Former NYT Publisher "Punch" Sulzberger Dies

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Sept. 29 2012 12:35 PM

Former New York Times Publisher Arthur O. “Punch” Sulzberger Dies at 86

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Arthur Ochs Sulzberger transformed the paper and its corporate parent

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the former New York Times publisher who transformed the paper and the company during his 34-year tenure, died on Saturday in Southampton, N.Y at the age of 86. He had been ill with Parkinson's disease, reports Bloomberg. Sulzberger, who signed memos with the nickname he had since childhood (Punch), took over as publisher in 1963 and turned the company into a multibillion-dollar multimedia enterprise, notes the New York Times. He was insistent that the company needed to make money in order to continue to do good journalism.

Although Sulzberger’s changes to the paper and the company were numerous, he will likely be most remembered for the biggest decision he made as publisher: giving the approval to print the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. He made it clear numerous times that he was the one who took the final decision to publish the classified reports on the Vietnam War, notes the Associated Press. He was also publisher during the landmark 1964 Supreme Court ruling in New York Times vs. Sullivan that put clear limits on libel suits brought by public figures.

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Sulzberger was “mild-mannered and introverted,” points out Bloomberg, which is why he had many skeptics when he first took over the newspaper that had been in his family since 1896, when Adolph Ochs bought the nearly bankrupt paper for $75,000. During his tenure, Sulzberger took the paper’s weekday circulation from 714,000 to 1.1 million on his retirement in 1992, while at the same time the corporate parent saw annual revenue soar from $100 million to $1.7 billion.

Sulzberger was always a strong believer in keeping the paper within the family through a trust. “My conclusion is simple,” he once said, “nepotism works.”

His son and successor as chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., issued a statement: “Punch, the old Marine captain who never backed down from a fight, was an absolutely fierce defender of the freedom of the press. His inspired leadership in landmark cases such as New York Times v. Sullivan and the Pentagon Papers helped to expand access to critical information and to prevent government censorship and intimidation.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.