James M. Naughton dies; former Philadelphia Inquirer editor was accomplished reporter, prankster

August 12, 2012

James M. Naughton, who covered the Ford White House for the New York Times, helped lead the Philadelphia Inquirer to a raft of Pulitzer Prizes and was easily the greatest prankster of contemporary American journalism, died Aug. 11 at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 73.

He had cancer, said his wife, Diana Naughton.

Mr. Naughton’s career spanned the most influential era of the modern newspaper in American society. He was both a player and an observer during that period, from his days as a young reporter covering the Watergate scandal to his leadership at the Inquirer to his career-capping tenure as president of the Poynter Institute, the influential Florida journalism organization.

Mr. Naughton made perhaps his greatest impact as a journalist at the Inquirer. He was in charge of news-gathering when the newspaper won Pulitzer Prizes for stories that helped free a man wrongly convicted of murder, exposed corruption in the Philadelphia court system and highlighted ineptitude by the Internal Revenue Service. He edited and nurtured writers including Richard Ben Cramer, Mark Bowden and Buzz Bissinger.

“In many respects, he was the very soul of the paper,” Gene Roberts, the newspaper’s former executive editor, said in an interview. “It would be impossible to overestimate his contributions, and he was an absolute delight to work with — upbeat, mischievous and with extremely high standards and ambition for the paper.”


James M. Naughton, who was easily the greatest prankster of contemporary American journalism, died Aug. 11 at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla. He was 73. (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

For all of his accomplishments as a reporter, writer, editor and thinker, Mr. Naughton reveled in his reputation as a joker. His exploits were many, but the best known of them happened during the 1976 presidential race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Discouraged by the lack of news during the campaign, Mr. Naughton showed up at a Ford news conference wearing a chicken head. He was egged on by Ford’s chief of staff, a young Dick Cheney, who told Mr. Naughton to ask the president a question “or you’re a chicken.”

Mr. Naughton had planned to say, “Mr. President, your campaign puts me in a fowl mood.” Although he never used the line, several members of the press corps lifted him onto their shoulders. The scene was featured on the next morning’s “Today Show” and “CBS Morning News,” and NBC’s Tom Brokaw recounted the episode years later at Ford’s memorial service. The chicken head now resides at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.

During the same campaign, Mr. Naughton arranged for a sheep to be delivered to the hotel room of Newsweek correspondent Thomas DeFrank, an “Aggie,” as graduates of Texas A&M are known. The animal was intended to make the reporter feel at home on the road, as recounted in Stephen Bates’s book “If No News, Send Rumors.”

On his expense report, Mr. Naughton charged the New York Times five dollars for “ewe rental.” The newspaper reimbursed him in full.

Such pranks were a hallmark of Mr. Naughton’s philosophy — that great journalism should be a service to society but also a creative enterprise.

“I did my part, mostly through tomfoolery-by-example, to provoke giggles,” he wrote in a 2011 memoir, “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.”

James Martin Naughton was born Aug. 13, 1938, in Pittsburgh and grew up in Painesville, Ohio. Mr. Naughton was a delivery boy for the Painesville Telegraph and started writing for the paper in high school.

He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1960, served for two years in the Marine Corps and began his journalism career in Ohio. He worked as a police, rewrite, federal, city hall, politics and state legislative reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In 1967, Mr. Naughton was covering Cleveland politics when Carl Stokes was elected the first African American mayor of a major American city. The New York Times sent Gene Roberts, then a reporter, to cover the race and asked him to write an article from Ohio for the Times magazine.

Instead, Roberts recommended Mr. Naughton. Mr. Naughton ended up writing four pieces in nine months for the magazine, with scarcely any editing changes — a virtually unheard-of accomplishment.

Roberts remained a significant influence on Mr. Naughton throughout his career. Mr. Naughton soon joined the Times’s Washington bureau, where he became known as one of the nation’s sharpest political reporters and most graceful writers.

He covered Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, President Richard M. Nixon, the 1972 presidential campaigns of Edmund Muskie and George McGovern, the Watergate hearings and the Ford White House before shifting to Ford’s 1976 campaign. The experience, as Mr. Naughton later said, made him “the Times’ expert on losers.”

He was a marquee player in “The Boys on the Bus” (1973), Timothy Crouse’s account of the reporters who covered the 1972 election. The volume was one of the first campaign books in which the journalists figured as characters.

“Naughton was a natural leader, and the others followed him almost unconsciously,” Crouse wrote. “He was always in the middle of the excitement, and when he left a place, the others would slowly filter away.”

In 1977, Mr. Naughton was looking for a change. By then, Roberts had taken the helm of the Inquirer and recruited him as an editor. In the next two decades, the Inquirer became one of the nation’s most accomplished newspapers, winning 17 Pulitzer Prizes during Roberts’s 18 years there. Naughton was at the center of much of the paper’s most ambitious work.

The newsroom also was a creative hothouse where work and play were interchangeable — or, in the approach adopted by Roberts and Mr. Naughton, inseparable.

Mr. Naughton’s memoir is titled “46 Frogs: Tales of a Serial Prankster.” Roberts’s visage had been likened to that of a frog and someone — Mr. Naughton always claimed to have been absent from the newsroom at the time — had unleashed 46 frogs in Roberts’s private bathroom in celebration of his 46th birthday.

The success of newspapers in the 1980s through the mid-2000s, before the rise of the Internet, made them cash cows for their owners. Many media companies — including Knight Ridder, which then owned the Inquirer — tried to milk the papers for more and more money. Under those pressures, Roberts eventually left the paper, and then Mr. Naughton, by then executive editor, did, too.

In 1996, he became the president of the Poynter journalism think tank and training institute in St. Petersburg. He brought with him his collection of wacky hats and upon arrival installed a pool table in his office.

He hired Jim Romenesko, who launched a Web site that became the go-to place for the latest trends and gossip of the Fourth Estate. (Romenesko is no longer affiliated with Poynter.) Mr. Naughton also oversaw a major expansion of Poynter before retiring in 2003.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Diana Thomas Naughton of St. Petersburg; four children, Jenifer Genovesi of Austin, Tex., Lara Naughton of New Orleans, Michael Naughton of Philadelphia and Kerry Naughton of Portland, Ore.; a sister; and five grandsons.

While undergoing cancer treatment, Mr. Naughton frequently showed up at his clinic in costume. One day, dressed as a sumo wrestler, he told the nurses, “Look what your radiation has done to me.”

Recounting the story in his memoir, he wrote, “As long as I am able, my plan is to laugh death in the face.”

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