Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher who guided expansion, innovations at The New York Times, dies at 86

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who guided The New York Times and its parent company through a long, sometimes turbulent period of expansion and change on a scale not seen since the newspaper’s founding in 1851, died Saturday in his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 86.

His death, after a long illness, was announced by his family.

Mr. Sulzberger’s tenure, as publisher of the newspaper and as chairman and chief executive of The New York Times Co., reached across 34 years, from the heyday of postwar America to the twilight of the 20th century, from the era of hot lead and Linotype machines to the birth of the digital world.

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The newspaper he took over as publisher in 1963 was the paper it had been for decades: respected and influential, often setting the national agenda. But it was also in precarious financial condition and somewhat insular, having been a tightly held family operation since 1896, when it was bought by his grandfather Adolph S. Ochs.

By the 1990s, when Mr. Sulzberger passed the reins to his son, first as publisher in 1992 and then as chairman in 1997, the enterprise had been transformed. The Times was now national in scope, distributed from coast to coast, and it had become the heart of a diversified, multibillion-dollar media operation that came to encompass newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and online ventures.

Part of that expansion came in 1993 when Mr. Sulzberger negotiated to buy The Boston Globe and finally purchased it for $1.1 billion.

The overall expansion reflected Mr. Sulzberger’s belief that a news organization, above all, had to be profitable if it hoped to maintain a vibrant, independent voice. As John F. Akers, a retired chairman of IBM and for many years a Times company board member, put it, “Making money so that you could continue to do good journalism was always a fundamental part of the thinking.”

President Obama released a statement today saying that Mr. Sulzberger’s legacy lives on in the New York Times and in journalists he inspired.

“Over the course of more than 30 years, Arthur helped transform the New York Times and secure its status as one of the most successful and respected newspapers in the world,” Obama said. “He was a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press—one that isn’t afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable, and tell the stories that need to be told.”

Mr. Sulzberger’s insistence on independence was shown in his decision in 1971 to publish a secret government history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. It was a defining moment for him and, in the view of many journalists and historians, his finest.

In thousands of pages, this highly classified archive detailed Washington’s legacy of deceit and evasion as it stumbled through an unpopular war. When the Pentagon Papers were divulged in a series of articles in June 1971, an embarrassed Nixon administration demanded that the series be stopped immediately, citing national security considerations. The Times refused, on First Amendment grounds, and won its case in the United States Supreme Court in a landmark ruling on press freedom.

Mr. Sulzberger reshaped The Times. In the mid-1970s, another financially difficult period in which he might have chosen to retrench, he expanded the paper to four sections from two, creating separate sections for metropolitan and business news and introducing new ones oriented toward consumers. They were a gamble, begun in the hope of attracting new readers, especially women, and advertisers.

Some critics dismissed the feature sections as unworthy of a serious newspaper. But the sections — SportsMonday, Science Times, Living, Home and Weekend — were an instant success, without compromising the paper’s hard-news core. They were widely imitated.

“Adolph Ochs is remembered as the one who founded this great enterprise,” Richard L. Gelb, a longtime member of the Times board, said in 1997, when Mr. Sulzberger stepped down as chairman. “Arthur Ochs Sulzberger will be remembered as the one who secured it, renewed it, and lifted it to ever-higher levels of achievement.”

Even while the enterprise was put on a secure financial footing, ultimate control never passed from the Sulzberger family. It managed to avoid the internal strife and jealousies that tore apart other newspaper dynasties and traumatized their companies.

At Mr. Sulzberger’s death, The Times was being run by a fourth generation of his family, a rarity in an age when the management of most American newspapers is determined by distant corporate boards. A family trust, unaffected by his death, guarantees continued control by Adolph Ochs’s descendants.

It was no coincidence, Mr. Sulzberger believed, that some of the country’s finest newspapers were family-owned. “My conclusion is simple,” he once said with characteristic humor. “Nepotism works.”

Nearly all the time, Mr. Sulzberger left the task of putting out The Times to the people hired for the job: the managers on the business side and the editors in the newsroom.

“His confidence in the people he chose to trust was almost total,” said Max Frankel, one of five executive editors during Mr. Sulzberger’s time as chairman. “He did not want to edit the paper, plain and simple. He was there to adjudicate disputes and to set standards and values.”

