August 12, 2012

When Jim Naughton’s family alerted his Facebook friends to his weakening condition Friday afternoon, his page lit up with tributes from friends near and far. Among them was this post from Gene Foreman, the retired managing editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Jim, it was an honor and a privilege to practice journalism with you at the Inky of the seventies, eighties and nineties. Above all, you never let us forget that we should take our work seriously but not ourselves.”

Jim Naughton died peacefully at home Saturday, embraced by family and cheered by friends. After prevailing for more than 15 years against a prostate cancer that doctors told him might kill him a decade ago, Jim died two days shy of his 74th birthday.

Throughout, he engaged his illness with the humor that laced his life at home and at work. At one point last year, friends and colleagues clicked open an email to find a photo of Jim about to climb onto a table for radiation treatment, dressed as a Sumo wrestler. He had arrived for his appointment, teasing the staff: “Look what your treatments have done to me!”

Naughton retired as president of The Poynter Institute in 2003, capping a career that began at the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph, where he covered police and society news, and highlighted by service as the top political reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, White House correspondent for the New York Times, and executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer won 10 Pulitzer Prizes for work performed under his direction.

Jim Naughton (left) was reunited with the San Diego chicken, whose suit he wore during a 1976 press conference by Gerald Ford.

But if Naughton was known for his journalism, he was appreciated even more for his style of management — a wonderful hybrid of patient teacher, selfless coach and very merry prankster.

In 18 years at The Inquirer, he never had an office, electing instead to sit in the heart of the newsroom in a cubicle barely large enough to accommodate a desk, two chairs and the arcade machine that dispensed plastic eggs if you deposited a quarter (which he provided). Oh, and there also was the rubber chicken that dangled over his head from the ceiling. Within that cramped space, Naughton edited multi-part investigations, assigned the tennis reporter to cover Moscow, and helped the most insecure writers find the courage to write just one more lead.

In Washington, Jim was respected for extraordinarily perceptive coverage of Congress, presidential campaigns and the Nixon impeachment hearings. And he was celebrated as the most fun-loving White House correspondent in the history of the paper known as the “the Old Gray Lady.” In his memoir, “46 Frogs” (we’ll explain the title below), Naughton shared the story of his last day at the Times:

“I wanted to do something memorable and fun. The Times was a formal and ritualistic place, and I knew that if I sent to New York a “slug” — a one-word description of a story in preparation — it would be listed on the National desk story schedule for the next day’s editions and distributed widely in the paper’s main office. I pretended one of the bureau’s reporters was working on a science story and sent New York the slug: URANUS.

“Editors wanted to know more, but it was easy enough to fend off their queries with the assurance the bureau was expecting some interesting astronomical developments involving the seventh planet from the sun. Sometimes a scheduled news story would fail to materialize, or would be worth something less than a full-fledged, bylined account. The story would be downgraded or killed — scratched.

“As my last official act for The New York Times, I sent New York a message that would be widely circulated. It simply said, in cable-ese: ‘Please scratch URANUS.’ ”

Among his more memorable pranks was posing a question to former president Gerald Ford while dressed as the San Diego chicken. He submitted the $100 cost of the chicken head costume on his Times expense account but was approved for only $50. Then the San Diego chicken returned Naughton’s check, saying “I can’t accept even a dime.” Naughton wrote back to the accounting department. “That’s all right. I’ll stand the entire cost.”

But it was another exchange with Ford, this time on Air Force One, that revealed some of the heart beneath the chicken suit. In his memoir, Jim describes a story he wrote for the Times about President Ford’s son, Jack. The younger Ford had experienced difficulties adjusting to life in the White House and Jim decided to spend a couple of days watching him campaign for his Dad in 1976. “In so many words,” Jim recalled, “the story said Jack Ford was better at campaigning than his old man.”

When unexpectedly summoned to Ford’s private cabin during his next campaign trip, Jim found himself underdressed — white jeans and a blue-checked shirt — and figuring that Ford “must really have been ticked off at that story.” Instead, Ford told him: “Betty and I want to thank you,” noting that the story convinced them that their son had “turned a corner” and would be OK.

“That was the real Jerry Ford,” Jim wrote in his memoir. “In the middle of a fight for survival in his party’s most important contest, he was meeting me not as the President but as a parent, a caring father. Whatever else the two of us discussed in that chat high above America I can’t recall. But I’ve never forgotten how genuine he was in that moment.”

