The New York Times has on occasion showed an over-fondness for the phrase “the end of an era.” But as the paper’s obituary acknowledged, the death of its retired publisher, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, at 86, did indeed write “30” to the heyday of newspaper influence.
Yet the Sulzberger who took over the Times in 1963 showed little promise of the leader to come. Raised with three bright, chatty sisters, Punch (one of those siblings was named Judy; the sobriquet was a natural), was an indifferent student in grade school and a high school dropout. After a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II, Punch finally got serious enough to earn a B.A. from Columbia. Still, he seemed unambitious and easygoing, content to take small jobs at the family business—which just happened to be the most prominent daily in the U.S.
Punch’s father, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was then the publisher of the Times. He had inherited the position from his father-in-law, Adolph Ochs, a German immigrant who purchased the Times in 1896 and endeavored to make it “the newspaper of record,” with “all the news that’s fit to print.” When Arthur Sulzberger retired in 1961, the board of directors chose to promote his son-in-law, Orville Dryfoos, as successor. Punch was their second choice. Two years later, Dryfoos suddenly died of heart failure and Number Two became Number One. At 37, Punch was the youngest publisher in Times history.
It was not an auspicious moment. A printer’s strike had recently altered the journalistic scene. When the labor dispute began, New York City had seven major newspapers. Five years later, there were only three: the Times, the News, and the Post. All were all burdened with heavy labor and production costs. Punch knew the scuttlebutt about his promotion; he remarked cheerfully, “Nepotism works,” and set out to prove it. He reined in expenses, reducing the company payroll, folding the Times’s unprofitable Western edition, merging the money-losing Paris edition with the Paris Herald Tribune, and, eventually, offering Times stock to the public—though a family trust remained in control of key company shares.
In addition, he changed the face of the paper, literally and symbolically. The crowded front page went from eight columns to a larger and more readable six. He inaugurated an Op-Ed section—and over many in-house objections, hired conservative columnist William Safire as a counterweight to the paper’s plethora of liberal pundits. Under Punch, color photographs and graphics made their way into the paper, and a series of special sections appeared under the titles of Living, Home, Science, Style, etc.
These changes did not meet with universal approval. Rival journalists derided the mini-newspapers with a wisecrack: “Did you hear about the Times’s latest section? It’s called ‘News.’” And in 1978, with the Times mired in yet another newspaper strike, a handful of satirists, including Nora Ephron, George Plimpton, John Leo, and the present writer, put out a parody called Not the New York Times. One sendup was entitled “The Having Section,” a mockery of the Times’s emphasis on conspicuous high-end consumption. Other lampoons included “Insulating with Patè: Winter Warmth with Good Taste”; and an editorial in the Times’s ponderous style: “Whither Détente?”
Punch also made some disastrous financial moves. In an attempt to cut into People magazine’s audience, the Times issued a magazine called U.S.; it bombed and was quickly sold off. The Times also acquired the Boston Globe for $1.1 billion. Fiscally, the Globe has become the black hole of American newspapers, and partly because of that investment, Times stock is worth about a fifth of what it was five years ago. On the other hand, before his retirement in 1997, when he was replaced by his son Arthur (Pinch) Sulzberger, Punch wisely invested in new cost-cutting printing plants, and pushed a national edition that would eventually account for more than half of the paper’s daily readership.
In the end, though, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. is less likely to be remembered for his managerial innovations than for his journalistic integrity. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy suggested that he replace David Halberstam, the Times’s aggressive South Vietnam correspondent. Punch refused. In 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk complained about the reportage of Harrison Salisbury, writing from Hanoi. He, too, stayed put. Then, in 1971, the Pentagon Papers came Punch’s way. It was his decision to publish the classified documents, tracing the complicated, catastrophic manner in which the U.S. was drawn into the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration sought to block publication on national security grounds. The Times’s own law firm advised against publication. Punch went ahead anyway.
“I had been scheduled to go to Europe with my family on the day following publication,” he recalled. “By then, I was convinced that one of two things would occur: either they’d come and take me to jail, or readers of the Times would fall back to bed exhausted by the weight of our coverage. Monday morning came. And as I was still a free man, I assumed our readers to be asleep, so I went to Europe. It was a fine visit, lasting about three hours. My clothes had a wonderful holiday.” Summoned back, he held the line. Weeks later, the Supreme Court backed his decision. American journalism was safe from political interference, not just at the Times, but at every daily paper in every city and town. Alas, almost every one now suffers from an irreversible decline in circulation and ad lineage—and with it, a lessening of standards.
Sulzberger once proclaimed that newspapers would remain the primary source of news because their competitors couldn’t accompany the reader to the toilet. He lived long enough to see that they could, from the iPad to the Smart Phone, the Kindle, the Nook, and beyond. Nonetheless, though those devices are transforming the present and shaping the future, they cannot alter the past. With Sulzberger’s passing, those with a knowledge of American journalism salute a vanished time, when the newspaper of record really did pack a Punch.