Most afternoons he attended the meeting at which the editors determined what would be on the next day’s front page. But he was there mainly to keep himself informed, not to join the discussion. He generally kept his hands off the editorial page, too. Except perhaps for the most hotly disputed issues and political endorsements, he often did not learn of the page’s opinions until the paper was delivered to his Manhattan home, an apartment on Fifth Avenue.

When Mr. Sulzberger wanted to exercise his prerogative and make his likes and dislikes known, he usually did so through interoffice memorandums, signing them with the nickname he had carried since childhood, Punch.

The topics might be of national importance, like the structure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military being a subject he cared about as a former Marine who had served in World War II and the Korean War. When he felt the boundaries of good taste had been crossed, he let the editors know it. But the notes could also be about mundane matters. In one, in 1976, he complained to A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor, about a published recipe for cooked eel.

“Why can’t our food pages have something on them that most people like?” Mr. Sulzberger asked.

Mr. Sulzberger involved himself far less with the content of the news columns than with the large business decisions that had to be made. It had been that way from the moment he was named publisher, on June 20, 1963, succeeding his brother-in-law Orvil E. Dryfoos, who had died of heart trouble a month earlier at age 50.

The line of Times publishers, from Adolph Ochs in 1896 to Arthur Sulzberger Jr. a century later, has run through the men in the family.

Mr. Ochs had a daughter, Iphigene, but no sons. When he died in 1935, authority passed to Iphigene Ochs’s husband, Arthur Hays Sulzberger. Iphigene and Arthur had three daughters: Marian, Ruth and Judith, called Judy.

Then came a son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, born on Feb. 5, 1926. The father enjoyed composing light verse, and he celebrated this birth with an illustrated book describing the boy as having “come to play the Punch to Judy’s endless show.” The nickname stuck.

In 1961, his health deteriorating, the elder Sulzberger considered it time to step aside. His son was not even considered as a possible successor — not then, anyway. Many Times executives and even close relatives felt Arthur was too young and not up to the challenge. The family turned instead to Mr. Dryfoos, who was married to the oldest Sulzberger daughter, Marian, and who had been a senior Times executive for years.

But a mere two years into the job, Mr. Dryfoos was dead, and the family looked to the young Mr. Sulzberger. At 37, he became the youngest publisher in Times history.

It would have been hard to dispute that The Times was America’s premier paper in 1963. Its influence on national politics was even greater than it is in today’s information-saturated age of round-the-clock cable news, social media, and the Internet.

But the paper in 1963 was also a struggling operation with an uncertain future. It was reeling from low revenues and high labor costs. It had just emerged from a 114-day printers’ strike, which had put a tremendous strain on Mr. Dryfoos.

The long walkout, over wages, automation, and other issues, was also devastating to the once-boisterous world of New York newspapers. When the strike began in 1962, the city had seven major dailies, all of them already threatened by competition from television and burdened with high costs and low income. Within five years the field had shrunk to three: The Times, The Daily News, and The New York Post.

“I personally never had the concern that the paper was going to go out of business,” Mr. Sulzberger later recalled. “But it was obvious to me that we had a problem on the business side, the problem being structural: the way we worked together or, more accurately, the way we didn’t work together.”

Mr. Sulzberger moved swiftly to bring financial order and to show skeptics that he was in charge. In January 1964 he summarily closed The Times’s Western edition, a slender version of the newspaper that had been started only 15 months earlier under. Mr. Sulzberger’s decision left scars in the newsroom, for it involved rare layoffs of newsroom staff members. Mr. Sulzberger later acknowledged the trauma. “It was the first time that we kind of threw in the sponge and said we can’t do it,” he said. “That wasn’t the usual way we did things.”

But it did so again in 1967, when The Times folded its money-losing international edition, which was founded in 1949 and based in Paris. In a merger with the Paris edition of the recently closed New York Herald Tribune, a new entity was formed, The International Herald Tribune. It is now owned solely by The Times after a long partnership with The Washington Post Company.

In October 1997, when Mr. Sulzberger passed on the chairmanship to his son and assumed the title of chairman emeritus, the company included 21 regional newspapers, nine magazines focused on golf and other outdoor pastimes, eight television stations, two radio stations, a news service, a features syndicate and The Boston Globe, whose $1.1 billion purchase price was a record for a newspaper and was paid largely in Times Company stock.

The Times Company’s holdings have varied since then and today they are principally confined to The Globe, The International Herald Tribune and the flagship paper.