A White House photo of the airborne conversation between reporter and president is one of the few White House mementos on display in Jim’s home office. Jim’s final New York Times byline appeared in December 2006 when former President Ford passed away at his home in California. Jim had prepared Ford’s obit before leaving the Times for the Inquirer in 1977.

Jim wore his resume lightly, reflecting the sort of self-deprecation he especially enjoyed in colleagues: “He was born (in 1938) in Pittsburgh, raised in Cleveland, and was graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1960,” Jim wrote in his online bio. “He served, with no discernible increase in hostilities, as an officer of the U.S. Marines from 1960 to 1962.”

When he arrived at Poynter in 1996, Jim eschewed the fancy perch reserved for the Institute’s top dog, replacing the presidential desk with a small pool table and taking a seat previously assigned to the president’s secretary.

In recent discussions of his tenure as Poynter’s third president, Naughton pointed out that he enjoyed the luxury of financial resources no longer at the disposal of his successor, current Poynter President Karen Dunlap.

Most of his big ideas for the institute cost big bucks, and Jim did not hesitate to spend them.

When it became clear that much of journalism’s future would unfold online, Jim orchestrated the rejuvenation of the institute’s website.

When Jim Romenesko began making a name for himself as an aggregator of news about news in 1999 (before the journalism world was talking about aggregation and curation), Naughton said: Hire him!

When someone suggested a collection of front pages reporting the September 11 attacks, Naughton said: Publish it!

When the institute outgrew its physical space, Jim assembled plans to nearly double its size and said: Build it!

When newsrooms said they couldn’t afford training after the economy tanked, Naughton said: Eliminate tuition!

And when the first glimmers of e-Learning appeared as an alternative training option for journalists, Naughton said: Let’s do that!

Bill Mitchell (left) and Jim Naughton in Poynter’s Great Hall.

In a farewell talk during his Poynter retirement party, Naughton said his fourth grade teacher, Peggy Ryan, inspired his start in the news business by challenging one of his earlier career aspirations. “Forget the FBI,” Jim recalled Ms. Ryan telling him. “You should be a writer.”

Outside of school, Jim was a member of a boys’ drill team, the Painesville Cavaliers, headed by a police officer named John Thomas. In September 1964, Jim married Diana Thomas, the only child of Officer Thomas and his wife, Hazel.

The couple’s four children — Jen, Lara, Michael and Kerry — were all at the Naughton home this weekend on St. Petersburg’s Coffee Pot Boulevard — an address Jim embraced with particular delight. He noted in his bio that he and Diana “now live — get this — on Coffee Pot Boulevard in St. Petersburg.”

In his memoir, he credits Diana for taking “the time not merely to bear our four children but to shape their values, and what a job she did… Four children, four idealists, four tributes to their mother. And four offspring who love to laugh.”

Thoughtfulness came naturally to Jim. He spent far more time writing birthday greetings than memos; staffers routinely received cards to mark births, passings and other occasions. He handed his credit card to staffers facing personal emergencies without access to cash. He wrote letter after letter of recommendation for present and former colleagues, and spent hours on the phone coaching careers. He couldn’t help himself: he just plain cared.

As her Dad weakened Friday evening, Lara Naughton logged into his Facebook account and alerted friends and colleagues around the country to his condition. What came back were messages from many, many journalists who felt, well, just plain cared-about.

“Jim, just think,” wrote Hank Klibanoff, a former Inquirer reporter who shared a Pulitzer Prize with Gene Roberts for a book about coverage of the civil rights movement. “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.”

Pam Belluck posted her note beneath Gene Foreman’s appreciation of Jim’s guide to what should be taken seriously — and less so — in life. Belluck, a New York Times correspondent who worked for Jim and Gene in Philadelphia, wrote: “This is exactly the way I will always think of you, Jim. And I am forever grateful for the opportunities, the humor, the humanity. What a special person. Peace.”

During Tom Brokaw’s visit to Poynter in honor of the Institute’s 35th anniversary, Poynter’s presidents were photographed with the NBC newsman: President Dr. Karen Dunlap (left), past Presidents Jim Naughton and Bob Haiman (far right).

