Home / View Point / Guest Columns / Suzanne Mills: Has Newsday’s ghastly crime coverage—pioneered by my mom—helped or hindered fight against crime?

Suzanne Mills: Has Newsday’s ghastly crime coverage—pioneered by my mom—helped or hindered fight against crime?

“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:

Photo: Former Newsday founding editor-in-chief Therese 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….”

Photo: A ghastly Newsday front page,

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?

Photo: The media spectrum.

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?”

Photo: A Newsday crime photo.
(Copyright Newsday)

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.

Photo: Another lifeless body heads to the morgue in Trinidad.

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?

Photo: A candle light vigil for a murder victim.

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.

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53 comments

  1. By the way, the image used in this story was done so in the wider context of the discussion being had. One can never find an example of such a graphic image on Wired868 before and won’t again.
    This time, I decided to use it to give a clear example of the harmful coverage that is being criticised. And, even then, I chose one where the face of the victim is hidden and there is no visible blood or worse.
    I know some won’t agree and it was a risque move in that sense. But that is why this image was selected.
    So I apologise for any distress caused. It is not that I wanted to ruin your day but I hoped to drive home what the gory coverage that Sheppard regrets looks like.

  2. My problem with Newsday was not it’s reporting of the crime because no reporter went and shot someone and then took pictures and wrote a story

    My problem is that Newsday reporters and it’s editors don’t seem to understand discretion by naming witnesses and victims addresses and other information that can lead to killers trying to finish or clean up the job

    Maybe that in itself is providing future headlines

    • Dear Readers
      I thank you for reading my column, for if not, what would these FB Users have to talk about? You have all missed the point of the article and as some of you are journalists, what a shame! I feel no mea culpa; there is no blood on my hands. And I want you to repeat that sentence ad nauseum. Make it a headline even.
      We all know the stale story of good news to bad news to the Express and Guardian following suit and MFO. Yawn. Read my book!!! I’ll give you all one for free. Good Jah, be creative. From what I have read, many of you need to learn to write. Oh God, Rhonda
      This column was meant to be thought provoking, but clearly fails its mission. Maybe that’s my fault. And to all those who claim to have worked at Newsday, give me a break. For I was there before its first day; maybe not in the newsroom, but at the dinner table etc. I have been a journalist since I was I my crib.
      And since when is it irreverent to reflect on what you believe was off track. You’re right. This was not only about Therese Mills, but Suzanne Mills. These are two separate people, don’t you know?
      And that is all I will ever say about this piece. Again, not one drop of blood on my hands. Onto the next

    • Well, I read the article in full and my comments were related to the subtopic that was being discussed on the thread. The original article, in fairness was a broader reflection and indeed provoking us to explore the consequences of our own actions, our approach to journalism etc… I got that… and I have been saying for a long time that the local media misunderstands it’s role and potential, has boxed itself into models that historically were successful but which have become outdated. Any attempts to point that out to the media draws objections and allegations of attacks and interference… Media practioners and leaders are not willing to examine themselves or review their models and approaches… so where does that leave us?

    • Sunil Ramjitsingh Good question … answers ???!!! (Shrugs)

    • Hubert Frederick Pierre, I have always advocated training for journalists. There are reporters and editors who have training but many do not. I found that the training I did broadened my view of the job and how to approach stories.
      Ironically, though I had resistance from editors in one particular media house that I worked when I was sent by the company on a training course and upon my return I tried to apply what I had learnt on the course…

    • Sunil Ramjitsingh And dats the ting !!!

    • No disagreement with you there at all. I’m no longer in the mainstream media so all I can continue to do is to talk and every so often take a little abuse from a reporter or editor who disagrees with my point of view..

