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Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former New York Times publisher, dies at 86

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Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, who died Sept. 29 at age 86, helped change the face of American journalism as the longtime publisher of the New York Times by broadening his newspaper’s coverage, standing up to government pressure and making the Times a newspaper of national scope, with distribution throughout the country.

Mr. Sulzberger was the scion of one the nation’s great publishing families. He became the chairman and chief executive of the parent company of the New York Times and was the father of the current publisher of the Times, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

The senior Mr. Sulzberger died at his home in Southampton, N.Y., the Times announced. The cause of death was not disclosed.

During his time as publisher, from 1963 to 1992, Mr. Sulzberger was credited with upholding what many journalists consider the highest standards of the profession and challenging powerful interests in all corners of society. The paper won 31 Pulitzer Prizes under his stewardship.

“He stood for everything that was important in journalism,” said Jack W. Fuller, the former editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. “He was the solid center behind what was important and necessary at the newspaper.”

Mr. Sulzberger’s imprint was felt in many enduring ways. He oversaw the transformation of the enterprise to a publicly traded company and played an incalculable role in shaping the Times for generations of readers.

He made the paper available nationally via satellite printing plants and, in 1970, introduced the op-ed (opposite-editorial) page, which showcases Times columnists and other writers whose opinions sometimes differ from the paper’s institutional voice.

He broadened the paper’s appeal by increasing coverage of science, sports, religion, arts and lifestyle news. He made crucial appointments throughout the newsroom, elevating Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist A.M. Rosenthal to managing editor, and later to executive editor, and adding columnist William Safire.

Authors Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones, in their unofficial history of the newspaper, “The Trust,” called Mr. Sulzberger “arguably the greatest” Times publisher since his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs bought the Times in 1896 and instilled new principles of fairness and responsible journalism at what was then a failing newspaper

As a new publisher in 1963, Mr. Sulzberger rebuffed a request from President John F. Kennedy to recall the Times’s Vietnam correspondent, David Halberstam, who had annoyed the military and administration with reports that punctured official claims about the war’s progress — reports that brought Halberstam and the Times a share of the 1964 Pulitzer for international reporting.

Under Mr. Sulzberger’s guidance, the Times prevailed in a landmark libel case, Times v. Sullivan, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements made without malice about the conduct of public officials.

In 1971, the New York Times was leaked a secret history, known as the Pentagon Papers, detailing 25 years of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Although Mr. Sulzberger knew that the Times might be sued and driven into financial ruin and that he could be sent to jail, he decided to publish a multipart series at the urging of Rosenthal, then the managing editor.

On the second day of the series, the Justice Department went to court to attempt to suppress publication. Over the next several weeks, the newspaper and the government engaged in a battle that led to an expedited appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Washington Post, which obtained its own copy of the classified documents, began publishing them and joined the Times in its First Amendment fight. On June 30, 1971, the high court ruled 6 to 3 that the newspapers could continue publishing the documents, establishing a newspaper’s right to publish without prior restraint by the government.

“The decision by Punch Sulzberger and, later, [Washington Post publisher] Katharine Graham to publish the Pentagon Papers changed forever the relationship of the press and government,” former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. said, “helping to make possible the long era of aggressive investigative reporting that followed.”

A whimsical nickname

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was born Feb. 5, 1926, in New York. His mother, Iphigene Ochs, was the daughter of Adolph S. Ochs. His father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, served as publisher of the Times from 1935 to 1961.

The young Arthur got his whimsical nickname, Punch, because one of his three older sisters was named Judith and his father quipped that he would “play the Punch to Judy’s endless show.”

An indifferent student hampered by hereditary dyslexia, Mr. Sulzberger left the private Loomis School in Windsor, Conn., at 17, to enlist in the Marine Corps during World War II. He served in the Pacific as a radio operator. Without his knowledge, his father asked Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, to look after his son, and the young Marine was attached to MacArthur’s staff, accompanying him to Tokyo for the Japanese surrender.

Mr. Sulzberger graduated from Columbia University in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in English. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War as a public information officer.

In 1953, he joined the Milwaukee Journal and worked as a cub reporter and a news editor before returning to the Times a year later. He joined the foreign news copy desk in anticipation of an overseas posting.

His performance as a foreign correspondent in Paris was considered unimpressive. One oft-told story noted that he attended an auto race in Le Mans, France, in 1955, when a car jumped the track and killed 83 people. Mr. Sulzberger, the only Times staffer on the scene, never called in the story.

His first marriage, to Barbara Grant, did not survive the posting, and they separated in Paris. Mr. Sulzberger returned to New York in 1956 to work in administrative jobs at the Times, beginning with assistant to the publisher and assistant treasurer.

During this period, he had a brief romance with a widowed Times reporter, Lillian Bellison Alexanderson, who became pregnant and said Mr. Sulzberger was the father. He denied paternity, but when blood tests failed to rule him out, he provided child support and medical costs. In 1972, Alexanderson filed a second paternity suit to extend the support; Mr. Sulzberger fought and won. Ten years later, the son, George Alexanderson, sued for a share of the family trust. He dropped the claim of inheritance in exchange for a separate trust.

