a car from my driveway … with the active collusion of the Philadelphia Police Commissioner.

But that's another story. Maybe for later.

I need to tell you a few more things about how useful humor can be in helping to build and extend leadership.

The Inquirer under Gene Roberts began to get a reputation for getting notably better at news coverage.

It also began to get a reputation for being a good place to work –- collaborative, creative, even fun.

To our amazement, we started to get the occasional job application from The Washington Post.

The New York Times!

They'd heard that you could giggle and laugh in our newsroom while doing good work.

There was one month in which we hired three of the best people at the Boston Globe.

One of them, Tim Dwyer, is now the Inquirer sports editor.

Another, Hank Klibanoff, is now the Inquirer deputy managing editor.

And the third of them is Bob Rosenthal, the executive editor of The Inquirer.

We might not have been able to hire any of them if the paper had not been getting better.

The paper might not have been getting better if we had not realized and actively respected the central aspect of the character of American journalists:

They are hugely insecure. Paranoid. Afraid their work sucks.

I don't believe I've ever met a journalist of any substance who did not come to work every single day secretly thinking:

Today's the day they're going to catch on.

It isn't, of course, true. But it's what we all fear. And so we drive ourselves to be better than we think we're capable of.

We don't as a rule need bosses piling on.

What we need is empathy, support, collaboration, encouragement, guidance, empowerment.

It took me forever to figure out that insecurity is part of the driving force of creative people.

Think of famous novelists. Librettists. Artists.

They're wackos.

I thought, for years, that I was uniquely insecure.

Think of this: It's 1972. I'm covering a presidential candidate for The New York Times.

I'd been a reporter for six summers at a small paper, for seven years at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and for three years at The Times. I had covered the White House.

Not until I had been a journalist for 16 years did I realize it was okay to be scared.

That knowledge is a gift. Here's how I found out:

A few years ago, Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry made me write a personal essay in a Poynter seminar I was attending. This is what I wrote:

Death of a Demigod
By Jim Naughton

He was the most gifted professional I knew. A consummate reporter. A nurturing boss. A compleat bureaucrat. A caring colleague.

It was easy to be in awe of him, and I was. Now it was going to become difficult to live with.

The editor was about to join me, for several days, in coverage of the political campaign I was following. He would be sitting next to me on the press plane, eating the same sterile airline food, reading the same handouts -- and watching me write. Oh, God. How could I possibly get through the week?

As luck would have it -- and if nothing else, I have been greatly fortunate -- it was he who had to write first. He joined the campaign with a notebook full of some Washington development or other and had to write about it, typewriter perched on his knees, before we hit the next campaign stop aboard the plane.

So he rolled the paper into the typewriter, just as I would. He sat motionless for several minutes, just as I would. He typed a bit and rolled the platen up and mulled, just as I would. He xxxxed and mmmmed with ferocity, just as I would. He anguished, just as I would.

And then he did an astonishing thing. He asked me to read, over his shoulder, his raw copy.

Dumbly, I read. He had a word in the second graf that was not quite correct. I meekly suggested a replacement. His eyes lit up and he rolled the copy back down to that spot and inserted my word. My word!

The experience recurred several times before he was finished. And when he had completed the story, he sighed. I looked at him -- quizzically, I'm sure. And he said something that, in my naivete, I thought he had coined at that very moment and realized only years later had been a citation of Dorothy Parker:

"I hate to write, but I love having written."

It summed up my whole existence. And I loved Max Frankel for having let me see, for the first time in my life, that I was not uniquely insecure as a writer.

The demigod was merely human. Thank God.

How you overcome your own insecurity, how you lead your staffs is more urgent today than it was 19 days ago.

Which brings me to my friend, Polk Laffoon IV.

You may know Polk Laffoon IV as a former reporter and editor at The Miami Herald who now is the spokesman for Knight Ridder. He's also the person who unfortunately was quoted as saying the words that, for me, define the era of American self-indulgence that ended on September 11.

A few weeks ago, Polk was defending Knight Ridder against criticism of its push for higher profits. Here is what Howard Kurtz wrote in The Washington Post:

"'Our definition of what is good journalism here has evolved from the time Gene Roberts was editing The Philadelphia Inquirer' in the 1970s and '80s, he says. Rather than big investigative projects, 'we put a lot of emphasis on local news and useful or service-oriented features and news that readers tell us over and over that they want … health and nutrition, personal finance, personal technology.' "

Polk now says the Post misquoted him, that he hadn't meant those subjects were to be pursued instead of investigative journalism.

Whatever he may have told Howie Kurtz, it seems shamefully apparent in hindsight that many of us have too easily let journalism be defined by news of fitness and personal finance and technology.

Things have changed.

For the first time since Vietnam, there is a real threat to the well-being of our cities, communities, families, nation .

People now have a need to know.

Your job is to assure we have not evolved beyond investigative and explanatory and International news.

Your obligation is to affirm the ascendance of news in news companies.

As you do that, remember that your colleagues need you to be conscious of their needs.

No better reminder exists than the 20-page internal publication that The New York Times just produced for its staff. It describes and honors the way that staff has responded to the terror attacks. The whole document is on our website, and I commend it to you.

Its cover says this:

"How easy it is for us to be professional.

"In a company packed with so much talent and so much experience, how easy it is for us to think of news as something that happens only to someone else.

"How easy to forget that we are human, and that this time, we are the victims as well as the storytellers.

"Thank you for offering these reminders that, while we put aside our safety, our comfort and our families when duty called, we did not cease to feel, to help and to mourn."

We did not cease to feel.

Remember that your subordinates, your peers, your bosses do not cease to feel.

Creating a collaborative environment in your newsroom can help them do their jobs better as feeling beings.

You may not ever pull off pranks that involve camels. You may not conspire to put frogs in your bosses' bathrooms. But in ways that fit your style and your company and your boss you can do things that empower colleagues to be both enterprising and human.

We began with The Frog and I want to end with Gene Roberts.

When he retired from the Inquirer, most of his peers paid homage to Gene Roberts' instinct.

Or to his tenacity.

Or to the ambition that fed his desire to strengthen his newspaper.

His staff praised his humanity.

  • James Naughton

    Made a career out of covering politicians when people cared to read about that. Moved on to editing, managing and cavorting in newsrooms, often while dressed in costume.


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