Former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger has died at age 86.
According to the Times, Sulzberger's family said he died Saturday at his Southampton home after a long illness.
He retired in 1992 after three decades at the paper's helm and was succeeded by his son, Arthur Jr.
During Sulzberger's tenure, the New York Times won 31 Pulitzer Prizes, published the Pentagon Papers and won a major court victory in New York Times v. Sullivan.
That 1964 Supreme Court ruling shielded the press from libel lawsuits by public officials unless they could prove actual malice.
"In the end, if anybody was going to jail over this, it was the publisher," said Clyde Haberman, a Times Metro columnist. "If anyone was going to have their family's heritage - if you will, patrimony - put fully on the line, it was him. And many people, quite correctly I think, consider that his finest moment and, in many ways, journalism's finest moment."
Sulzberger also started the paper's national edition, bought its first color presses and introduced popular new sections covering topics such as science, food and entertainment. Weekday circulation climbed from 714,000 to 1.1 million under his leadership.
"He was anything but the great William Randolph Hurst-like mogul or Murdoch kind of Titanic captain," said former Times Executive Editor Max Frankel. "He was gentle and unobtrusive and did all his best work behind the scenes."
"The mid-1970s brought the entire city to the brink of municipal collapse and the Times advertising base was in great, great jeopardy. In that period, Punch Sulzberger, working with his business and news department, created a whole bunch of sections that we all take for granted today," said Haberman.
In a statement, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. said his father's refusal to back down in the paper's free-speech battles helped prevent government censorship and intimidation.
Nicknamed "Punch," Sulzberger was the grandson of Adolph Ochs, who took over the Times in 1896 and built it into the nation's most influential newspaper.
The 37-year-old former Marine took over as publisher in the summer of 1963, following the sudden death of his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, but initially felt uneasy filling the post.
"I told my sister Ruth I made my first executive decision, not to throw up," Sulzberger later remembered.
"Suddenly the family had no other choice but to turn to Punch Sulzberger. Nobody pretended at the time that it was a welcome decision. They didn't think he was ready," said Haberman. "Everyone knew that he had a hill to climb, but he climbed it."
Sulzberger became publisher during a 114-day newspaper strike. Four other newspapers shut down, but Sulzberger managed to keep the New York Times competitive.
"'When you're in a crisis, don't water the soup,' as he used to say. Don't diminish the product. On the contrary, invest in the quality of what you're doing," said Frankel. "Somehow you'll figure out how to make money at it, because you have to make money if you value your freedom and independence."
Political leaders paid tribute to Sulzberger Saturday.
"Arthur helped transform the New York Times and secure its status as one of the most successful and respected newspapers in the world. He was a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press, one that isn't afraid to seek the truth," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
"Mr. Sulzberger changed the course of American history with his journalistic decisions, including publishing the Pentagon Papers, ultimately fulfilling the foremost task of the media to report the unfiltered truth to the American people," Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement that Sulzberger was "a great New Yorker and a luminary in one of our city's biggest industries, and his loss will be felt by many."