Roy Larson was the publisher of The Chicago Reporter from 1985 to 1994. Before his time at the Reporter, Larson was a United Methodist Church minister and religion editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. Larson also served as publisher for the Reporter’s sister publication, Catalyst Chicago, as well as the acting executive director for the Community Renewal Society, the Reporter’s home since it was launched in 1972. After leaving the Reporter, he became executive director of the Garrett-Medill Center for Religion and the News Media, a joint project of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Now retired, he is living in Naperville.
What was it like to be at the Reporter during your time?
I started there at kind of an interesting time. Some things are really fuzzy, like who exactly did what story or when something occurred, but everything was full of energy. Harold Washington had just become the first black mayor, and that raised many questions and small debates about how the Reporter should report this.
Why would it have been reported differently?
We thought that we might have to be easier on a black mayor than a white mayor. But I think we all knew that for the sake of journalistic integrity, we would have to not be so focused on him but how we had always reported, so we went about things the same way, which was to just give the facts.
What was your background with investigative reporting?
I was at the Chicago Sun-Times for 16 years and got to know [Reporter founder] John McDermott quite well, not only through investigative work but because he was a Catholic man and I was the religion editor for quite a while. I spent a lot of time with the Catholic Church and got to know John through those channels. I remember I worked on an investigative piece for about two years on the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago and how he spent money. I used John as a source–not the primary source though. Now that was a story. Two years, and we just kept on going with it. That’s what you have to do a lot in investigative journalism.
I heard you made some big changes to the Reporter as the publisher.
Very early on, we changed the design and made it a lot more readable. The logo before that was very different; it was a “C” with an equal sign. I think the redesign was important. It was a significant upgrade. We also did it to create the infrastructure of the organization, which wasn’t very solid. I wanted a significant editorial board.
It wasn’t very large and it wasn’t very diverse. We changed that. I think I created an atmosphere where the members felt free to express their reservations and opinions about a story and not just stay quiet about certain things and just only politely greet each other in the morning. I think it made the Reporter much more institutionalized. When I first came to the Reporter, there was a period after John left that the institution needed a lot of work and the funding was down, and at one time we were down to only one reporter, which needed to be changed. We got it back to four reporters. The funding was mainly a result of there being the interim period. We got it on solid ground pretty quickly.
Was it an easy transition from being a reporter to a publisher?
I was a pastor with the United Methodist Church, so I had some administrative experience. And when I came to the Reporter, I was very involved in the stories. I didn’t meddle, but I monitored everything that was being done.
Many of the publishers have been “homegrown,” but you were an outside hire. Do you think that provided a different perspective?
Perhaps. But I was very familiar with the Reporter. It was not a new relationship. I had always followed it. As I mentioned earlier, I knew John very well. And I think I did the first news story at the Sun-Times about the founding of the Reporter. I think what I provided for the publication was continuity.
What are some strong relationships you remember from the Reporter?
Ann Grimes, who was the managing editor, and Kevin Blackistone, who’s now a great sports journalist. Really great, strong reporters.
What was your working relationship like with your staff?
It was very stimulating for me to work with such a young staff–a very bright young staff. The Reporter provided a very good experience for future journalists. The Reporter had a good reputation so people at Medill [School of Journalism at Northwestern University] and other reputable places would refer students to us. It provided for journalists to show great potential. In my opinion, it was much better than working for a suburban paper or small-town paper.
What makes and made the Reporter such a great place to work?
Investigative reporting is not easy stuff to do. Working with documents and working with sources makes a difficult but engaging work experience. I think it takes a lot to work at a place like that.
What do you think about the Reporter now?
I’m very happy with the way that the Reporter is using many different kinds of media to get the word out, such as radio, television and others. I think it has expanded its influence and is keeping pace with the times.