Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The ghosts of journalism past For Therese Mills RIP

For Therese Mills journalist and newspaper magnate who just passed.

photo caption: 
1.the Founding team of Newsday in the initial Prospectus; 
2. profiles inthe initial Newsday Prospectus

As the newspaper as a media sits at its fin de siecle, the death of Therese Mills resounds with the end of an era. It forces one to question how adequately has our traditional media been meeting, facing and addressing  the challenges of the changing environment of news delivery when one can sit in any corner of the world and command the combined circulation of all of our national newspapers, with just a click while offering personalised customised individualised news .... 

It is not often that we know or understand the birth of one of our passions, though it may be easier to identify who or what may have fed it.
It might be as a child, from a village, remote and somewhat cut out from the goings on in the capital city and seat of administration and power, waiting to receive the Sunday newspapers - not with any curiosity to know what's going on in the far off capital, but to pull out the comics section and the children's supplement that included puzzles, and colouring and drawing challenges, initially, and read the folk stories of mythical characters in the forest around or stories about children from other lands. Later, the delivery of the Sunday newspaper allowed one to graduate through curiosity to watching pictures - some macabre, some celebratory of national life and international goings-on, a portal to the world; and as one grows older, to read the headlines, and later, to delve into the feature articles, and eventually, news.
That may be said to be the process of awakening into the thing called ‘news’ when news also had the character of the neighbour leaning out her back window to share some snipet of an overnight occurrence that could change the entire character of the day or week in a village. It may also be the process of awakening of the consciousness of a citizen, and perhaps, too, of a journalist.
It may or may not have been the same for Therese Mills (1928-2014) who passed away a few hours ago, but it was for me who never had any greater ambition than to read, and yes, perhaps too, to write. 
From a place where reading material was scarce, expensive, and hard to come by with the volatility of income of a family that lived off the land, the newspaper was a first source reader. 
Therese was a journalist at the time of my growing into reading. Reading Therese and the other names in black and white – John, Valentino, Gail, Clevon, Carl, Francis, Horace - their feature stories in particular, chronicling the (anti) and heroes and heroines of our times from our distant village where the authority on anything was my father, the Sheriff, fed my growing into citizen-consciousness.  
Therese was too, a journalist and editor of the Sunday Guardian, at the time of my budding journalism consciousness in the first half-decade of my journalistic life.
She was a woman in whose footsteps I stepped into, and in many ways, took a parallel career path - for the most part inadvertently, more by accident than by design, though it might not seem so.
Driven into journalism only by the wish to write, and an unexpected prompt response to a frenzy of post-high-school job applications by Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief Lenn Chongsing, I found myself in the world of that far off place of city journalism and in the ambit of the larger than life energy of Therese Mills.
Not generally known - nor did she present herself - as a nurturer,  Therese nurtured the passion to know, and to inform that must be the basic raw materials of every journalist in ways I hardly ever recognised.
She was editor of the Sunday Guardian - a post that would much later pass to me about a decade after I was summoned to the Port of Spain desk by on first impression too-shy-to-be-a-newspaperman, Lenn Chongsing - the then Editor-in-Chief of the Trinidad Guardian newspapers after a month as  'stringer' at the San Fernando desk that serviced all of "South" Trinidad then manned by John Alleyne and Mikey Mahabir both of whom are now deceased. 
She was already in my constitution from reading her, and from liaising with her on the unending list of stories I was uncovering in the South, feeling much like Columbus must have when he stumbled on our islands or Sir Walter Raleigh on seeing the Pitch Lake for the first time. Journalism was a platform for discovering the nation - as it must have been for the several journalists who preceded me - and Therese like John Alleyne, Mahabir, and Lenn Chongsing and Norris Solomon (also deceased) and Carl Jacobs, John Babb, Arthur Dash and Romeo were unbridled sources of nurturing the curiosity, the enthusiasm and the sense of a refreshing newness and newsiness of it all - a new world 20th century 'Kris' of the post-Columbus world, I began the series, Discover Trinidad and Tobago, along with others as Teenlife, and holding down the daily news 'beats' in education, health, youth, local government, community and social services while also contributing several articles for each issue of the flagship Sunday edition - that's probably now the combined portfolio of about a dozen reporters today, servicing various niched desks.
Bliss was it, one might paraphrase Wordsworth, in that dawning of my journalism career, and heavenly to have such mentors. A newsroom could be a most stimulating of classrooms for anyone lusting for knowledge.  
Under such tutelage, the islands became the university I could not yet afford to attend, so by the time I would achieve my doctorate, the first sitting journalist, they say, to do so, I had already accumulated such volumes of research and stories and collections of sometimes intimate details of the lives of famous and not so famous and nondescript nationals and international ones as well - Fidel Castro, the Dalai Lama, Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, Naipaul - to fill an encyclopaedia. The accumulation of my mentors could fill several, several more encyclopaedias, as I continue to encourage them to write their memoires - a chore for journalists programmed to and primarily preoccupied with chronicling the lives of others. So it was more than well deserved, when the University of the West Indies conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters on Therese mere months before she died, and just short of her 85th birthday last year -  maybe too long in coming but not too late. 
In fact, it was just when I was about completing my first degree, that Therese approached me to be one of the founding journalists with the plans in progress of starting a new daily newspaper. I had newly returned to the Guardian and gnawing newsroom dissatisfaction having previously left the 'old lady of St Vincent Street' to be groomed in television production by another stalwart of national journalism - Dale Kolasingh - who thrusted, and entrusted me with, among the gamut of productions if Booktalk, Survival, the agriculture programme and the investigative The AVM Special Report among others, as well as Cross Country - the flagship programme of his production house, AVM Television. Cross Country was, one may say, the audio-visual equivalent of my Discover Trinidad and Tobago column, inclusive of the trials of a transition from being a columnist/writer, where its virtually just you, the writer and your text, to writing for a television production where the writer is but a subset of a process that includes producer, director, sponsors, cameramen, editor, librarian, presenter - to name a few. With Ed Fung and Irma Rambaran as compatriots, it remained close to journalism heaven.  Kolasingh, incidentally, also encouraged me to use the prize I had won for social commentary in The BWIA Media Awards for excellence in print journalism for one of the Discover Trinidad and Tobago series - an airline ticket to one of the BeeWee airline's destinations - to visit the United Nations office in New York and he set up a guided . our of its operations for me there, a marker of the birth of another passion  - to change the world which my more recent social outreach activities evolved into.

