Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger dies

Wendy Carpenter
The Upshot

Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who guided the newspaper to unprecedented influence and profit during his three-decade tenure, died Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y., at the age of 86.

During his 34-year run as publisher, Sulzberger helped the Times navigate some of the most influential events in 20th-century journalism — everything from the Vietnam War and the publication of the Pentagon Papers, to key legal victories for freedom of the press.

Sulzberger, who went by the nickname "Punch," helped expand the Times to a national edition as it won 31 Pulitzer Prizes under his leadership.

"Punch Sulzberger was a giant in the industry, a leader who fought to preserve the vital role of a free press in society and championed journalism executed at the highest level," said Associated Press President and CEO Gary Pruitt.

Sulzberger took over as publisher in 1963, when the Times had a weekday circulation of 714,000 and $100 million in annual revenue. By the time he turned over the publishing reigns in 1992 to his then 40-year-old son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the newspaper had turned into a media conglomerate, owning newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations as well as online endeavors. It had revenues of $1.7 billion, and its circulation had expanded to 1.1 million, according to AP.

"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 retired as publisher.

Sulzberger remained chairman of The New York Times Co. after passing the role of publisher on to his son. He retired as chairman and chief executive of the company in 1997, when Sulzberger Jr. was named chairman. Sulzberger stayed on the Times Co. board of directors until 2002.

While Sulzberger might have transformed the New York Times during his tenure as publisher, his death comes at a time when print journalism is in a tailspin, and the industry is trying to navigate a world where people increasingly get their news online.

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At a conference in September of 2010 his son was asked if the New York Times would print its last edition in 2015.

According to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers' Web site, "Sulzberger (Jr.) said he saw no point in making such predictions and said all he could say was that "we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future, date TBD.""

The Web site clarifies that Sulzberger Jr. "was not making an announcement that the New York Times has definite plans to stop printing in the near future; rather making the point, in a joking fashion, that it is impossible and fruitless to predict exactly when printed newspapers might come to an end."

While the end is debatable, its current state is not good.

According to Paper Cuts, a Web site tracking the newspaper industry, 21 newspapers folded in 2011 and over 1,810 people in the industry have lost their jobs due to buyouts or layoffs in 2012.

[Related: Sulzberger set milestones for NY Times, journalism]

While newspapers have traditionally offered its content for free, that could be changing, with the New York Times playing a major role.

In March 2011, the Times announced that it would "begin charging the most frequent users of its Web site $15 for a four-week subscription in a bet that readers will pay for news they are accustomed to getting free."

Since 2009, 16 newspapers have moved their operations to Web-only versions.

Vanity Fair published an article in 2008 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of what would become the World Wide Web. The article included a discussion of how newspapers viewed the online venture.

"The media people essentially did not think the Internet would be important or disruptive," Vinod Khosla, who helped create Sun Microsystems, said in the magazine. "In 1996, I got together the CEOs of nine of the 10 major newspaper companies in America in a single room to propose something called the New Century Network. It was the CEOs of The Washington Post and The New York Times and Gannett and Times Mirror and Tribune and I forget who else.

"They couldn't convince themselves that a Google, a Yahoo, or an eBay would be important, or that eBay could ever replace classified advertising."

Journalism Web site reports that the decline in print classified advertising went "from $19.6 billion in 2000 to roughly $6 billion in 2009."

According to the Times, Sulzberger "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."

It remains to be seen where the company will go now that he's gone.