John Pomfret: He Made the New York Times Much More Than a Newspaper Full of News

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “John D. Pomfret, Executive Who Helped Revamp the Times”:

John D. Pomfret, who as a New York Times executive was instrumental in a watershed effort in the mid-1970s to modernize the newspaper’s format, boost its advertising revenue and improve its productivity with the introduction of computer technology, died on Feb. 24 at his home in Seattle. He was 93.

Mr. Pomfret was among the half-dozen editors and business executives who, under Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher at the time, revived the company at a financially precarious time by creating a raft of stand-alone weekly sections — on food, home design, science and weekend entertainment — that proved popular with readers and advertisers alike….

Until then the paper had consisted of just two sections, of many pages each.

Mr. Pomfret was the last surviving member of the management team that spearheaded the transformation, beginning with Weekend on Fridays, which made its debut in April 1976. The others included Walter E. Mattson, the general manager; Louis Silverstein, the corporate art director; and the editors A.M. Rosenthal, Arthur Gelb and Seymour Topping.

“Our penetration of the segment of the market we consider our target audience is thin in the city and worse in the suburbs,” Mr. Pomfret had advised Mr. Sulzberger, according to “The Paper’s Papers,” Richard F. Shepard’s 1996 book about The Times. He first suggested creating the Weekend section and made tentative suggestions for the themes of four other weekday sections, each to appear weekly.

“Working as a team,” Mr. Topping, who died in November, wrote in a memoir, “we transformed the daily Times into a four-section paper.”

Mr. Pomfret, who as the advertising director of his college newspaper had learned to set type by hand, presided during The Times’s labor-saving shift from typewriters and hot-lead Linotype machines to computerized word processing and electronic typesetting. The move resulted from a groundbreaking 11-year union contract that guaranteed continued employment for 800 printers until they retired and their jobs disappeared through attrition.

Mr. Pomfret had taken an unorthodox route in joining the business side of The Times: He got there by way of the newsroom. He had been a reporter in The Times’s Washington bureau, variously covering the White House, the Supreme Court, civil rights and labor, beginning in 1962.

During the prolonged strike against New York’s newspapers in 1965, he happened to be talking with Mr. Sulzberger, known as Punch, when Mr. Pomfret commented that, in his view, the Times Company’s labor relations policies were counterproductive.

As Mr. Pomfret recalled in an unpublished memoir: “About a year after the strike ended, Punch Sulzberger telephoned me. ‘Pomfret,’ he said. ‘I want you to come up to New York and straighten them out.’ When the top man asked you to do something, you either did it or quit.”…

He retired as general manager and executive vice president in 1988….

Mr. Pomfret attended Princeton University, where his father had taught history, and joined the campus newspaper as its advertising director. He graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1949, then earned a master’s in business administration at Harvard.

After serving in the Army, he met Mr. Sulzberger while both were working as young reporters for The Milwaukee Journal….

He joined The Times not long after returning to The Journal from a Nieman fellowship at Harvard….

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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