Sulzberger Ushered 'New York Times' Into New Era

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The quiet man who modernized The New York Times over more than three decades and stubbornly defended the press against government interference died early Saturday at his home in Long Island.

Former publisher and Times Company chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr. had suffered from Parkinson's disease. He was 86.

Sulzberger's family had owned the Times since 1896, and he was named publisher when his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, died unexpectedly in 1963.

An ex-Marine, Arthur "Punch" Sulzberger was unfairly considered an intellectual lightweight. He later acknowledged he was never trained for the job, saying he was a bit "shell shocked" at the time.

The Times' finances were shaky after an extended strike hit New York City's newspapers particularly hard, and Sulzberger would soon be tested on other fronts.

At the White House, President John F. Kennedy asked him to pull a young David Halberstam from Vietnam, because of his critical coverage of the war.

"Punch went back to the Washington bureau of the Times and called Halberstam and said 'Your vacation is canceled; you may not leave Vietnam,'" says Alex Jones, co-author of The Trust, a book on the family and the paper. "He was not going to be intimidated."

In 1971, the paper obtained a secret history of the mistakes enmeshing the U.S. in Vietnam and how the public had been deceived over time. The Nixon White House said the Times would be endangering national security by printing the Pentagon Papers.

Sulzberger published them, and explained why at a press conference.

"These papers, I think as our editorial said this morning, were really a part of history that should have been made available considerably longer ago," Sulzberger said.

The Nixon administration went to the Supreme Court to order the paper to stop publishing, but the Times prevailed.

"This was the first time that the establishment newspaper of all, the New York Times, defied the government by publishing something the government explicitly did not want published," Jones says. "And [they] did so because they considered it to be their responsibility to make that decision."

While considering such coverage to be at the core of the paper, Sulzberger also recognized the "Gray Lady" needed rejuvenation.

Max Frankel, a former Washington bureau chief and executive editor for the paper, says part of that was because it became so costly to cover the world.

"It became so important to find new sources of revenue [and] new audiences along the way," Frankel says.

Frankel says Sulzberger personally pushed for new opinion pages, opposite the paper's liberal editorials, to host more conservative voices. The paper also created new sections devoted to lifestyle, science, arts and sports.

The guiding spirit was, 'Yes, we are everything to everybody,'" he says. "And what's news? It's anything that's important or interesting."

In doing so, Frankel says, Sulzberger successfully pursued an affluent readership and advertising base with a national reach, assuring decades of financial stability and growth.

"In the end, no matter what other pressures came at him, he went with quality journalism and trust in the people who were editing his paper," he says.

Now, Sulzberger's son, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., leads the paper as it faces a new generation of financial challenges in the digital age.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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