The Record, June 2012 -- WORKING IN VIRGINIA POLITICS right out of college, Jonathan Martin '99 would often see the State Capitol Press Corps and long to be one of them. He was not ideologically motivated to work for one particular candidate over another; he just loves the way politics works. He always has.
After toiling through Virginia politics and a U.S. Congressional campaign that took him to Washington, D.C., Martin eventually transitioned to journalism. Now he is a member of the press corps himself, traveling the country as a reporter for the website and newspaper Politico.
"We play it straight. We don't take sides, just traditional reporting. My focus this year is largely the presidential race, but I am able to cover a wide variety of things in the political realm. It is a fantastic job because it lets me travel the country, even occasionally go overseas, cover politics, do some pretty intensive reporting, get to meet all kinds of people, and one of the parts I like the most is that I get to eat for free in all kinds of fantastic places. I'm a big foodie, so I love going to new cities and trying out restaurants that I've read about. It's a wonderful way to see the country and to meet people. If you're like me and you love history and politics, being a reporter is a great way to learn about American culture."
Depending on the season, Martin can spend a lot of time on the road, particularly during the presidential primaries. During the end of last year and beginning of this year, he was in all of the usual suspects: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, as well as many others. For the early primaries, he was out of town for long periods; for others, however, he was gone for only two or three days.
"One of the best things about Hampden-Sydney is the demand that you learn how to write, because increasingly people do not know how to do that. . . It was a fantastic launching pad for a career in journalism."
JONATHAN MARTIN '99 Political reporter
His areas of expertise are political campaign operations-how politics really works behind the scenes-and the historical context of politics.
Martin's childhood was full of family field trips to historical sites-battlefields, museums, monuments-and his parents instilled in him a love for history. He found that this love for history blossomed at Hampden-Sydney, where he spent many hours in the library and in the classroom with some formative professors like Ambassador William B. Jones, Dr. David Marion, Dr. James Pontuso, and Dr. Joseph H. Lane, Jr. '90 (who is now a professor at Emory & Henry College).
However, his biggest influence at the College was undoubtedly Dr. Ronald Heinemann: "His passion for history and events was infectious and really got a hold on me. I give him a lot of credit for my pursuing a career in political journalism with an eye for history and the influence of historical events. I can remember being in the classroom and hearing Ron Heinemann doing his impressions of Lincoln and FDR and Nixon; it was so evocative. He really brought it alive in a way that left a huge mark on me. Especially when it came to 20th Century history, it was hugely influential on my career. It set me on a course to pursue my own studies outside the classroom. Outside the assignments, I became very interested in how politics works and in 20th Century America, and in who some of these people were that Heinemann was talking about every day."
When he wasn't in the classroom, Martin was in the library consuming the most up-to-date political information he could find. "This was still during the dawn of the Internet. I remember that in Hampden-Sydney, a three-hour drive from Washington D.C., the Washington Post and the New York Times would be days late. It's funny to think about now, but we were reading days-old papers in the library. I remember reading old copies of National Review and New Republic, plowing through the books; that was hugely important to me."
It goes without saying that, as a reporter, Martin writes daily. He credits the College's rhetoric program for giving him the foundation he needs to do his job well.
"I thought I was a decent writer when I went to Hampden-Sydney and I was torn to shreds in rhetoric. It turns out I was not that good of a writer, but I learned how to write at Hampden-Sydney. One of the best things about Hampden-Sydney is the demand that you learn how to write, because increasingly people do not know how to do that. It is a rare commodity these days and Hampden-Sydney gives its graduates a leg up regardless of what they do. It was a fantastic launching pad for a career in journalism. As someone who writes every day, it was really valuable to be torn up as a freshman in rhetoric and to learn how to put a sentence together. "
Like many of his fellow Hampden-Sydney graduates, Martin worked in politics right out of college. He toured Virginia from the inside of a political campaign, visiting every city and county in the Commonwealth. When he finally started settling down in Richmond, though, he took notice of the State Capitol Press Corps and envied their position.
"They were having a lot of fun. They were skeptical and a little bit sarcastic in a way that appealed to me, much more than doing politics. I knew then that I was more passionate about the 'how' and the 'why' of politics than I was about the actual 'doing' of politics. So, when I saw those reporters in Richmond, that's when I decided 'That's what I want to be doing'.
But he wouldn't get there just yet.
After Virginia politics came a move to Connecticut for a U.S. Congressional campaign, which, in turn, took him to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
"I worked on The Hill and couldn't stand it. I really wanted to be covering politics and writing about it for a living. I wanted more intellectual freedom to be able to cover these guys. As a person who grew up immersed in history and politics, I wanted to write about it, think about it, talk about it, explain it to others. Then I got a lucky break. Chuck Todd, who is now a household name, was then the editor of a publication called The Hotline, which is owned by the National Journal in D.C. It was a daily compilation of daily political news from all around the country. This was early 2005. I didn't know anybody, but I asked around and heard that they had an opening. It wasn't a lot of money, but they were willing to give a chance to folks who love politics. I went over there and didn't earn a lot of money but learned a ton about writing and journalism and even more about politics from guys like Chuck. That also gave me a chance to do some freelance stuff for National Journal magazine and other outlets. I went to work at six in the morning and The Hotline would go to print at noon every day. They had just started a website of their own, so I also did some work for that in the afternoon. That was really the start."
After working at The Hotline all morning and running down freelance work in the afternoon, Martin spent his nights doing research for John Harris' book The Way to Win. "It was the time of my life. I wasn't making much money but I was learning a lot. I didn't have the time to think about how broke I was."
Through hard work and determination-and a lot more hard work-Martin was on the verge of landing the job he had longed for.
Researching for Harris turned out to be a great opportunity. When Harris and Jim VandeHei left The Washington Post at the end of 2006 to create Politico, Harrris gave Martin a call.
"I was then working for National Review but I had been there for only a couple of weeks. John called and said, 'VandeHei and I are going to announce tomorrow that we are leaving The Washington Post to create a website with a paper in D.C. called Politico and we want you to join us. I was so flattered and shocked; it was obviously a pivotal moment in my life. It's been a fantastic ride ever since and I enjoy it every day."
He adds, "The beauty of journalism is that it is a meritocracy. If you show that you can write and you can report and you know what you are talking about, you will establish yourself. I'm grateful for that."
Since then, Martin has toured the country covering politics, including the 2008 Republican convention when John McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate and in 2007 when then-Senators Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama-the moment Martin says the torch of the Democratic leadership was passed on from the Bill Clinton era.
"All of these are memorable events that will be written about in history books one day. To have a front row seat at them has been extremely rewarding."
Politico has been a great fit for Martin and he has no plans to leave, though he is not ruling out writing a book in the future. In the meantime, as another presidential election looms, he has a lot of work ahead of him.
"This is going to be a tough election and I'm looking forward to it. After that, I just want to keep writing about politics and history and public affairs. That's my passion. That's what I want to do."