Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s stewardship in the 1970s and ‘80s made the newspaper the force it is today

No one called him by his full patrician name, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, scion of the family that owned the New York Times, arguably the most influential newspaper in the world.

Few called him even Mr. Sulzberger.

He was “Punch” to everyone he met, from the coffee boy at the old New York Times building just off Broadway, to the most musty of Editors. It was a nickname that Mr. Sulzberger had gotten in his childhood when he and a sister, Judy, would stage “Punch and Judy” skits for the entertainment of the family.

So Punch it was, always Punch — and that too, with such a cheery smile that everyone who ran into him somehow felt uplifted. He would invariably have a joke or two in the elevator. And sometimes, on a whim, he would invite anyone he met for a meal at one of New York’s fanciest restaurant. Punch loved his food.

He loved his family newspaper most of all. And had it not been for Punch’s sturdy stewardship during the 1970s and 1980s — when advertising was migrating to suburban publications, magazines and, of course, television — the august Times would have most likely been extinct by now. Punch once told me that it was hard to imagine the Sulzberger family without The Times, and hard to believe The Times wouldn’t have the Sulzbergers at its helm.

The transformation he undertook to save The Times was simple on the face of it. Instead of cutting back on the paper’s coverage of everything from world politics to local culture in New York, he and his star Executive Editor, Abe Rosenthal, added new sections that would appeal to sophisticated urbanites — sections such as leisure, home decoration, healthy lifestyles. Parts of the daily read like a lively magazine.

Mr. Rosenthal — a mentor of mine, just like Punch Sulzberger — would often say, “In times of trouble, we don’t make the soup thin. We add tomatoes to the soup.”

Readers appreciated that. And The Times was again on the path to profitability. It acquired several regional newspapers, strengthened its foreign bureaus, stepped up coverage of its own backyard, New York, and expanded reporting on an America whose social mores and politics were changing.

For some people it was hard to accept that this mild man would have the nerve and courage to institute such changes. As with Kathleen Graham, Publisher of the competing Washington Post, Mr. Sulzberger had steel in his spine, and, also like her, his adrenalin kept pumping. Little wonder that under their leadership their respective papers flourished.

I was a young man then when I joined The Times, just starting out in journalism. In a few years, The Times posted me to Nairobi, Kenya, to cover sub-Saharan Africa. Punch came to visit Nairobi along with Abe. He wanted to see everything, meet everyone who mattered, talk with everyday people. It was impossible to keep up with this much older man.

He liked travel. He enjoyed landing up in places where The Times had bureaus. He wanted to see for himself how his correspondents worked in the field. He had no wish to play the unseen hand.

That is not to say that he didn’t give Abe Rosenthal a free hand to shape and re-shape The Times, which in time became the world’s most influential newspaper. But Abe adored Punch, and Punch was terribly fond of Abe. Few Publishers and Editors have been in such sync.

Years after he had retired and handed over the reins of the company to his son, A.O. Sulzberger Jr., I was having lunch with Punch at The Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan. In the perception of many readers, the paper had lost its edge; Editors who succeeded Abe Rosenthal did not edit from their gut, as Abe did, a quality that Punch appreciated.

I asked Punch straight out, “And how do you like The Times these days?”

Punch reflected on that question for a bit. I think he was wrestling with the idea that it would be unseemly for him to criticise his son, who was now the Publisher. Finally he said, “I think the golden age of The Times was when Abe and I were there.”

That said a lot about Punch’s sensibility.

He’s gone now, the last of the titans of a golden generation of Publishers and journalists. The Times itself is now focusing more on its digital versions. Who knows what the paper will be in five or a dozen years.

But whatever its avatar, the paper will always contain a bit of Punch in it — his good cheer, his unflappability, his genuine concern for the dispossessed, his insistence on a journalism of fairness an integrity.

I was privileged to work under him and Abe Rosenthal. What a life they led. And what a life they gave me, a life where I travelled the world and reported on it for America, a life of a story teller in the bazaar. How does one repay that debt? How does one replace giants, how does one replace friends?

(Pranay Gupte was a staff reporter and foreign correspondent for the New York Times. E-mail: pranaygupte@gmail.com)

RELATED NEWS

Ex-NYT publisher Sulzberger dead September 30, 2012

More In: Comment | Opinion