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When either the history or the obituary of Chicago journalism is written, John Conroy will be the symbol of the great decline — the era in the early 21st century when the virtues of talent, dedication, compassion, and idealism ceased to be of value in sustaining a career.
Conroy, who wrote tirelessly of police torture for the Reader from 1990 until the Reader laid him off in 2007, has been held up before as an exemplar — for instance, a few days ago by David Carr in the New York Times. But now Don Terry has told the tale at extraordinary length in the newest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Terry's story is called "Justice for John Conroy," and the title, needless to say, is ironic. It begins: "If life were fair and the gods of journalism just, I would be able to report to you that when John Conroy was laid off by the Chicago Reader nearly three years ago, his bosses quickly came to their senses and rehired him, and he has continued with his award-winning, life-saving investigative reporting ever since."
But that isn't what Terry is able to report. He goes on, "Since this is not a fairy tale, but a nonfiction dispatch from the frontlines of twenty-first century American journalism, I have to tell you instead that Conroy, who recently turned fifty-nine, hasn’t had a full-time job since he was laid off in December 2007 by the Reader."
Terry has written a terrific article, imbued with a sense of tragedy. “It was the worst day of my professional life,’’ Alison True told Terry, recalling the day she drove out to Conroy's home in Oak Park to let him go. “Maybe it was in the top two worst days of my personal life.’’ If CJR had scheduled the story one issue later Terry would have had another brutal irony to report: last month it was True's turn, and the Reader fired her.
And although Terry doesn't mention it, his story is obviously informed by his own experience being laid off by the Chicago Tribune 17 months ago.