Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who made history with his decision to publish the Pentagon Papers and led the newspaper to new levels of influence and profit in the last quarter of the 20th century, died Saturday in his Southampton home after a long illness. He was 86.
Sulzberger went by the nickname "Punch" and served with the Marine Corps before joining the Times staff, first as a reporter, and then following his father and grandfather as publisher.
During his three-decade tenure above the masthead, the newspaper won 31 Pulitzer Prizes and won a libel case in New York Times vs. Sullivan that established important First Amendment protections for the press.
His choice in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers, a Defense Department history of the United States' involvement in Vietnam, and then fight the Nixon administration's subsequent attempt to muzzle the story, cemented Sulzberger's place as a First Amendment giant.
"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, annual revenue of the Times' corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion.
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.
Under his watch, the Times started a national edition, bought its first color presses, and introduced -- to the chagrin of some hard-news purists -- popular and lucrative sections covering topics such as food and entertainment.
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."
Times columnist and author Gail Collins said Sulzberger held the family together. "And there is no other family in journalism as faithful to the cause of journalism," said Collins, who formerly wrote for New York Newsday. "That's his great legacy."
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia Journalism School dean, said Sulzberger will be remembered for his ambition, editorial stature and free-press protections established during his time as publisher in the landmark 1964 Sullivan ruling that shields the press from libel lawsuits by public officials unless they could prove actual malice.
"He will go down in history as one of the greatest publishers of the 20th century," Lemann said.
With Candice Ferrette