“At around 2 or 3pm, the commencement of crunch time, some editor, perhaps even I, would stick our heads out of our offices and ask, ‘No murders yet?’ […] As the murder toll rose, I asked Therese [Mills], ‘What’s the point of these crime front pages? We’re not making a sliver of a difference. We need to change tack’.
“[…] Were we anaesthetising the public? Turning tragedy into a ten minute morning coffee conversation? Most of all, weren’t we duty bound to start trying to understand the many social underlying causes of the demise of the Black boy? The Indian one too.
“But I could not reason with her: my mother’s strength and weakness was her absolutely frustrating stubbornness…”
The following Letter to the Editor on the impact of the late former Newsday executive chairperson Therese Mills’ pioneering coverage of crime—and, in particular, murders—was submitted to Wired868 by her daughter and ex-Newsday editor in chief, Suzanne Mills:
In 2016, I published my mother’s memoir/biography. I’d produced a book before when I worked at the ACS but it was a straightforward, glossy production touting the accomplishments of the regional organisation. And if you don’t know what the ACS is, shut down your social media and go do some research, stretch the mind to its limits just as you would a rubber band when you played as a child.
Listen I’m no Luddite, but I’m seeped in nostalgia for the days in the last quarter of the 20th century when the internet was mainly an escape from dusty tomes to get the facts Jack; it was slow but a quite bright friend.
I wrote the introduction for the memoir and I guess I was able to produce what I thought was an objective, brief view of the history of Newsday and Therese Mills’ role in its origins and growth.
On page six of the book, the penultimate of my piece, there is a paragraph that sticks in my craw; you know like an annoying and determined bit of food that lodges itself comfortably between a couple of teeth and rocks back and says “Pardner, you eh see the home I just find? You think this is a production of Rent?”
Page six of the biography: “And she remained insistent that the country was tumbling downhill, and it had to face the reality of incessant, horrific bloodletting. To great outrage, she put pictures of heads in boxes and cadavers on the front pages….”
That’s what I wrote and it was true. But clearly crime also brought economic benefits—newspapers are businesses. In record time, its crime reportage (among other crucial contributions) shot Newsday up the survey charts and by 1997 it was number one. It no longer holds that place.
I never say that I digress when I am writing…. who the heck thinks linearly? So to the book!
In it, I sought to raise the veil on this particular position of my mother’s and believe I gave the public some insight into her motivations for the macabre, perhaps even ghoulish front pages.
She adored this country and I think she lay awake many a night worrying about the arrival and growth of the cartels and the powdery white coup occurring, pardon the pun, right under the State’s noses.
When you get to the actual memoir, i.e. her life in her words, she reveals that she wanted to be a lawyer, but the family was too poor to send her to university. So off she went to work at the Gazette.
But no human is one dimensional and she always whimsically admitted that if she hadn’t been a journalist she would have been an interior decorator. And with the TT$300 a month she at first earned, she decorated our NHA house by scouring local antique shops and returning home from official trips abroad with postcards, paintings or sculptures. And what else but newspapers?
When she travelled her first purchase upon landing was the dailies. She particularly loved British newspapers, tabloid and broadsheet. I think that apart from her interest in news from every nook and cranny on this big Blue Marble, she was compiling a mental registry of front pages and in general, layout.
When she came to Newsday, a combo of years of dedication to her craft (she was an autodidact) and that decorator in her, found expression and contentment in building that front page. At times she was almost giddy.
Upon my return home in 1993, after near a baker’s dozen years in foreign, I didn’t recognise TT. Big time cartel bosses; Trini Escobars. So initially I agreed with Therese’s philosophy of placing bodies in coffins on the front page.
But then I started to worry. And the intellectual love-hate relationship I had always had with my mother turned into pure war over the coverage of crime.
You see, I was sincerely concerned. Reporters were unwilling to leave the newsroom to see if anything of interest was taking place in POS, because they knew there would be a murder, guaranteed. Editors were cool. Ready-made front page.
At around 2 or 3pm, the commencement of crunch time, some editor, perhaps even I, would stick our heads out of our offices and ask, “No murders yet?”
We were becoming robotic, inured to pain and even though in her memoir, I argue that the horrors and hours of the job led some to soak their livers in nothing below 40 percent, I began to detect that survival instinct apart, our humanity was evaporating incrementally and then more rapidly and we were only reacting in the most horrific situations. And every day less and less.
Reporters went to crime scenes with photographers, asked the requisite questions of the police, interviewed grieving relatives whose pictures would be the front page art to accompany the headline. And headed back to the newsroom to craft reports written in police jargon, so that their vocabulary became limited, standardised, stunted. And then they’d have lunch.
As the murder toll rose, I asked Therese, “What’s the point of these crime front pages? We’re not making a sliver of a difference. We need to change tack.”
At this point it is crucial that I mention the Board did not get involved in editorial whatsoever, so this was all my mother. I argued that we were being superficial with respect to crime and since the other dailies had copied her style, we had now unfortunate uniformity.
And yes the number of murders was on the rise, so our jobs became about choosing which murder to cover, but we never looked back, or rarely so. I wondered about the families of the dead we had placed on our front page and how destroyed they might be. Even a chronological review of the murders at the end of each year became like reading an exam result list.
Were we anaesthetising the public? Turning tragedy into a ten minute morning coffee conversation? Most of all, weren’t we duty bound to start trying to understand the many social underlying causes of the demise of the Black boy? The Indian one too.
But I could not reason with her: my mother’s strength and weakness was her absolutely frustrating stubbornness.
So one April morning in 2008 I arose from my chair and drove home. I was ill and in tears; my health had been declining steadily during the years I was editor in chief. And I knew I could spend not one more minute in the newsroom. It was the photographs. This time of a battered dead infant.
I immediately left TT for treatment, the details of my recovery unappetising to the ear. I just wanted to sit in the parks and gardens of Madrid and watch people go by. I didn’t want to be Suzanne Mills, editor in chief of Newsday. No more, no more, no more blood please.
And here we are in 2019. How have the stories of gore helped to decrease crime? I am still seeing formulaic front pages and reports. Is the media part of the problem and not of the solution?
Not that I know what that solution is, just that I sense we, the media, are still getting it wrong. Have we been imprudent?
And here’s what truly nags me. As great a journalist my mother was, did increasing power mean that she abandoned responsibility to some extent? Did Therese Mills, who having started sensational crime reportage with good intentions, on becoming so puissant, lose sight of her original goal?
Is she the reason why I now pass newspapers and steups?
Editor’s Note: Read more from Suzanne Mills at http://www.suzannemills.net.