John Callaway | Bleader

John Callaway

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He framed the discussion.

The last time I saw John Callaway live was at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall in February. Moderator Ken Davis was puzzling over the swift decline of the printed press and the rise of aggregating sights like Huffington Post.

"What I'm trying to get at," said Davis, addressing the panel's Ben Goldberger, who runs HuffPo Chicago, "is, what is it about online-only sites that seems to be gaining this kind of -- these large numbers?"

Goldberger was about to respond. His lips were already beginning to move.

"Theft!" declared panelist Callaway, a few seats away.

Callaway said no more. The word hung there. The Old Lion had spoken. A part of the audience laughed and applauded, putting the generational divide right out there for all to see.

Now Goldberger had to rejigger his reply, couching it in terms of well, it's not that simple.

And then Callaway elaborated.

"You can steal from anybody, and the world is so media-oriented nobody will ever know," he said, demonstrating the chronic nature of the problem by citing a plot point in his own unpublished novel about Chicago journalism 30 years ago. If the pertinence of this reference wasn't clear, his Churchillian glower guaranteed no one would say so.

Davis said he definitely wanted to talk about business models going forward. Callaway expressed a little impatience with that agenda. He said:

"I thought we were coming here today -- I thought the headline would  be... We could wake up two days from now and have one newspaper left, six months from now and have no newspapers left. Isn't that the lead sentence to why we're here? And what will happen if that occurs?"

Here's a video of this portion of the Town Hall.

On Tuesday Callaway died suddenly in Wisconsin at the age of 72 after nearly a half century in electronic journalism, most of it in Chicago. I strain to imagine WTTW without him. The station's Chicago Tonight at 7 PM Wednesday will be dedicated to his life and career, as will Friday's The Week in Review With Joel Weisman and the Friday Night Show.

The station has posted special content commemorating Callaway on its Web site.

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