Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s three-decade tenure at The New York Times spanned multiple milestones in 20th-century journalism, as the newspaper navigated sensitive reporting of the Vietnam War, won key legal victories for freedom of the press and struggled to turn a profit as a print-centric industry grew into a digital one. The reach of Sulzberger, who died Saturday at 86, extended from the publication of the Pentagon Papers to giving the newspaper its first color photos and 31 Pulitzer Prizes.
Here are some major milestones in journalism accomplished by Sulzberger’s New York Times from 1963, when he became publisher, to 1997, when he retired as chairman and chief executive:
Pentagon Papers: Sulzberger read 7,000 pages of the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War before deciding that the newspaper should publish them, in a 1971 series exposing classified government accounts of the war. Asked by a reporter who at the Times decided to publish the papers, Sulzberger gestured toward his chest and mouthed, "me." The series was stopped for two weeks when the Nixon administration won a court order suppressing it, saying national security was in jeopardy. The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Times and The Washington Post, which had also begun publishing the reports.
Free press: Sulzberger was publisher when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the newspaper in New York Times vs. Sullivan, which extended press protections from libel lawsuits by public officials. The ruling required officials to prove actual malice to successfully sue. The paper also fought for other free speech precedents in court, arguing for reporters’ rights to not identify anonymous sources in court or to surrender their notes.
The business side: Sulzberger took over a newspaper struggling in a tough economy in the 1960s, with just over $100 million in annual revenues; by the time he left as publisher, it was a media conglomerate with revenues of close to $2 billion, owning more than a dozen newspapers including The Boston Globe, television stations, a news service and several magazines. Sulzberger added specialized sections to the paper such as science, home and entertainment, and opened the paper’s first color printing plant in the mid-1980s. He put the newspaper on a budget and in the 1970s won union agreements that paved the way for computers to replace older printing machines in the composing room.
Pulitzers: The Times averaged more than one Pulitzer a year under Sulzberger’s tenure. The industry’s most prestigious prizes included a Public Service award in 1972 for the Pentagon Papers series, a national reporting award for the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, and an award for commentary in 1978 to William Safire, a conservative columnist hand-picked by Sulzberger.
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