  3. Don’t buy because of this type of coverage.

  4. As a former Newsday employee….
    I remember the Newsday started out as a “good news” paper and for the first few years it struggled to hold on to that philosophy. I believe the founders felt that there was value in that approach to journalism since it would provide a more complete perspective of life in T&T…. But good news did not sell. People are not attracted by the good but “boring” stuff… and therefore Newsday was forced (by society or by market demand) to change its editorial focus and philosophy in order to survive. The unofficial motto then became, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
    The market thirsted for gore and the Newsday set out to give it to them. Reporters became ambulance (and coroner) chasers. Gorier stories got you recognition and reward as a reporter, and so reporters were always looking for ways and opportunities to deliver that.
    There was the debate in my day – 20+ years ago – over whether we were desensitizing the population and damaging the society. Management shrugged it off because I guess it was necessary to justify what was being done, since to discontinue would be to condemn the paper to poor sales and ratings.
    Editors were happy, however, to get nice feature stories to fill the inside pages – not just on a Sunday. These kinds of stories hardly ever made it to the front – although sometimes they did.
    Do we need a different approach from the media? Yes. But it takes time for new styles, format and content to be adopted at viable levels, and I don’t think the media is willing to wait out or ride out the adjustment period, and therefore to take the risk involved in innovation.

    • Sunil Ramjitsingh thank you for weighing in.

    • Rhoda Bharath, but may I add, Newsday was not the only one guilty of trying to cash in on this editorial policy and strategy. Express and Guardian were desperately trying to do the same when they saw Newsday beating them in the MFO ratings. Newsday succeeded more than the others because Newsday had better writers and layout artists. Some of the best writers have now moved to Express, and you see it in certain stories from certain writers. But the layout people at Newsday remained the same and that is why the others cannot touch a Newsday front page design.

    • Sunil Ramjitsingh i know. But since we dealing with Susanne’s awkward mea culpa, Im only referencing Newsday.

    • Sure. And it is good (and perhaps not too late) to reflect and even repent. She can change the editorial focus of the paper, but will people pay to read that… and I honestly think the answer is no.. at least for the moment. Society likes to gorge on this kind of thing even though society knows it is committing self harm…
      In the same breadth, I do believe that the appetite has quelled because blood and gore on the papers has lost its novelty. A lot of people say they no longer read the papers or watch the news because there is too much negativity and violence (most of which they get from social media even before the news hits the stands or goes to air).. so there is a market for a different style.. it is just not the same exact market that provided the boom… and media houses need to start engaging this segment and trying to see if they can innovate and create a viable format so that this segment becomes a sustainable segment. But that means changing some personnel… training and retraining some personnel… and experimenting to see what works and what does not work…

    • Sunil Ramjitsingh Sunil. I too was there in 1996. Three years before they tried the good news experiment and well not a copy was sold. Trinidad however provided enuff violence that the crime and court desk were the most staffed but yet here in 2019 it’s the media’s fucking fault that ppl shooting other ppl…..lol I eh able nah

    • The good news model did not pay…

  5. I remember the decapitated baby on the front page of the newsday.

  6. I would never buy a newspaper that printed a photo of a dead body. I think it is obscene.

  7. Yeah Newsday took it to Another level.

  8. Thank you Suzanne Mills. I don’t believe your Mother started this vein at all – it was always prevalent in our Newspapers. I remember telling my Dad (who worked in the Courts as a Justice of Peace) that I would love to marry the Mighty Sparrow. ‘Why?’ he asked. “Because my picture would be on the front page of all the newspapers”, I replied. Daddy laughed out loudly, and I would never forget his response. He said: “You don’t have to marry Sparrow to get on the front pages, – just walk down Frederick Street topless and you’ll be on every front page in the country”. In the past few years I’ve been recalling my Father’s wise words – and so, I can understand your take on the ‘news’ that sells!

  9. Ever since that year they printed a photo of a murdered child’s body on the front page (5-6 years ago), the Newsday was banished from entering my home. I still have that image in my head. sigh!

  10. The blood on Mills Sr and Jr ledger is not wiped out by this piece, eh. Big fat watery steups

  11. Er, I think people over 50 will remember that T&T’s newspapers have always had a grisly history on the blood and gore thing. The grislier the tale, the picture the better. Its certainly progress in a developing country (or any country) when a daughter can publicly take a critical view of her late mum’s day job. More please. well done Suzanne for this reflective piece asking some difficult questions.