In 1996, the Reader published his second long article on the case, “Town Without Pity, Police Torture: The courts know about it, the media know about it, and chances are you know about it. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?’’ Michael Miner, a Reader editor who writes a popular media column for the paper, edited most of the seventeen stories Conroy wrote about police torture. They often worked at Conroy’s kitchen table in suburban Chicago, poring over documents and eating homemade scones.
The men knew they were treading in sensitive political territory. Every fact or assertion was double- and triple-checked. “John’s a fastidious guy,’’ Miner says. “He holds himself to a higher standard than anyone I know. He was extremely cautious in what he reported.’’ They also knew they had “a terrific’’ story on their hands. “It seemed to be our franchise,’’ Miner says. “One story suggested another. It was just a bottomless well of material.’’
One day in early December 2007, Miner was in the Reader office just north of the Loop when Alison True, the editor, said she wanted to talk to him. True has been the Reader’s editor since 1994. She proudly had given Conroy the time and the space to tell his incredible stories. Some of them ran close to 12,000 words. What True wanted to talk to Miner about was layoffs. It broke her heart, she told Miner, but Conroy and three other feature writers had to be let go. The paper, its editorial budget cut nearly in half, could no longer afford what Conroy did best. “The investigative reporters who remain on staff,’’ she says, “are the ones who are in the paper every week.’’
Miner says True “was sick about it. I was sick too.’’ They discussed the best way to handle it. True decided she would personally tell each of the four. Conroy was not in the office, so True drove to his home. She stayed about thirty minutes. “It was the worst day of my professional life,’’ she says. “Maybe it was in the top two worst days of my personal life.’’
Conroy says he harbors no ill will. Regrets, sorrow, yes, but, “I’m still friends with the people who fired me.’’
One of his regrets is going into journalism in the first place. At least that’s what he says when the bills are due and he doesn’t know where his next freelance assignment is coming from. When Conroy set off for the University of Illinois in 1969, he wanted to make a lot of money. He majored in finance and got good grades. Conroy and his three sisters had heard stories from their Irish-American father, a salesman at Sears, about the horrors of the Great Depression. Conroy’s mother, a bookkeeper and graduate of DePaul University, had her own Depression tales, but the memories were not seared into her soul.
But the campus and the country were in turmoil in those days. Conroy did not want to be on the sidelines. “I wanted to do some good in the world,’’ he says. He switched his major to English with a minor in journalism. “It was probably the first bad business decision I made,’’ he says. “If I had stayed the course as finance major I wouldn’t be worried now about how I am going to get my kids through college.’’
After college, Conroy, who grew up in suburban Skokie, joined Vista, the domestic Peace Corps. During his nine months working with the poor on Long Island, he helped start a community newspaper, the Fair Hearing. Then he sent out 120 application letters, hoping to land a journalism job. He got three offers. “I was twenty-three years old,’’ he recalled in his remarks upon receiving the Studs Terkel Award for excellence in reporting about Chicago’s diverse communities in 2005. “I’d been hired by what later became Chicago Magazine as the bottom man on a three-man editorial totem pole. I was making $7,500 a year and was worth about that much. At the time, Chicago Magazine was owned by WFMT, where Studs had his daily show and the magazine and radio station shared the same offices. So there was I, who knew nothing, sharing the same hallways with Studs, who knew everyone . . . and whose books were full of people you could not ordinarily read about, ordinary people doing extraordinary, brave, and sometimes questionable and even cruel things. I couldn’t believe my luck.’’