I found myself sharing a table with Dawn Clark Netsch at a dinner last week and she said she’d noticed changes in the Reader. Was the paper OK? “We’ve got a story on page one by John Conroy,” I said, and that was answer enough. A week later I’d have had to say no. John — and Tori Marlan, Harold Henderson, and Steve Bogira — were no longer with the Reader.

Laying off these staff writers, which editor Alison True did at the beginning of this week, was surely one of the hardest acts of her life and certainly a low point in the history of this newspaper. “Over the years,” True said Thursday in a message to the staff, ” John, Harold, Tori, and Steve have produced some of our most important and exciting stories. Their achievements have included brilliant investigative work, prestigious awards, and possibly most important, spurring social change in a city that always needs it. . . . I can’t emphasize enough that this action in no way reflects a judgment on the value of the work of these particular writers, and in fact it’s my fervent hope that they’ll continue to work with us on a contractual basis.”

They’re gone because the Reader couldn’t afford to go on paying them their salaries — “As you might guess, this move represents a shift in the financial structure of our relationship with contributors,” True wrote.

They’re gone because a few years ago Craigslist moved in on our classifieds section — and classifieds represented a huge portion of our income. They’re gone because the old Section One — the editorial section — was for decades the tail that wagged the dog here, and when revenues fell it became impossible to continue to allocate the same funds to it.

I called the boss, Ben Eason, in Tampa and reminded him that the last time we’d talked he was saying John Conroy deserved a Pulitzer Prize. (That’s a popular idea around here. He’s been writing about police torture since 1990, but there’s no Pulitzer for persistence, no matter how important the subject.) The first time Eason and I talked, just after Eason had bought the paper this summer, I said that Conroy was, in effect, the canary in the coal mine — as long as he was OK readers would know the Reader was OK. 

“I know, I know,” said Eason, who was informed of True’s intentions before she made her move. “All I’ve done is, I’ve said this is what the budget number is. This is what we’ve got to have. And it’s the same number that’s been out there since August.”

Eason and Creative Loafing have some interesting, and let’s hope brilliant, ideas about the future of the Reader and the CL chain of six newspapers. “It’s ultimately to me a navigation problem,” Eason told me. “How do you keep putting out a newspaper at a quality people expect and how do you migrate this stuff to the Web, which is ultimately the future? We’re in a fight over who can tell you more about the street corner in Chicago. You’ve got a mobile phone and you’re hungry or you want to rent an apartment and you’re consulting your cell phone, and its going to be Google or Yahoo and they’re getting their information from somebody. Those guys” — Yahoo, Google — “they’re not even pretending to be journalists,” said Eason.  But “we’re the journalism right behind them, the stories and information that’s still the most comprehensive and best stuff out there. But the challenge is make that turn. I guess I felt that if I was doing fundamental damage to the Reader I wouldn’t have bought the Reader.”

While writing for the Reader, Conroy’s published acclaimed books on Northern Ireland and torture. Bogira, who’s been on leave working on a book, published a terrific book on Chicago’s criminal courts, Courtroom 302, that HBO is planning to turn into a miniseries. Our last cover story by Marlan, who recently completed a Patterson Fellowship, concerned a Yemeni student who’s still being held prisoner in Guantanamo two years after he was recommended for release. Henderson blogged for us, tossed off features on just about anything, and had the most eclectic mind at the paper. Does their departure do fundamental damage to the Reader? 

I want to say no, because the remaining staff is top drawer. But I expect readers to mourn the departed. Newspapers haven’t come to the point where no one will notice.