‘Punch’ Sulzberger, R.I.P.

Written by  //  September 29, 2012  //  Media  //  Comments Off on ‘Punch’ Sulzberger, R.I.P.

‘Punch’ Sulzberger, R.I.P.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, better known as Punch, transformed this newspaper and had a vast impact on journalism. He oversaw the emergence of an array of feature sections that put this newspaper on a solid financial footing, and he risked everything when he defied the White House and published the top-secret Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War. But on hearing just now that he passed away overnight at the age of 86, I kept thinking of Punch mostly as a really good and decent man who oozed likability as well as leadership. (Here’s his obituary)

The grunts in journalism tend to be suspicious of the monarchs, and so we were all predisposed to be skeptical of Punch. But he was so unassuming and friendly – and compiled such a successful record in the 1960’s and 70’s, before I joined the paper – that that was impossible.

A year after I joined the Times, the national editor, Dave Jones, brought me to a page one meeting along with a couple of other fresh faces. Dave introduced me to several people, but omitted to mention the name of one middle-aged man, and I figured he was probably a new hire as well. I was just about to give him a few tips for getting along at The Times, when he saw that I was about to embarrass myself and rescued me: “If you’re going to Los Angeles,” he said, “be sure to look up my daughter, Karen Sulzberger.” I stopped just in time…

There were some things that drove Punch up the wall, including the messiness of the newsroom, and he must have been tempted to cudgel some of the miscreants into obedience. But his rule was, if not democratic, at least a light touch, and he gritted his teeth and mostly kept his concerns to himself. In a newsroom of titanic egos, often clashing, he was typically gentle and his concern was the paper rather than himself. I remember one occasion when the Times was publishing a brutal article about one of his close friends: he read the article in its entirety the day before publication, but never asked for a word to be changed. He picked the best editors, and then left the journalism to the journalists.

Indeed, he was always willing to hear dissenting views, and even encourage them. In the 1990’s, the company reached a business compromise with Singapore’s government that appalled me: I thought we were muzzling ourselves and compromising our journalistic standards, so I wrote Punch a letter saying so. I then sat around for a couple of weeks, moping and waiting to get fired–and finally a return note came from him thanking me for my intemperance and musing: Maybe you’re right.

It also became increasingly clear that the system of monarchy helped save the New York Times as a great newspaper. Punch made some bad calls as a businessman, along with some great ones, but by far the most important fact about him and his family was that they never wavered in their commitment to great journalism. So we as journalists watched as other once-great newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald lost their resources and became shadows of what they had been. That didn’t happen at the Times because of family ownership, because of the monarchy. Punch was king, and his passion wasn’t his own financial interest or his reputation, but the interests of the Times and its readers.

So, King Punch, we’ll miss you. But although you are gone, your imprint will remain on this newspaper long after it is no longer made of paper. Punch Sulzberger, R.I.P.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the firm hand at the helm of the Times
(WaPost editorial) FOR THREE DECADES at the helm of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger embodied the best of U.S. journalism — fierce independence, an unshakable commitment to quality and a resolve to put profits at the service of truth-telling.
Amiable, down-to-earth and disarmingly self-effacing, Mr. Sulzberger, who died Saturday at age 86, wasn’t the sort of publisher to put on airs. But there was no doubting his courage in the face of intimidation, even when it came from the highest levels of government, or the prestige of the newspaper he inherited and enhanced.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s Story
(The New Yorker) It is telling that the first date in the New York Times’s obituary of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who died Saturday morning, is 1851—the year that the Times was founded, and one hundred and twelve years before he became the paper’s publisher. It is an appropriate enough place to start in remembering Sulzberger: the story of his family, of the paper, and of American journalism—and, more broadly, of press freedom in this country—are all inextricably tied together.

Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, dies at 86
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, known to many as ‘Punch’, dies at home in Southampton, New York, after a long illness
(The Guardian) … The Sulzberger family has run the New York Times since 1896: when Sulzberger took charge in 1963 the media world it dominated was one of hot metal, ink and newspapers delivered by hand.
The Times was also a somewhat insular institution which was financially vulnerable. Sulzberger embarked on a rapid expansion, snapping up radio and television stations and expanding the newspaper from its New York homeland to become far more national in scope. He had turned the company into a multi-billion dollar enterprise by the time he turned it over to his son, in 1997.
In an era of declining newspaper readership, weekday circulation had climbed from 714,000 when Sulzberger became publisher to 1.1 million in 1992. Over the same period, the annual revenues of the Times’ corporate parent rose from $100m to $1.7bn.

Comments are closed.