Martin Tolchin, former Times reporter and founder of The Hill, dies at 93

Martin Tolchin, a former New York Times reporter who covered Congress with deep knowledge of its tortuous ways and power plays and later served as the founding publisher and editor of The Hill, a bestselling newspaper devoted to the events on Capitol Hill, died Thursday at his home in Alexandria, Va., he was 93 years old.

His partner, Barbara Rosenfeld, said the cause was cancer.

Mr. Tolchin left The Times in 1994 to run The Hill, which was launched as a weekly to provide comprehensive coverage of Congress. He immediately found himself one-on-one with an existing newspaper, Roll Call, which had covered Capitol Hill twice a week since the 1950s.

Mr. Tolchin was 65 when he took the reins of The Hill, hired by the newspaper’s owner, News Communications Inc., a New York company with more than 20 community newspapers in Manhattan, Queens and suburbs. from the city. Its president was the politically powerful publisher and real estate developer Jerry Finkelstein, father of Andrew J. Stein, former president of the New York City Council.

Some Washington insiders were skeptical there was a market for two Capitol Hill publications, but Mr. Tolchin told the Washington Post: “We will try to be more witty, more daring, and we will try to have a soul, which I don’t. I don’t think Roll Call does. Roll Call editors said they weren’t worried.

In fact, both newspapers, backed by lucrative advertising revenue, did well and when Mr Tolchin retired from The Hill in 2003 each had a circulation of around 20,000 copies, most copies being distributed free of charge. A decade later, both were publishing most Congressional session days, with the online versions attracting many additional readers.

Under Mr Tolchin, nothing was too ‘inside’ for The Hill to report, including news that a legislative aide had been given a new assignment or that a group representing potato growers land had hired a lobbyist.

But The Hill has also published stories that have been picked up by larger publications. There was, for example, his 1997 report on an unsuccessful rebellion by a group of House Republicans against their combative leader, President Newt Gingrich. The report was the first indication that Mr. Gingrich’s time as president may be coming to an end. (Mr. Gingrich actually announced in November 1998 that he would step down as president and leave Congress.)

Mr. Tolchin temporarily came out of retirement in 2006 to help launch Politico, the politics website.

He was also the author or co-author of nine books. Most were about politics and government, written with his wife, Susan J. Tolchin, a political scientist who taught at George Mason University in Virginia. She died in 2016 at age 75.

Credit…New York Times

Mr. Tolchin reported from Washington for The Times from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. As a congressional correspondent, he chronicled big battles over taxation and volatile issues like abortion.

He was adept at summarizing the legislative tactics he reported on. Of a protracted budget clash, in which House Democrats said they would refrain from proposing proposals and simply watch Republicans fight each other, he wrote that their position “reflects the new strategy of the Democrats in Congress – the dynamic immobility”.

Regarding a new generation of members in 1981, Mr. Tolchin portrayed “a Congress filled with young men with hair dryers who were more comfortable with computer printouts and media advisers than with the President’s old-fashioned personal politics”.

He wrote of Howard H. Baker Jr., then one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful figures as Senate Republican Majority Leader: “Small, shuffling, his shoulders in a kind of shrug semi-permanent shoulders, it gives the appearance of a man who got lost and wandered on the floor of the Senate.

Mr. Tolchin received the 1982 Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress, named after the Republican Senate Minority Leader of the 1960s.

Martin Tolchin was born in Brooklyn on September 20, 1928. He attended the University of Utah, earned a law degree from New York Law School, and served in the United States Army during the Korean War.

The Times hired her as a copyist in 1954, and her first reporting assignment was for what was then known as the Women’s Page. In the metropolitan office years later, his reporting on problems in New York’s hospital system led to investigations and several criminal convictions, and he covered local politics and served as city hall bureau chief.

Mr. Tolchin was transferred to the Washington office in 1973. For two decades, his assignments in the capital included covering the White House for President Jimmy Carter.

Books he and his wife wrote, beginning in the 1970s, include “To the Victor: Political Patronage From the Clubhouse to the White House” (1971), “Dismantling America: The Rush to Deregulate” (1983) and ” Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom” (2001).

A memoir, “Politics, Journalism and the Way Things Were: My Life at The Times, The Hill and Politico,” was published in 2019.

In addition to Ms. Rosenfeld, Mr. Tolchin is survived by a daughter, Kay Rex Tolchin, and a grandson. A son, Charlie, died of cystic fibrosis in 2003 at the age of 34.

Mr. Tolchin had the distinction of being one of the few journalists to be credited as the source of an urban legend. He was a young member of the metropolitan staff of The Times when, in 1966, exactly nine months after the Great Northeast Blackout of November 1965, he began phoning maternity wards at New York hospitals, several of whom said experiencing a sudden increase in births. .

Mr Tolchin wrote a front-page story suggesting the spike could be linked to the blackout. He quoted a sociologist as saying, “The lights went out and people had to interact with each other.”

Demographers have since debunked the theory but have never completely succeeded in erasing it from urban tradition. That is to say, she too survives Mr. Tolchin.

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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