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James M. Naughton, former president of Poynter Institute, dies at 73

James M. Naughton, who served as president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies for seven years beginning in 1996, died late Saturday at his home in St. Petersburg.

In a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Naughton was known to many as a colleague, teacher, collaborator and mentor for Poynter staff and participants, and for many around the world who called him for advice.

Though he witnessed some of the 20th century's most momentous historical events and came to know well the politicians and other newsmakers he covered, he most enjoyed being around other journalists.

"I love being in the company of people who care about the written word, the oral word," Mr. Naughton said upon his retirement from the Poynter Institute. "I love the dark humor and a mix of skepticism and a self-effacing understanding of the role."

Mr. Naughton, 73, succumbed to an illness Saturday after having received hospice care, according to a message posted by his family to his Facebook page. He was just two days shy of his 74th birthday.

Information on memorial services will be available soon, the family said.

Mr. Naughton's career began in his junior year in high school at the Painesville Telegraph in Ohio, where he worked each summer from 1955 through 1960 as reporter, photographer, editor, editorial writer, copy editor and proofreader.

He was born in 1938 in Pittsburgh, raised in Cleveland, and graduated cum laude from the University of Notre Dame in 1960. He served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1960 to 1962. In 1969, he joined the New York Times as correspondent in the Washington bureau.

He was a pensive and serious newsman, but those who knew him attested to his unflagging sense of humor.

During a 1976 news conference, President Gerald Ford was taken aback when he saw Mr. Naughton donning a costume chicken head while seated among other journalists. Mr. Naughton later said he had wanted to attract the president's attention for a question, having grown tired of his stock campaign speech. The incident was the talk of the next day's news cycle, Mr. Naughton's friend and fellow newsman Tom Brokaw later recalled.

Mr. Naughton later worked as a national and foreign editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer during a time when the paper won 12 Pulitzer Prizes and emerged as one of the nation's best.

By the time he took the reins at the Poynter Institute in 1996, he had built a reputation as a tough and fair journalist.

The Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, was established by Nelson Poynter before his death in 1978. To support it, Poynter left the institute his controlling stock in the newspaper and affiliated publications.

Mr. Naughton took over upon the retirement of Robert N. Haiman, who helped grow the institute from a modest operation in an old bank building in downtown St. Petersburg to a journalism school of international repute with more sumptuous digs at 801 Third St. S. Mr. Naughton sought to enhance the institute's success rather than overhaul the thriving operation.

"The very last thing I want to do is suggest radical change," he told a gathering of Poynter faculty and staff. "But we will not rest on our laurels."

Information from the Poynter Institute and Times archives was used in this report.

James M. Naughton, former president of Poynter Institute, dies at 73 08/12/12 [Last modified: Sunday, August 12, 2012 12:36am]
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