Arthur Ochs Sulzberger passed away today at age 86. He ran The New York Times from 1963 until 1997, growing the company from $100 million to $1.7 billion before quietly handing over the reins to his son.
In January 2000 I got the opportunity to interview Mr. Sulzberger. I was immediately struck by his self-deprecating humor and his endearing stories. As I sat across his desk I noticed a desktop computer on the left side and an old fashioned typewriter on the right. I asked, “what do you use more, the computer or the typewriter?” He smiled and said, “They taught me how to use the computer for my email. Now, the typewriter is another story. When I started at the New York Times in 1963 every reporter had a typewriter and we had a staff of 100 people that serviced the typewriters for over 1,000 reporters. The other day I sent someone out to buy a new typewriter ribbon but the young man could not figure out how to replace that ribbon. I had to show him.” Then I asked him when he last used the typewriter and he said, “Just last Sunday I picked up a copy of our paper and noticed that in the science section there was some color missing so I typed out a note to the production manager asking, ‘did we supply crayons to our readers?’”
I have always been curious about the family business that runs The New York
Times. In 1896, Adolph Ochs took over the reins of the struggling newspaper
that, at the time, competed with more than a dozen New York dailies. With a
total circulation of only 9,000 copies, Ochs had to move quickly. Fortunately,
he was an astute salesman.
He lowered the price of the paper from three cents to one penny and promised to publish "the news impartially, without fear or favor." The experts of the day were astounded. Ochs added greater value with better editorial content. He cut out fiction. He cut stale columns. He targeted the paper toward "men in business." He also launched an illustrated Sunday magazine with half-tone photographs and further set himself apart from the competition by heavily advertising the slogan "All the news that's fit to print." By taking the high road in quality and the low road in price, Ochs soon increased The Times’ circulation to 350,000.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger was nicknamed “Punch” after the puppet characters
Punch and Judy. Punch remembered how his grandfather shared his passion for
publishing with family members and dinner guests. After dessert he would hand
out copies of stories that were to be published in the next morning's paper. He
distributed the articles without titles and asked his guests, "What
headline would you assign to this story?" After everyone took a stab at
it, he proudly revealed the title as it would appear in the paper the next
A shaky start
In 1963 at age 37, Punch assumed the title of publisher of the New York Times. At first glance, Punch did not fill the bill. He performed poorly in school – having attended six private schools before quitting at age 17 to enlist in the Marines – and did not excel as a cub reporter in the family business. In fact, while he worked for the newspapers’ Paris bureau in 1955, one incident illustrated his shortcomings. On a weekend outing with friends to the Grand Pix in Le Mans, Punch witnessed a fatal accident when driver Pierre Levegh's Mercedes crashed into the stands, killing the driver and 83 spectators.
Not only did Punch pass up the once-in-a-lifetime
reporting opportunity, he even failed to notify the news bureau of the
accident. "It was unbelievable," Punch says of the accident. "I
must have been a block or so away. It was my day off, so I left the story for
somebody else. I wasn't the greatest reporter. But you live and learn."
The Pentagon Papers
The most difficult decision Punch faced came in
the 1960s and early '70s when America's involvement in the Vietnam War set the
stage for a showdown between The New York Times and the United States
government. When Times reporter Neil Sheehan acquired his own copies of the
Pentagon Papers – a series of reports by U.S. Department of Defense analysts
describing how, for decades, the government hid from the American people its
increasing commitment to the South Vietnamese cause – Times editors and lawyers
debated the merits of printing the documents.
"There was no internal debate excepting at the highest level," said Sulzberger. "We did it so secretly that most people didn't know anything was happening. At the final debate, everybody from The New York Times was urging me to publish it." He did, and the first installment appeared in the Sunday, June 13, 1971, edition. Immediately, President Richard Nixon's Justice Department procured an order of prior restraint to prohibit The Times from publishing any more of the Pentagon Papers. President Nixon was incensed. His words to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger included "People have gotta be put to the torch for this sort of thing..." and "Let's get the son-of-a-bitch in jail."
The Times resisted, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which voted six to three to lift the order. "Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government," wrote Justice Hugo L. Black in a concurring opinion.
Punch considered winning the case of the Pentagon Papers to be his proudest accomplishment during his tenure.
The Times's story is the story of a family that has chosen to perpetuate Adolph Ochs' passion for quality with a greater dedication to public service than many other great American families. While such powerful families as the Kennedys reached the limelight through short-lived triumphs and long-remembered tragedies, the Sulzberger family always took pride in perpetuating their product without much bragging. Arthur Sulzberger was part of the family dynasty behind The New York Times. Like a great actor becomes invisible in the portrayal of a character, Punch has channeled his life’s energy with courage and authenticity into the indomitable character of the paper.