Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the fourth publisher of the New York Times, who made history with his decision to publish the Pentagon Papers and revived the "Good Gray Lady" of print journalism with a radical redesign that set a new standard, has died. He was 86.
His death Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y., after a long illness, was announced by his son and the current publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.
Widely known by the nickname Punch, the senior Sulzberger was publisher of the Times from 1963 to 1992 and chairman and chief executive of the parent company from 1973 to 1997.
Gay Talese, who was a reporter at the paper when Sulzberger took over and wrote a history of the Times in his 1969 book "The Kingdom and the Power," told the Associated Press that he was "a brilliant publisher. He far exceeded the achievements of his father in both making the paper better and more profitable at a time when papers are not as good as they used to be."
At 37 — the youngest publisher in the newspaper's history — he quickly proved himself capable of decisive leadership. Just months into his tenure, he stood up to President Kennedy's criticism of the Times' Saigon correspondent, David Halberstam, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War. Less than a decade later, Sulzberger defied President Nixon when he approved the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret history of the war.
His decision to publish the papers — "the most extraordinary leak of classified documents in the history of governments," according to historian William Manchester — sparked a U.S. Supreme Court battle over freedom of the press, which the Times won. The paranoia it unleashed in the Nixon White House set in motion an incredible series of events — the Watergate break-in by administration-backed operatives and a coverup at the highest levels of government — that culminated in the president's resignation in 1974.
What moved Sulzberger to put himself and the Times in jeopardy was a bedrock belief in the newspaper as a guardian of the public interest.
"He decided, even at great risk to his newspaper and his family's legacy, that the responsibility to the public came first," said Alex S. Jones, a former New York Times reporter and coauthor with Susan E. Tifft of "The Trust," a 1999 history of the Times.
The Pentagon Papers were the defining moment of three decades of transformation under Sulzberger.
He modernized operations by automating production, unified the Sunday and daily news operations under one editor and spearheaded a revamping that divided the paper into four brightly written sections.
To address the paper's liberal tilt, he recruited Nixon speechwriter William Safire as a columnist in 1973, just as Watergate exploded. A few years earlier, Sulzberger had broken a long-standing family taboo against placing Jews in prominent positions when he promoted Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent A.M. Rosenthal to managing editor in 1969 and executive editor in 1977.
Whereas his forebears had run the Times almost as a nonprofit organization, Sulzberger vigorously pursued profits to ensure the newspaper's financial viability. In 1969 he took the family business public and built a communications conglomerate that eventually owned almost two dozen other newspapers — including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune — as well as magazines and radio and television stations. Revenue rose from $101 million to $2.6 billion over the 34 years that he led the company.
What Sulzberger did not foresee was the trouble that enveloped the company in more recent years, with challenges from Wall Street to cut costs, increase profits and eliminate the two-tiered stock structure he devised to maintain the control of the Ochs-Sulzberger clan. Nor did he anticipate the immense effect that the Internet would have on traditional media's ability to retain and attract readers.
Though he knew that the Times had to make money, he remained focused on the ultimate purpose: paying for great journalism. Even during financially precarious times, he would fatten the news operation rather than pinch it. Or, as Rosenthal — the brilliant editor who died in 2006 — once said, Sulzberger "put more tomatoes in the soup." Thirty-one of the 63 Pulitzers the Times had amassed by 1991 were earned during Sulzberger's years atop the masthead.
He was born Feb. 5, 1926, in New York City, the youngest of four children and only son of Arthur Hays and Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger. He had a sister named Judy, so he was nicknamed Punch, a teasing reference to the popular puppet characters Punch and Judy.
Hampered by what his family thought was dyslexia, he was an indifferent student who daydreamed in class. When he was 17, he joined the Marines, managing to circumvent the legal age requirements through family connections. His desire to prove himself on the battlefield was thwarted by his father, who arranged a transfer to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's staff as driver and jack-of-all-trades.
Once his military duty was completed, he began his apprenticeship in the news business.
He started off at the Milwaukee Journal, where his journalism debut was far from dazzling. Assigned to obituaries, he earned a sharp rebuke when he wrote in one story that the deceased had "died suddenly," a phrase his editor considered redundant. Years later, Sulzberger said his chief lesson was that "in Milwaukee, you died unexpectedly."
In 1954, he returned to New York and joined the Times foreign desk. During a stint in the Paris bureau, he used a day off to visit Le Mans, home of the French Grand Prix, where he saw a driver lose control of his car, killing 83 people. It was a major story, but Sulzberger failed to call the office and report it.