Remembering mentor, friend and leader Jim Naughton

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Me, Naughton and the San Diego chicken at Poynter. The chicken made an appearance at a party we threw for Naughton following the publication of his book, “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.”

There are some people who enter your life and inspire you to be better. Jim Naughton was one of those people.

Naughton died Saturday, two days before his 74th birthday. He had battled prostate cancer for more than 15 years.

I probably wouldn’t be at Poynter today had it not been for Naughton. He helped create the Institute’s year-long Naughton fellowship, which I got after graduating from Providence College in 2007.  During that time, I strengthened my writing and editing skills and learned what it’s like to work for a website. After my year was up, the fellowship turned into a job.

Several times during my fellowship, Naughton took me to lunch. Cafe Cibo, an Italian restaurant in St. Pete, was our favorite spot. Naughton would ask me how my fellowship was going, what I was learning, and what I was doing for fun. I would ask him for advice on writing and editing, and talk with him about my goals and aspirations. He always encouraged me and, in doing so, showed me what a great leader he was.

Naughton was president of The Poynter Institute from 1996 to 2003. Prior to that, he was editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer and a Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Known for his good sense of humor, Naughton believed that laughter was a necessity in the newsroom. Tom Brokaw called him the “Prince of Pranks” — a title that suited him well. When he worked at the Inquirer under Gene Roberts, Naughton put 46 bullfrogs in Roberts’ office for his 46th birthday. He also brought a camel into the newsroom.

Last year, Naughton published a book about his newsroom pranks titled “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.” In one part, he wrote about covering Gerald Ford for the Times:

Especially for those at major news outlets like the broadcast networks and the Washington Post and New York Times, there was an expectation we would come up with something new every day, even if Jerry Ford was doing the same thing every day. Some reporters could manage this debilitating duty; others turned to booze, some to sex, some to gourmandizing, some to late-night poker games. Some of us turned to pranks …

Naughton’s most notable prank — which gained nationwide attention — involved wearing a chicken head while interviewing Ford. The president later reflected on the prank in this video.

Throughout his career, Naughton showed that humor can create a sense of togetherness, and that hard work needs to be balanced with fun. Even when Naughton was sick, he managed to make people laugh. A few years ago, he sent me and some of my Poynter colleagues a photo of himself wearing a sumo-wrestling suit, just before he was about to receive radiation therapy. It seemed like such a Naughton thing to do.

I was lucky enough to go to lunch with Naughton and his wonderful wife Diana about two months ago. It had been a while since we’d been to lunch, so I couldn’t help but give him a big hug when I saw him. He looked tired, but still seemed like his old self.

I’ll never forget how good he was to me, and will be forever grateful that he created the Naughton fellowship. Journalism (and the world, really) needs more people like him.

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