NEW YORK (AP) - Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who led the newspaper to new levels of influence and profit amid some of the most significant moments in 20th-century journalism, died Saturday. He was 86.
Sulzberger, who went by the nickname "Punch" and served with the Marine Corps in World War II and Korea before joining the Times staff as a reporter, died at his home in Southampton, N.Y., after a long illness, his family announced.
During his three-decade-long tenure, the newspaper won 31 Pulitzer prizes, published the Pentagon Papers and won a libel case victory in New York Times vs. Sullivan that established important First Amendment protections for the press.
"Punch, the old Marine captain who never backed down from a fight, was an absolutely fierce defender of the freedom of the press," his son, and current Times publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., said in a statement. He said his father's refusal to back down in the paper's free-speech battles "helped to expand access to critical information and to prevent government censorship and intimidation."
In an era of declining newspaper readership, the Times' weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 when Sulzberger became publisher in 1963 to 1.1 million upon his retirement as publisher in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times' corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion.
"Above all, he took the quality of the product up to an entirely new level," the late Katharine Graham, chairwoman of The Washington Post Co., said at the time Sulzberger relinquished the publisher's title. When she died in 2001, he returned the praise, saying she "used her intelligence, her courage and her wit to transform the landscape of American journalism."
Sulzberger was the only grandson of Adolph S. Ochs (pronounced ox), the son of Bavarian immigrants who took over the Times in 1896 and built it into the nation's most influential newspaper. The family retains a controlling interest to this day, holding a separate block of Class B shares that have more powerful voting rights than the company's publicly traded shares.
Power was thrust on Sulzberger at the age of 37 after the sudden death of his brother-in-law in 1963. He had been in the Times executive suite for eight years in a role he later described as "vice president in charge of nothing."
But Sulzberger directed the Times' evolution from an encyclopedic paper of record to a more reader-friendly product that reached into the suburbs and across the nation.
During his tenure, the Times started a national edition, bought its first color presses, and introduced popular as well as lucrative new sections covering topics such as science, food and entertainment.
A key figure in the transformation was A.M. Rosenthal, executive editor from 1977 to 1986. Rosenthal, who died in 2006, called Sulzberger "probably the best publisher in modern American history."
Sulzberger also improved the paper's bottom line, pulling it and its parent company out of a tailspin in the mid-1970s and lifting both to unprecedented profitability a decade later.
In 1992, Sulzberger relinquished the publisher's job to his 40-year-old son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., but remained chairman of The New York Times Co.
Sulzberger retired as chairman and chief executive of the company in 1997. His son then was named chairman. Sulzberger stayed on the Times Co. board of directors until 2002.
Significant free-press and free-speech precedents were established during Sulzberger's years as publisher, most notably the Times vs. Sullivan case. It resulted in a landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling that shielded the press from libel lawsuits by public officials unless they could prove actual malice.
In 1971 the Times led the First Amendment fight to keep the government from suppressing the Pentagon Papers, a series of classified reports on the Vietnam War. Asked by a reporter who at the Times made the decision to publish the papers, Sulzberger gestured toward his chest and silently mouthed, "me."
Sulzberger read the more than 7,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers before deciding to publish them. After Sulzberger read the papers, he was asked what he thought. "Oh, I would think about 20 years to life," he responded.
But in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with the Times and The Washington Post, which had begun publishing the papers a few days after the Times.
Gay Talese, who worked at the Times as a reporter when Sulzberger took over and chronicled the paper's history in his book "The Kingdom and the Power," called him "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."