New York (CNN) -- Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the influential publisher who transformed The New York Times in his long tenure, has died at age 86, the newspaper reported Saturday.
Sulzberger died Saturday at his home in Southampton, New York, after a long illness, the paper said, citing his family.
He started in 1963 as both publisher of the paper and chairman and chief executive of The New York Times Company. He left the publisher's job in 1992 and the chief executive's job in 1997, handing both reins to his son, the paper reported.
The Sulzberger family has helmed the paper since 1896, when it was bought by Adolph Ochs, Sulzberger's grandfather.
With the family having such a long history at the Times, some staffers felt like part of the family, too.
"For those of us working at the NYT, the passing of Arthur O. Sulzberger has the sharp feel of a death in the family," wrote Times national correspondent John Schwartz on Twitter.
Jim Roberts, an assistant managing editor at the Times, called the late publisher a "monumental contributor to journalism."
U.S. President Barack Obama said he was saddened by news of Sulzberger's death
"He was a firm believer in the importance of a free and independent press -- one that isn't afraid to seek the truth, hold those in power accountable, and tell the stories that need to be told," Obama said in a statement.
When Sulzberger took over the paper in 1963, the paper was respected and influential, often setting the national agenda, the Times said. But it also had financial troubles.
Under Sulzberger's tenure, the Times was transformed into a paper with a national scope, sold on both coasts, and at the heart of a diversified, multibillion-dollar media operation that included newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, the Times said.
"Mr. Sulzberger's insistence on independence was shown in his decision in 1971 to publish a secret government history of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers," Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote in Saturday's obituary. "It was a defining moment for him and, in the view of many journalists and historians, his finest."
The Nixon administration demanded the Times stop its series of articles on the papers, citing national security, but the newspaper refused on First Amendment grounds. It won its case in the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling on press freedom.
Sulzberger was also responsible for expanding the newspaper from two sections to four, separating metropolitan and business news and introducing new ones geared toward consumers, the Times said.
The sections were SportsMonday, Science Times, Living, Home and Weekend. They were a gamble, aimed at attracting new readers and advertisers, but they became an instant success and were widely imitated, the Times said.
A billion-dollar investment in new printing facilities enabled the paper to have a national edition, regional editions, and the daily use of color photos and graphics, according to the Times.
"Punch," as many called him, remained on the board of directors until his retirement in 2001.
"Punch will be sorely missed by his family and his many friends, but we can take some comfort in the fact that his legacy and his abiding belief in the value of quality news and information will always be with us," wrote his son, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.