Arthur O. Sulzberger, NY Times Publisher and Patriarch, Dead at Age 86
Jeff Bercovici @ Forbes.com: Jeff Bercovici - Mixed Media - on 29/9/12
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Arthur Och Sulzberger, who led The New York Times Co. through three decades of turbulent change and established the blueprint for the modern form of the company, died Saturday following a long illness. He was 86.
Sulzberger was the third in his family line and the second with his surname to serve as publisher of the Times. His son, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., succeeded him as publisher in 1992 and took over the title of chairman from him in 1997.
The paper the younger Sulzberger inherited is very much the one his father built. It was under Sulzberger Sr. that the Times broadened is coverage of a number of advertiser-friendly lifestyle areas, such as home decor, weekend pursuits and sports. Most big metropolitan dailies quickly copied the Times’ lucrative innovation.
It was also Sulzberger’s call to extend the geographic reach of the Times with a national edition. While he’ll probably always be remembered first and foremost as the publisher who stood up to President Richard Nixon and backed publication of the Pentagon Papers, going national may have been Sulzberger’s most fateful decision.
That move left the Times supremely well positioned for the coming of the internet, which wiped out the geographic limitations that allowed metro papers to enjoy near-monopoly power within their home markets. To see how important national reach has been for the Times, one need only contrast its fortunes with those of the Washington Post, a paper that once challenged the Times in influence and prestige but is now much diminished.
Another fateful decision involved the structure of the 1969 stock offering that saw the Times Co. become a publicly traded company. The creation of Class B super-voting shares allowed the Sulzberger-Ochs family to maintain an all-but-unchallengeable control of the company while still allowing it to tap the public markets for capital it needed for expansion.
Since Sulzberger handed the reins to his son, that strategy of expansion has been running in reverse. Sulzberger Jr. has been paring down the company’s assets, selling off regional newspapers and other properties (most recently, About.com, sold to Barry Diller‘s IAC) in an effort to safeguard the primacy of the flagship brand. It’s still unclear whether the Times can afford to maintain the present size of its 1,200 person newsroom.
Sulzberger Sr. whose nickname within the family was Punch, had a considerable playful side, according to his Times obituary:
Once in a while he wrote brief letters to the editor using the name A. Sock, a wordplay on Punch. Mr. Sock was always as pleased as punch with puns. “The nationalist Chinese seem extremely apprehensive when Mr. Nixon drinks with Premier Chou,” he wrote in 1972. “Are they scared he’ll Taiwan on?”
One A. Sock letter, an unflattering take in 1979 on the National Organization for Women, brought a sharp rebuttal letter. “Mr. Sock deserves a punch,” it concluded. It was signed Gail Gregg, the publisher’s daughter-in-law at the time. Convinced his cover was blown, Mr. Sulzberger wrote almost no A. Sock letters again.