In 1956, Mr. Sulzberger married Carol Fox Fuhrman, who died in 1995. The following year, he married Allison Cowles, the widow of a newspaper publisher in Spokane, Wash. She died in 2010.

Mr. Sulzberger’s survivors include two children from his first marriage, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and Karen Sulzberger; a daughter from his second marriage, Cynthia Sulzberger; his second wife’s daughter, Cathy Sulzberger, whom Mr. Sulzberger adopted; two sisters; and seven grandchildren.

Taking over

When his father stepped down as publisher in 1961, Mr. Sulzberger was not deemed seasoned enough to take over. The job instead went to his brother-in-law, Orvil E. Dryfoos.

Befriended by managing editor Turner Catledge, Mr. Sulzberger then began learning the ropes of leadership by attending informal gatherings with executives from the advertising, promotion and circulation departments.

In 1963, after a debilitating 114-day newspaper strike in New York, Dryfoos died of a heart attack. Mr. Sulzberger, then 37, was named publisher, despite some family resistance. He later described himself as “shellshocked” by the job.

“My sister Ruth called me after my first day as publisher and asked me how it had gone,” he recalled, “and I said, ‘I’ve made my first executive decision. I’ve decided not to throw up.’ ”

As publisher, Mr. Sulzberger was compulsively neat, valuing order and predictability. He loathed public speaking. He became well liked among employees for his imperturbable and affable manner, but he had an inner reserve that prevented most people from getting to know him well, friends and biographers said. He was active in New York’s civic life and was a past chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

More than anything, though, he thought of himself as belonging to the Times, which was to him a great trust. Employees said he was careful not to abuse his power. According to Edwin Diamond’s book “Behind the Times,” Mr. Sulzberger insisted each morning on showing his identification card, as required of all Times employees, at the front door.

Mr. Sulzberger overhauled the company’s business organization and combined the paper’s Sunday and daily staffs. He negotiated agreements with unions that resulted in long-delayed technological improvements in the paper’s operation. The daily paper doubled in size from two sections to four, which attracted readers and opened up new possibilities for advertising.

In 1967, after shutting down a money-losing international edition of the paper, the Times Co. acquired the Paris-based International Herald Tribune with The Washington Post Co. and another partner. The Times and Post companies owned the paper together from 1991 to 2002, when the Times became the sole owner after The Post sold its half-interest.

In 1969, the company’s shares were sold for the first time on a major stock exchange, but Mr. Sulzberger made sure that the extended Ochs-Sulzberger family retained voting control of the company. The arrangement provided money for a costly drive to diversify the company while protecting it from a takeover by non-family shareholders. He was elected chairman and chief executive of the paper’s parent company in 1973.

In the early 1970s, the Arab oil embargo plunged the nation into recession, and New York City verged on bankruptcy. Advertising at the Times fell by 25 percent from 1969 to 1974, and readers were increasingly moving to the suburbs. To lower costs of production, the Times attempted to cut costs with a combination of more efficient technology and layoffs. A strike stopped the paper’s presses for 88 days in 1978, but when it was over, the increased efficiencies and new revenue sources that Mr. Sulzberger had pursued allowed the Times to regain its dominance.

Over the years, the Times Co. expanded into regional newspapers and bought consumer magazines, television and radio stations, a news service, a book publishing division and other information services. The company’s revenue rose from $101 million in 1963 to $2.6 billion in 1996, the year before Mr. Sulzberger stepped down as chairman and passed the job to his son.

In 1972, 80 female employees of the Times petitioned Mr. Sulzberger over unequal pay and promotion policies at the paper. He ordered some changes, but, two years later, the women filed a class-action lawsuit against the Times on the same grounds. Although it denied charges of systematic discrimination, the paper agreed in November 1978 to an out-of-court settlement that awarded cash to its female employees and established new goals for promotion of women to the managerial ranks.

Mr. Sulzberger enforced his beliefs with little confrontation, but enforce them he did. In 1976, his cousin, editorial page editor John B. Oakes, strongly endorsed Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) in the Democratic primary for U.S. senator. While Oakes was overseas on vacation, Mr. Sulzberger reversed the endorsement in favor of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan won the primary by 1,000 votes. Oakes felt he had no option but to resign.

In the 1980s, worried about the possibility of a hostile takeover, Mr. Sulzberger and his relatives signed an agreement never to sell the voting Class B stock outside the family. If no family members wanted it, and the company failed to buy it, the voting shares had to be converted to non-voting Class A stock. The agreement binds the family well into the 21st century.

Despite other forward-looking developments at the Times, Mr. Sulzberger had little patience with frivolity. He told the Economist in 1991 that, as long as he was in charge, there would be “no comics, no horoscopes, no handicapping of horses” in the newspaper.

Matt Schudel contributed to this report.

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