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 on Saturday at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 86.
His death, after a long illness, was announced by his family.
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.
The paper 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 Ochs.
By the 1990s, when Sulzberger passed the reins to his son, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., 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.
The expansion reflected Sulzberger’s belief that a news organization, above all, had to be profitable if it hoped to maintain a vibrant, independent voice. As John Akers, a retired chairman of IBM and for many years a Times Co. board member, put it, “Making money so that you could continue to do good journalism was always a fundamental part of the thinking."
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. When they 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 U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling on press freedom.