Ron Martin, USA TODAY's first executive editor who was known for his 'voice of reason,' dead at 84

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Original planning editors for USA TODAY: From left: John Curley, editor; Richard Curtis, design, graphics & photography; Bill Tudor, systems; Henry Freeman, sports; Dave Doucette, money; Ron Martin, executive editor; Nancy Woodhull, news; Sheryl Bills, features. Aug. 1982.
Original planning editors for USA TODAY: From left: John Curley, editor; Richard Curtis, design, graphics & photography; Bill Tudor, systems; Henry Freeman, sports; Dave Doucette, money; Ron Martin, executive editor; Nancy Woodhull, news; Sheryl Bills, features. Aug. 1982.

Ron Martin, USA TODAY's first executive editor and lauded as a consummate newspaperman who helped set the paper's tone, died Saturday. He was 84.

Originally from Joplin, Missouri, Martin began his journalism career at small papers after graduating from the Univerity of Missouri. He worked at a series of increasingly larger papers including several owned by Gannett, the newspaper chain that would launch USA TODAY in 1982.

Prior to coming to USA TODAY, Martin worked on the staff of the Detroit Free Press, the Baltimore News-American and as managing editor of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York and the Miami Herald.

When he left USA TODAY in 1989, Martin went to Atlanta where he helped oversee the merger of the city's two newspapers into the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, according to the paper. He is credited with bringing the Journal-Constitution into the internet age and giving it a shorter, newsier style.

His daughter, Jen Martin, told the Journal-Constitution her father was a voracious reader who read as many as eight newspapers a day and often a book a day as well.

Ron Martin was USA TODAY's first executive editor.
Ron Martin was USA TODAY's first executive editor.

Martin was also known for working to make newsrooms look like the face of America at a time when that wasn't an emphasis in the news industry.

"While others wouldn't 'take a chance' on women or people of color, Ron saw it as an opportunity," said Julia Wallace, a USA TODAY reporter under Martin and later editor-in-chief of the Journal-Constitution.

"There are so many women and people of color in news today because of him," said Wallace, now chair of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in Phoenix.

Martin was also someone who intuited what technology would mean for journalism and pushed hard for the Journal-Constitution to be ready, already focusing his attention in the mid-1990s on creating digital products and audiences.

“He understood the way people consumed news was changing and used the readers-first mentality he honed at USA TODAY to transform those concepts for a digital world,” she said.

Martin's seven years at USA TODAY helped set the paper's tone, beginning on its first day of publication when he made a quintessentially USA TODAY editorial decision.

A plane had crashed in Spain on Monday and the paper had purchased arresting photos of the scene taken by a passenger from Minnesota. This was to run on the front page in the center column and editors struggled to write a headline for a story that would be two days old when the newspaper's first edition came out on Wednesday.

The initial headline read “55 die in fiery crash.”

Martin took a look and told the editors, “That’s not the story; it’s how many lived,” according to the book “The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA TODAY” by Peter Prichard.

They worked up a new headline that ran in the paper’s first edition on Sept. 15, 1982 – “Miracle: 327 survive, 55 die.”

Martin's gift was to be deeply engaged with both the ephemera of the day and the important news readers needed to know, said those who worked with him.

"He was wide-ranging," said David Colton, a former managing editor of USA TODAY. "He was as interested in Elizabeth Taylor's new perfume as he was in the troubles in the Middle East and he gave the same attention to each."

When USA TODAY was first proposed, it was the first newspaper to attract national attention since Newsday had been launched on Long Island in 1940. It was meant to be different, using color on every section front – a rarity at the time – and shorter, punchier stories.

In a paper full of "eager young editors from small and mid-sized papers," Martin brought a level of serious news judgment and balance from his years of editing important regional papers at a time when they reigned supreme, said Colton.

"The news meetings in the early days were full of 'Why don't we do this?' 'Why can't we do that?'" he said.

"Ron was always a voice of reason and journalism," Colton said. "He was an old-fashioned newspaper person in a disruptive kind of environment in journalism. It was a great combination."

Martin is survived by his wife, son, daughter, stepdaughters and three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ron Martin, USA TODAY's first executive editor, dead at 84

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