Roy Larson, former publisher of The Chicago Reporter, dies at 90

Credited with helping the magazine survive the succession of its founder, Larson oversaw the Reporter’s redesign, investigations on asbestos in public housing and the launch of Catalyst Chicago.

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Editor’s note: The memorial service for Roy Larson is postponed at this time.

He was the man his son will always hope to be someday. 

A former Methodist minister and a legend on the religion beat, Roy Larson was The Chicago Reporter’s second publisher, succeeding founder John McDermott. He died last Tuesday at 90, according to his son Mark Larson.

“He always seemed to be embroiled in some controversy and it felt so noble to me,” Larson said of his father. 

Those controversies peaked in September 1981, when Larson, William Clements and Gene Mustain at the Chicago Sun-Times broke a story that shook Chicago and the Catholic establishment. After 18 months, the team reported that Cardinal John Patrick Cody was under investigation for allegedly funneling upwards of $1 million in archdiocese funds to a friend. 

“I remember during the Cardinal Cody story he would talk to us about it but in hushed terms,” Larson said, “He whispered in his own house.” Larson remembers heading down to the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue with his father the night before the story ran to get the first copies from the press and meeting Mike Royko there. “He wanted us to be a part of it,” he said.

Larson, a religion reporter and editor at the Chicago Sun Times before he joined the Reporter, established his legacy largely on the strength of that investigation, which was among the first to probe the Catholic church, an entity that at the time seemed beyond reproach in the city. Cody died in 1982 and the investigation was ultimately closed before any of the allegations could be proven.

Writing for Nieman Reports about the work in 2003, Larson quoted Don H. Reuben, an attorney for Cody, who said at the time, “the Cardinal is answerable to Rome and to God, not to the Sun-Times.”

Larson, who worked alongside Roger Ebert and Royko, left the Sun-Times after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper. “My dad was crestfallen, he loved his job at the Sun-Times,” Larson said, “He loved to go to work.” 

Professionalizing The Chicago Reporter

Larson would lead the Reporter from 1985 to 1994 before handing over the reins to Laura Washington, a star reporter who had left the publication to join the Harold Washington administration. 

The Chicago Reporter, June 1985

“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,” Larson told the Reporter in a 2013 interview. “Harold Washington had just become the first black mayor, and that raised many questions and small debates about how the Reporter should report this.” 

“Roy brought his considerable skills as a newsman to the Reporter at a critical time,” said Washington, now a columnist for the Sun-Times. “That take-no-prisoners philosophy encouraged us to reach high and probe deeply.”  

“He was a stickler for both facts and fairness that kept the Reporter honest and effective,” she said.   

“In the pursuit of truth, we will go where the news is, and rarely is it possible to know beforehand precisely where that will lead,” Larson wrote in the July 1985 issue of the Reporter, the first with his name atop the masthead. “I agreed to take on this job because I believe the Chicago area needs The Chicago Reporter.”

The issue featured stories from Ben Joravsky, now at the Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader, on disparities in disbursements of community development block grants, the paucity of blacks and Hispanics in suburban gifted programs by reporter Kevin Blackistone and a profile by Susan Gallagher on the competitive pressures facing Harold P. Pierce, the man behind Harold’s Chicken, and his “Cadillac” delivery service.

Washington credits Larson with introducing a more intellectual approach to the publication, which was primarily known for “statistical indictments of American society’s shortcomings,” according to 1987 Chicago Tribune profile marking the Reporter’s 15th anniversary.

“He took us to a new level by introducing essays, literature, book reviews, and new designs that made the Reporter’s work far more accessible and engaging,” she said.   

“What Larson set out to do was professionalize the Reporter,” said Tom Brune, Washington bureau chief of Newsday and Chicago Reporter alum. “A little more so than McDermott and the kid editors who ran the place.” 

“He was very important, he kept the Reporter going,” Brune said.

One of the biggest investigations under Larson’s leadership came in June 1986, when reporter Martha Allen broke a story about the presence of asbestos pipe insulation at the Ida B. Wells public housing complex on the South Side. After learning that workers were removing the dangerous substance from Chicago Housing Authority offices there, the Reporter obtained and analyzed samples that showed residents were being exposed at several public housing projects. Eventually, the CHA removed asbestos from “more than 1,200 homes in the Ida B. Wells, Wells Extension, Altgeld, Murray and Darrow housing complexes” at a cost of at least $8.9 million, according to the August 1987 edition of the Reporter.  

Organizing around the issue was a part of former President Barack Obama’s community activism in Chicago and was chronicled in his book “Dreams From My Father.”  

“It was a very strong big story. Larson oversaw it. That was a big feather in his cap,” said Brune.  

During Larson’s tenure, the Reporter also went from spartan newsletter to polished magazine. 

“When I got there, it was horrible, just ugly, even by 1980s standards,” said John Schrag, who was hired in 1985 as a reporter and rose to managing editor under Larson. He is now executive editor of the Pamplin Media Group in Portland, Oregon. “He recognized that it needed to look better. We were one of the first organizations to do what was then called desktop publishing.” 

Larson also hired reporter Laurie Abraham to launch “Sick and Poor in Chicago,” a series on urban healthcare that debuted in September 1989 and would later become a book by Abraham titled “Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America.” A lengthy excerpt appeared in the Chicago Reader in 1993.

According to the acknowledgements section of the book, Larson hired Abraham “to bring ‘people’ into the investigative publication’s health care reporting. We envisioned a series of stories on health care for the poor, though neither of us was sure what form it should take. But, Roy said, if the articles were successful, perhaps I might expand the series into a book. Roy’s trust in me, his faith in both my writing and my ability to conceive and execute such a project, launched the book.”

Creating Catalyst Chicago

Linda Lenz and Roy Larson at the first Catalyst Editorial Advisory Board meeting.

In 1990, Linda Lenz, a former colleague of Larson’s at the Sun-Times, arrived at Community Renewal Society, the Reporter’s parent organization, with an idea to cover education that would become Catalyst Chicago magazine.

“Roy melded my idea with CRS’s idea for a newsletter for parents, and together we went in search of funding. As it turned out, the MacArthur and Joyce foundations had been looking for a way to track implementation of the Reform Act, and The Chicago Community Trust was interested in assisting parents,” Lenz wrote in 2015, before the publication merged with the Reporter. Larson also served as its publisher.

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A look at Larson’s legacy

“A lot of organizations do not survive the succession of their founder,” Schrag said, “and The Chicago Reporter did. I think Roy gets all the credit for that. He hired a good staff. He let us do our jobs. He kept the financial ship afloat. He gave us a vision.” 

Larson left the Reporter in 1994 to establish 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, according to a 40th anniversary Reporter profile

Larson was born and raised in Moline, Illinois, and edited “Line O’ Type,” his school paper, according to a profile published by the Religion News Association to celebrate a 2014 lifetime achievement award. He graduated in 1951 from Augustana College with a bachelor’s degree and received a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical in 1955.

Larson was living at the Monarch Landing senior community in Naperville, according to his son Mark. He is also survived by his wife Dorothy — they would have celebrated their 70th anniversary this year — his daughter Jodie, and seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

The memorial service for Roy Larson is postponed at this time.