It’s only fitting that I got news of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger‘s death through a news alert from the New York Times on my iPhone, just as I had brought the Saturday half of the Times’ Sunday edition in from my stoop. (Long-serving columnist Clyde Haberman wrote the Times’ own lengthy and eloquent obituary for Sulzberger.) The quasi-religious ritual of the print Sunday Times and the immediacy of its always-on alerts represent the Times that Sulzberger preserved and the Times he enabled it to become.
The former New York Times publisher and chair, who died at age 86 Saturday, did not establish the print paper as a journalistic edifice (he took over in 1963, one publisher in a family-business dynasty). And when he left his post as chair in 1997, the Times was just starting to build the vast digital enterprise it had now. His legacy is in the space between the old print Grey Lady and the fleet multimedia operation: he strengthened the paper’s bottom line, expanded its operations and grew it from a respected city broadsheet to a global news outlet.
The lede graf of any summary of Sulzberger’s career was his stand for journalistic independence when, over intense pressure, he decided to publish the exhaustive exposé of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. Over the objections of the Nixon Administration, Sulzberger and his editors risked legal attacks, took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won the right to bring Americans their own history.
But independence and journalistic integrity only mean so much if you can’t pay to keep the presses running. Sulzberger grew the paper in circulation and size, also to some controversy: some traditionalists thought the feature and lifestyle sections he added were a betrayal of the paper’s serious history. (There was always someone to quibble over the Times’ changes in his tenure: new editions, new designs, color illustrations.) But the additions–sports, science, culture–are now common in newspapers, and the Times became a leader in these fields while staying one in hard news. Meanwhile, the company diversified into online and broadcast media. The paper hasn’t been immune from business troubles, but in a tough time for the print business, it’s thrived by being an ancient institution that constantly renews itself.
I didn’t experience most of Punch Sulzberger’s era firsthand. I became a New Yorker toward the tail end of his tenure; I grew up in a small town in Michigan, where Times newsboxes were few and far between. But thanks largely to Sulzberger, a generation of readers in the Midwest–and in the rest of the country, and on other continents–can know the Times as their paper as much as a subscriber living on the Upper West Side. (Even if they get its news through the many online aggregators for which the old Times is now an endless font of primary material.) Arthur Sulzberger inherited New York’s great newspaper, and left it the world’s. RIP.