The Beginning of Newsday
Therese Mills was 65, the age of retirement and in fact had retired from the Guardian for all of three months when she reincarnated with rejuvenated zeal to head our team that began Newsday. Ray has a rib-tickling tale of our first encounter - he the editor; me the flagship journalist laying down the rules to him with my unofficial title of 'the good news' reporter of Newsday which was billed as the ‘good news’ paper. Newsday's first lead story was my article headlined '5000 Lives Saved' through the national suicide hotline - when others chose to focus on the murders and political mayhem of the day. Advertising companies used our slogan '....and now for the goood news...' to identify their product with our offerings.
Newsday was a response to the national outcry at the pervasive negativity of the existing news environment - not unlike what obtains today - which beggars another question which I'll address shortly.
For three months we delivered, as our ad stated, on the promise in the initial prospectus reproduced on this page 'for a new beginning in daily newspapers'.... attempting to make news off good news defy the newsroom adage 'good news is no news'.

The Good News
With our birth, the national atmosphere, as inside Newsday, was much like that Wordsworthian heavenly bliss in the description of the dawn after the smoke of the French Revolution had cleared in Europe; or closer home, like the dawn after the sweeping victory of the National Alliance for Reconstruction in 1986 election or the closer one of 2010.
The awakening was just as poignant too as it all changed within three months as the story continues!
It begs further reflection on how much a media house is but a chronicler, to merely inform, and how much it can or should attempt to transform the society in which it functions, and what are our place and roles and responsibilities as journalists and the chief protagonists of this tableau....

...More...to be continued 

The media revolution ...