Said Carrie Rickey, a movie critic at the Inquirer: “Thinking of you makes me smile. Thinking of the elaborate practical jokes you instigated makes me split my sides. If laughter is the best medicine, you are immortal.”

Matt Thompson, one of several young journalists who served as Naughton Fellows at, posted a note about his new position at NPR: “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).’ ”

Yes, above all, Naughton had fun. The man in the chicken head was determined to fill his newsroom with laughter and great work. Birthdays were excuses for elaborate skits, usually designed to embarrass the celebrant. Baseball stars popped out of cakes. Motorcycles roared past the news desk. Frogs — yes, 46 live, croaking frogs — awaited editor Gene Roberts upon his morning visit to his private bathroom. Naughton arranged parades, organized games and yes, helped escort a live camel into Roberts’ office to mark a reporter’s return from the Middle East.

This portrait was created by Poynter faculty member Sara Quinn for Jim’s retirement in 2003.

On more than one occasion, he hosted the proceedings in a getup that became something of a trademark: a swami hat. According to Naughton, the swami role originated when he was the political reporter at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. He was facing a post-election appearance at the City Club of Cleveland, and expected a grilling from members about his election forecasts. “I was about to be lacerated, unless I could figure out how to beat them to the punch.” He headed for the local theatrical costume company.

“I spotted a swami turban like the one Johnny Carson wore on ‘The Tonight Show’ for his Carnac the Magnificent routines, in which he divined the answers to questions supposedly kept sealed in envelopes… When it was my turn to stand at the lectern of the City Club of Cleveland, knees knocking, I whipped out my swami turban and crystal ball and proceeded to make fun of myself with a Carnac performance. It brought down the house and deflected at least some of the barbs the club had ready for me.”

Another character was born. In the introduction to “46 Frogs,” Naughton pitched hard for others to adopt his passion for having fun at work:

“I became more certain it was counterproductive that in too many worksites there is not enough laughter. I did my part, mostly through tomfoolery-by-example, to provoke giggles and I want to spread the gospel of workplace fun before the efficiency experts have been allowed to squeeze the joy out of work everywhere.”

Naughton’s ability to combine his pursuit of excellent journalism with a joy that seemed both effortless and boundless helped create a truly unique newsroom culture. It also provided an example that managers who watched him have tried to emulate — with mixed results.

They quickly realize that what Naughton gave to the organizations he led cannot be understood solely in terms of an approach to management. No, what Naughton offered his staffs was a way of approaching a life’s work: to seek excellence with a smile. To simultaneously embrace the most serious of responsibilities while holding tight to the whoopee cushion. To take life very seriously — but never to take yourself too seriously. And above all, to remember that the leader’s most important job is to enable your staff’s success.

Steve Lopez (shown left with Jim Naughton and Butch Ward) spoke at Poynter in 2010 as part of the James M. Naughton Leadership Lecture Series.

Naughton’s last lines in his memoir’s introduction could just as well have been written this weekend, one last plea for the kind of newsroom he treasured:

“When I announced to the Inquirer staff that I was leaving the paper, I was in costume as a dinosaur. The costume helped me mask my inevitable tears at leaving a place where I loved to work. The dinosaur metaphor was less an admission than a warning: Bosses who encourage employees to laugh aloud should not be extinct nor even endangered. Read, rejoice, relax, and go plot a prank.”

Saturday evening, Lara Naughton posted another note to Facebook:

“Friends of Jim: Thank you for the extraordinary messages of friendship, encouragement and celebration. Your love, with ours, helped him cross to the other side.

August 13, 1938 – August 11, 2012.

Service announcements will be available soon. Messages to our family can be posted here, or private messages sent to Lara at

Peace, Jim’s Family
Diana, Jen, Lara, Michael, Kerry, Steve, Monika, Mary, Hazel, Matthew, Noah, Mike, Max, Leo.”

The family will conduct private burial services this week, followed by a public memorial celebration at Poynter to be announced later. The Naughton family asks that anyone who would like to contribute in Jim’s memory do so in the form of a donation to Poynter’s scholarship fund, which will help support journalism training and the Naughton fellowship named in Jim’s honor.

Jim Naughton named Butch Ward the Inquirer’s New Jersey editor in 1982. Jim got Bill Mitchell a job as an intern in the New York Times Washington bureau in 1971. Both later ended up with him at Poynter.

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