LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Michael G. Gartner is stepping down as editor of The Courier-Journal to return home to Iowa, Courier-Journal publisher George N. Gill announced Thursday.

Managing editor David V. Hawpe will take over as editor in September, Gill said.

Gartner had been editor of Kentucky's largest newspaper since July 1986, when Gannett Co. Inc. purchased The Courier-Journal from the Bingham family.

Gartner, immediate past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and former president of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register and Tribune Co., will edit the Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune, which he owns. He will also continue to do work for Gannett in Washington, D.C., Gill said.

''He has instituted changes in our news operation that were needed, and he has helped make The Courier-Journal truly one great newspaper,'' Gill said. ''I'm sorry to see him leave, but we are all fortunate to have had him here. I respect his decision to go home.''

Deputy managing editor Irene C. Nolan, 40, will replace Hawpe as managing editor, and Stephen J. Ford, 40, sports editor and former regional editor, will take over her job. The changes will take place Sept. 4. Gill did not name a replacement for Ford as sports editor.

The Courier-Journal has a daily circulation of 240,000 and a Sunday circulation of 330,000.

Hawpe, 44, was born in Pikeville, grew up in Louisville and graduated from the University of Kentucky. He worked for The Associated Press before joining The Courier-Journal as a reporter in 1969, and became managing editor in 1979.

Gartner, 48, was president and editorial chairman of the Des Moines newspapers when they where sold to Gannett in 1985.

''I've loved every minute I've spent in the newsroom in Louisville,'' Gartner said. ''It has been great fun working here, and I'll particularly miss working with George Gill. We've had a wonderful relationship, and he's a first-rate publisher. ... Because of my friendships with George, David and Irene, it was especially tough to decide to leave.''