Arthur Ochs Sulzberger: New York Times publisher who fought for press freedom

 

He championed free speech and his stance on editorial independence made him a hero

Arthur O Sulzberger, the former New York Times publisher, changed the fortunes of the paper from a regional one that had just incurred its first loss in 65 years, and transformed it into an international global brand, increasing its readership and profits, while leading it to 31 Pulitzer Prizes, and negotiating the aftermath of the Vietnam War, President John F Kennedy's assassination and defying a direct Presidential order in order to stand up for the freedom of press – a decision many historians view as his finest moment at the helm.

Sulzberger, known by his childhood nickname "Punch", was appointed publisher in June 1963, following the unexpected death of his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos. Aged 37, he became the paper's youngest head. Initial concerns about his lack of executive experience, he had been in the Times executive suite for eight years in a role he later described as "vice president in charge of nothing", were soon dispelled as Sulzberger set about putting his stamp on the paper. Regarded as "a giant in the industry", he fought to preserve the vital role of a free press in society and championed journalism executed at the highest level.

In a bid to increase circulation and attract new readers, particularly women who were having a greater influence in American society, and advertisers, Sulzberger gambled and radically changed the paper's format, expanding it from two to four sections, creating the consumer-facing sections that would profoundly alter the way major newspapers covered the arts, film, television and sports. Some critics dismissed the feature sections as unworthy of a serious broadsheet. However, to the chagrin of others, the sections, SportsMonday, Science Times, Living, Home & Weekend, became an instant success, without compromising the paper's hard-news core. Sulzberger directed the Times' evolution from an encyclopaedic paper of record to a more reader-friendly product that extended across the nation.

During his three-decade tenure, weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 in 1963 to 1.1 million when Sulzberger stepped down as publisher in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times' corporate parent rose from $100m to $1.7bn and included 21 regional newspapers, nine magazines, eight television stations, two radio stations, a news service, a features syndicate and the Boston Globe, which was bought in 1993 for $1.1bn.

Sulzberger, however, was more than just an innovator and motivator. He was a champion of the free press and free speech and his stance on editorial independence made him a hero within the profession. During his stewardship, the Times won two landmark cases.

In 1971, the Times published the Pentagon Papers, a highly classified Defence Department history of US involvement in the Vietnam War that embarrassed President Nixon's administration. Sulzberger rejected company lawyers' warnings that even reading the Pentagon Papers, let alone publishing them, constituted a crime, and rejected Nixon's demand for the Times to stop further publication. The Times refused and the US Supreme Court ruled in the paper's favour.

The high court also sided with the paper in the Times vs Sullivan, a case that began before Sulzberger took over, but was settled in 1964 when he was publisher. The ruling shielded the press from libel lawsuits by public figures unless they could prove actual malice.

Born in New York City, February 1926, to Arthur Hays Sulzberger and Iphigene Bertha Ochs, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was the youngest of four. Not very academic, aged 17, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served during the Second Wor ld War in the Philippines and Japan between 1944 and 1946. He then fought in Korea before being transferred to Washington. He ended his service in December 1952 as a lieutenant. Between tours, the reformed dropout attended Columbia University.

Sulzberger was the only grandson of Adolph S Ochs, the son of Bavarian immigrants who took over the Times in 1896. His grandfather led the paper until his death in 1935, when he was followed by Sulzberger's father, who remained at the helm until he retired in 1961. Except for a year at the Milwaukee Journal, 1953-4, the young Sulzberger spent his entire career at the Times, initially working to become a foreign correspondent and returning to New York by 1955, but discovered he had little to do.

In 1992, Sulzberger passed the publisher's job to his son but remained chairman of The New York Times Co. He retired as chairman and chief executive of the company in 1997 with his son then named chairman. Sulzberger stayed on the Times Co. board of directors until 2002. Over the years, Sulzberger was a director or chairman of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau and the American Press Institute.

Sulzberger died after a lengthy illness and is survived by his children and two of his sisters and nine grandchildren.

Arthur O Sulzberger, editor; born New York City, USA 5 February 1926; married Barbara Winslow Grant 1948 (divorced 1956), two children, Carol Fox Fuhrman 1956 (died 1995), one child and adopted another, Allison S Cowles 1996 (died 2010); died New York, 29 September 2012.

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