The Times Company Mr. Sulzberger passed along in 1997 was light years from the one he had inherited. Revenue in 1963 was $101 million, with The Times newspaper accounting for almost all of it. By 1997, the total was $2.6 billion, with the newspaper accounting for about half. Today, The New York Times Media Group, made up of The Times, The International Herald Tribune and their websites, accounts for 66 percent of the Times Company’s total revenues of $2.4 billion.

In 1992, his son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., took over as Times publisher. The question then became whether the younger Sulzberger would also inherit his father’s corporate titles. Some board members wanted to see someone from outside the family assume those posts.

In 1997, Mr. Sulzberger rallied family members around his son as chairman. But his sisters, he later said, wanted roles for their own branches of the family. “So we came up with compromises and things that worked wonderfully well for the organization,” he said.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger grew up in a town house in Manhattan on East 80th Street, off Fifth Avenue, where Arthur Hays and Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger had settled a few years before Arthur’s birth.

Growing up in The Times’s guiding family meant a life spent in the company of the famous and powerful. Young Punch played Chinese checkers with Wendell L. Willkie, the 1940 Republican presidential nominee. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, whose Antarctic expeditions were financed by The Times, named a peak in Antarctica for him and the other Sulzberger children. The name, Marujupu Peak, is a combination of Marian, Ruth, Judith and Punch. Mount Iphigene is nearby.

At 17, he dropped out of the Loomis School in Windsor, Conn., and joined the Marines. It was 1944, and World War II was raging. His parents did not like the idea but finally gave written permission. “My family didn’t worry about me for a minute,” he later said. “They knew that if I got shot in the head, it wouldn’t do me any harm.”

The Marines turned him around.

“Before I entered the Marines, I was a lazy good-for-nothing,” he once told his mother. “The Marines woke me up.”

Trained as a radioman, Mr. Sulzberger went through the Leyte and Luzon campaigns in the Philippines, then landed in Japan as a jeep driver at General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters. He was discharged in 1946 as a corporal.

Five years later, with the Korean War on, he was called back to active duty. This time he received an officer’s commission and served as a public information officer in Korea before being transferred to Washington. He was a captain when he returned to civilian life in December 1952.

Between the military tours, Mr. Sulzberger got serious about academic work. Armed with a high school equivalency degree and, he said, “armed with the fact that my old man was on the board,” he entered Columbia University and received a bachelor of arts degree in English and history in 1951. In 1967, he became a life trustee.

While in college, in 1948, Mr. Sulzberger married Barbara Winslow Grant, who lived near the Sulzbergers’ estate in Stamford, Conn. They had two children, Arthur Jr., born in 1951, and Karen, born in 1952. Karen Sulzberger is a former arts administrator.

The Sulzberger marriage ended in divorce. A few months later, in December 1956, Mr. Sulzberger married Carol Fox Fuhrman; they had met at a New York dinner party given by Orvil Dryfoos’s brother, Hugh. The couple had a daughter, Cynthia, in 1964. Cynthia Sulzberger is an elementary school reading specialist.

By a previous marriage, Mrs. Sulzberger had a daughter, Cathy, who was born in 1949 and legally adopted by Mr. Sulzberger. Cathy Sulzberger is a real estate developer.

Carol Sulzberger died in 1995. In March 1996, Mr. Sulzberger married Allison S. Cowles, widow of William H. Cowles III, who had been president and publisher of newspapers in Spokane, Wash. Cowles died in 2010 in Spokane.

Besides his children, Mr. Sulzberger is survived by two of his three sisters, Marian S. Heiskell of New York and Ruth S. Holmberg of Chattanooga, Tenn., and nine grandchildren. The third sister, Dr. Judith P. Sulzberger — the Judy to his Punch — died in February.

On Mr. Sulzberger’s watch, The Times won the Pulitzer Prize, American journalism’s highest award, 31 times.

When he left as Times chairman in 1997, he remained convinced that newspapers — at least good newspapers — had a bright future.

“I think that paper and ink are here to stay for the kind of newspapers we print,” he said in a postretirement interview. “There’s no shortage of news in this world. If you want news, you can go to cyberspace and grab out all this junk. But I don’t think most people are competent to become editors, or have the time or the interest.”

“You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times,” Mr. Sulzberger said. “You’re buying judgment.”