James Costello Sr., the publisher of Lewiston-Auburn’s Sun Journal and a champion of Maine community journalism for decades, died Thursday of cancer, the newspaper reported. He was 81.

Costello, who was president and publisher of the Sun Journal’s owner, Sun Media Group, led the family-owned publishing company in a variety of management positions for more than 60 years, according to the newspaper. His employees described him as modest, compassionate, honest and fair.

The Sun Journal described its former leader as an innovator who brought the company into the modern age with computers, press upgrades, mailroom conversions and several redesigns of the newspaper. He also expanded the company beginning in 1987 by buying weekly papers in the state, it said.

At the time of his death, Costello oversaw a publishing company with nearly 200 employees that included the daily Sun Journal, 12 weekly newspapers and a commercial printing operation.

He represented the third generation of Costellos to run the business, which was founded by his grandfather L.B. Costello in 1898, whose son, Russell H. Costello operated the business from 1930 to 1993.

Carol Coultas, business editor at the Portland Press Herald, was managing editor at the Sun Journal for nine years. She recalled James Costello Sr. as a man of principle and kindness.

“He was a quiet man who led by example,” Coultas said. “He cared deeply about the Sun Journal community – not just the employees, but the people served by the paper.”

The newsroom was well aware of his “Cheerio rule,” she said.

“He never wanted there to be anything so offensive in his newspaper that a reader would gag on his morning cereal,” Coultas said. “It was a simple rule that reflected his concern for readers.”

Costello was inducted into the Maine Press Association Hall of Fame in 2009.

His civic involvement included roles as past president and board member of Tri-County Mental Health, St. Mary’s Hospital, Marcotte Nursing Home and the Tri-County Health Planning Board.

He was an Army veteran and served on the boards of Northeast Bank, Northern Utilities Inc. and the Maine Criminal Justice Planning and Assistance Agency.

Costello was also a past president of the Maine Daily Newspaper Publishers Association and the New England Newspaper Association. In 2000, he received the Gannett Family Business of the Year award.

Costello is survived by his wife, Janice, sons Steve, Jim Jr. and David, and daughters Maureen and Cathy. His children continue to be involved in the leadership of the company. No information about memorial services was available as of Friday evening.