He covered Congress in the 1970s and ’80s before heading up a successful Capitol Hill newspaper.
Martin Tolchin, a former reporter for The New York Times who covered Congress with a keen knowledge of its twisting ways and power plays and who was later the founding publisher and editor of The Hill, a successful newspaper devoted to events on Capitol Hill, died on Thursday at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 93.
His partner, Barbara Rosenfeld, said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Tolchin left The Times in 1994 to lead The Hill, which was being launched as a weekly paper to provide exhaustive coverage of Congress. It immediately went head-to-head with an existing paper, Roll Call, which had been covering Capitol Hill twice weekly since the 1950s.
Mr. Tolchin was 65 when he took the reins of The Hill, hired by the paper’s owner, News Communications Inc., a New York City company with more than 20 community newspapers in Manhattan, Queens and the city’s suburbs. Its chairman was the politically powerful publisher and real estate developer Jerry Finkelstein, father of Andrew J. Stein, a former City Council president in New York.
Some Washington insiders were skeptical that there was a market for two Capitol Hill publications, but Mr. Tolchin told The Washington Post, “We’ll try to be wittier, more audacious, and we’ll try to have a soul, which I don’t think Roll Call does.” Roll Call’s editors said they were not worried.
In fact, both papers, supported by lucrative advertising revenue, did well, and when Mr. Tolchin retired from The Hill in 2003, each had a circulation of about 20,000, with most copies distributed free. A decade later, both were publishing on most of the days Congress was in session, with online versions drawing 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 a group representing potato growers had hired a lobbyist.
But The Hill also broke stories that were picked up by larger publications. There was, for example, its 1997 report of an unsuccessful rebellion by a group of House Republicans against their combative leader, Speaker Newt Gingrich. The report was the first indication that Mr. Gingrich’s time as speaker might be nearing its end. (Mr. Gingrich did in fact announce in November 1998 that he would step down as speaker and leave Congress.)
Mr. Tolchin temporarily came out of retirement in 2006 to help launch Politico, the website about politics.
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 75.
Mr. Tolchin reported from Washington for The Times from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. As a congressional correspondent, he chronicled grand battles over taxation and volatile issues like abortion.
He was adroit at encapsulating the legislative tactics he was reporting on. Of one prolonged budget clash, in which House Democrats said they would refrain from offering proposals and would simply watch Republicans fight among themselves, he wrote that their stance “reflected the congressional Democrats’ new strategy — dynamic immobility.”
Regarding a new generation of members in 1981, Mr. Tolchin portrayed “a Congress filled with young men with blow-dry hairdos who were more at home with computer printouts and media advisers than with the Speaker’s old-style, personal kind of politics.”
He wrote of Howard H. Baker Jr., then one of the most powerful figures on Capitol Hill as leader of the Senate’s Republican majority: “Short, shuffling, his shoulders in a sort of semipermanent shrug, he gives the appearance of a man who has lost his way and wandered onto the Senate floor.”
Mr. Tolchin received the 1982 Everett McKinley Dirksen Award for Distinguished Reporting of Congress, named for the Republican Senate minority leader of the 1960s.
Martin Tolchin was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 20, 1928. He attended the University of Utah, earned a law degree from New York Law School and served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
The Times hired him as a copy boy in 1954, and his first reporting assignment was for what was then known as the women’s page. On the metropolitan desk in later years, his reporting on problems in New York City’s hospital system led to investigations and several criminal convictions, and he covered local politics and was City Hall bureau chief.
Mr. Tolchin was transferred to the Washington bureau in 1973. Over two decades his assignments in the capital included covering President Jimmy Carter’s White House.
The books he and his wife wrote, starting 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 34.
Mr. Tolchin had the distinction of being one of the few reporters to be credited as the source of an urban legend. He was a young member of The Times’s metropolitan staff when, in 1966, exactly nine months after the great Northeastern blackout of November 1965, he began phoning hospital maternity wards around New York City, several of which said they had experienced a sudden uptick in births.
Mr. Tolchin wrote a front-page article suggesting that the spike could be linked to the blackout. He quoted a sociologist as saying, “The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other.”
Demographers have since debunked the theory but have never completely succeeded in erasing it from urban lore. Which is to say that it, too, survives Mr. Tolchin.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
Martin Tolchin, 93, Dies; Times Reporter Was a Founder of The Hill – The New York Times