Ron Martin, former AJC editor and a top USA Today editor, dies at 84

Ron Martin, former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: AJC File Photo

Credit: AJC File Photo

Ron Martin, former editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ron Martin, a former longtime editor of the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution who oversaw the merger of those newspapers after he edited USA Today, died Saturday, according to his family.

Martin, 84, shepherded the merged Atlanta Journal-Constitution into the age of the internet while overseeing the kind of traditional journalism that he felt readers wanted, doggedly pursuing stories such as the unfolding scandal at City Hall that ultimately led to the conviction of then Mayor Bill Campbell for tax evasion.

“I hired him and it was the best hire ever,” said Jay Smith, who was the publisher of the two Atlanta newspapers when he hired Martin to run them in the late 1980s.

Martin was USA Today’s first executive editor and was among the editors involved in shaping the national newspaper when it first published in 1982.

Seven years later, he brought some of those same ideas to the AJC, emphasizing shorter, newsier articles that earned some critics who preferred more in-depth work. Longer stories still appeared, Smith said, but Martin’s overall focus on snappier news seemed to resonate better with readers, he said.

Martin soon found himself in a pitched circulation war with The New York Times after that publication purchased a newspaper in Gwinnett County with hopes of winning that fast-growing market in the AJC’s backyard, Smith said. The AJC won, and the competing paper shut down.

Smith also noted that Martin emphasized hiring and promoting people of color and women.

Cynthia Tucker, a Black woman, said Martin gave her her best job ever: “He had enough confidence in me to make me the editorial page editor.” She oversaw first the opinion pages of the Constitution and then of the combined newspaper. She was the first Black person and first woman to do so, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007.

Sandy Schwartz was a general manager of the AJC when Martin was editor. He remembers an unbiased newsman and a courteous guy.

“When you run the business side of the newspaper and he’s running the editorial side, you’re always going to butt heads on things but it was always respectful and it was always whatever is best for the AJC,” said Schwartz, now a Cox executive who oversees the AJC.

“Ron was a ‘no BS, right down the middle’ type of guy. And he believed in hard reporting, being extremely fair,” Schwartz said.

Martin, who retired from the AJC in 2002, served on numerous selection juries for the Pulitzer Prizes, the highest award in American journalism. He also notched wins during his Atlanta career.

Mike Toner won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism under Martin’s leadership. The 1993 award was for a series of articles that explored the diminishing effectiveness of antibiotics and pesticides. And two years later, the AJC’s current cartoonist, Mike Luckovich, won his first Pulitzer.

However, he wasn’t finished with journalism after stepping down as editor. Martin became the senior editor for Cox Newspapers, overseeing the Washington and foreign bureaus and CoxNet, the newspapers’ wire service. He also assisted with the restructuring of Cox Enterprises’ internet unit, Cox Interactive Media.

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Martin studied journalism at the University of Missouri, then worked at a series of smaller papers around the country, moving the family to ever larger cities as the newspapers where he worked increased in size — Miami, New York, Washington.

Martin joined USA Today in 1980 as the original planning editor charged with developing prototypes for what would become the general-interest national daily.

When it was announced in 1989 that he was headed to Atlanta, Martin was the chair of the American Society of Newspaper Editors Future of Newspapers Committee and served on the board of directors for the Missourian, a teaching newspaper at his alma mater.

He was managing editor of the Miami Herald from 1970 to 1977. Before that, he worked on the staff of the Detroit Free Press and served in a number of editor capacities for the Gannett Co., which founded USA Today. He helped launch what would become Florida Today and was managing editor of the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle.

He also served as editor of the Baltimore News-American and as editor of US magazine, then owned by The New York Times Co. He worked briefly as managing editor of the New York Post.

He was a voracious reader of books and news, devouring as many as eight newspapers a day, said his daughter, Jen Martin, 53.

“He read like a book a day,” she said. “There were books everywhere.”

Despite the manifold obligations of an editor, he always found time to be a dad, she said. She remembers him propping her behind the wheel of his car when he pretended to let her drive around their Miami neighborhood and taking her out for croissants in New York City just to talk.

When she was older, he sent her a constant stream of news articles with thoughtful advice about things, like managing power cords.

“As busy as he was and as successful as he was in his career, he always always always made time for me.”

Martin was living in Atlantic Beach, Florida. He died of natural causes, Jen Martin said.

In addition to his daughter, Ron Martin is survived by his wife, Marchant; son Tom; stepdaughters Marchie Surface and Mobley Bowman; and three grandchildren.