Horizon at Sandy Point

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Staying the course for 60 years

Therese Mills was the communications officer for the oil company Trinidad Tesoro in the mid-70s. Key Caribbean Publications was contracted to produce the company's annual report. After meeting with the executives at the headquarters in Santa Flora, we had lunch with Therese at her bungalow. This was my first meeting with the woman who would be known as the grande dame of newspapers, a motherly soft-spoken woman with nerves of steel.

So began a relationship that grew slowly to a friendship. Here was a professional old enough to be my mother who happily gave time to a wannabe editor and writer. By 1978, she took briefs for features in the struggling Homemaker magazine on Sunday afternoons at her home in Diamond Vale. Not brief at all, these discussions explored the changing Trinidad society especially as manifested in the youth. In 1979, in a feature called simply "Young Trinidad and Tobago," she wrote, "40 percent of the population is under 15 (60 percent under 25)" and wondered whether the education system was changing quickly enough to be adequate, balancing the needs of the child with the requirements and pressures of society.

That promised to be the first in a series, and was followed by Today's Teenager, published in the Homemaker later that year. In this feature, Therese wondered about the double standards that society presented to young people. "How to cope with teenagers, who are growing up more rapidly than ever, and who must be helped to reach adulthood in a healthy and normal fashion," she asked, "How to ensure that they are not overwhelmed by the powerful forces in competition with the values that have stood the test of time?" At the time, a single mother with three youngsters in her own household, Therese answered her own queries, "If we ourselves do not follow the correct route, (sticking to the straight and narrow is the way the old folk put it), our young people won't do so either and therein lies the challenge for us all, keeping to the path ourselves in order that our children may follow."

Early in 1979, Therese Mills had become a contributor to Key Caribbean's Carnival magazine (first published 1973). She remained on the masthead until 1987, the last issue of this annual documentary. A couple years before that time, Therese had returned to the Trinidad Publishing Company; she was appointed editor in chief in 1989.

I left the publishing company in 1987 to work on the family farm, and to devote time to my own young family. Our paths diverged. Only to collide again in 1991, when I was recruited by the then managing director of the Trinidad Publishing Company Alwin Chow. I was appointed as his executive assistant and inserted into the editorial department. Alwin had the task of modernising the newspaper, which he did by encouraging the editorial department to "embrace the technology" by which he meant the integrated computer systems for inputting stories, scanning photos, editing, layout and artwork. He participated in editorial meetings with the mandate that the company produce a newspaper that provided relevant "information for life" instead of just the news. And so was born a substantial features department with graphic designers, creative photographers and writers to fulfil the public need for information behind the news of the day.

What Alwin Chow was doing set up the "worm within the apple" within the newspaper's editorial department (which had always been a sacrosanct republic unto itself) that triggered his own expulsion from the business in 1996.

In 1993, however, the production of the newspaper's Carnival supplement was left to a small, not particularly radical, dedicated bunch of writers, photographers and designers who were recording and reflecting the Carnival of that year. That required a round the clock team at work on the Carnival weekend through Monday and Tuesday. The supplement went on the streets according to plan on Ash Wednesday. Before the end of that week, a few complaints from citizens who were offended by what was in the supplement, what had been recorded on the streets of that jouvay, resulted in the entire print run being recalled to be destroyed. There was no discussion to which the team was privy. Finally, the Carnival supplement team was called in to the editor in chief's office and dressed down as by a quiet Catholic traditional grandmother. "Didn't we know that this was a family newspaper?"

Cover of the 1993 Carnival supplement    

Throngs waving and wining, and protesting

Super Blue was on top!
Characters from the jouvay
More from jouvay

The body squad

We kept our heads low and weathered the disgrace. No one was fired. What shifts might have occurred at executive level about oversight and responsibility, we would never know. By the end of that year, Therese had moved on to found a third daily newspaper, the Newsday, supposedly with a "good news" mandate. She was replaced at the helm of the Guardian by Jones P. Madeira who was the point person in the explosion with the Prime Minister in April 1996. But that's another story.

As editor in chief at Newsday, Therese Mills had her longest unbroken run, 20 years. It is to her credit that from her first job at the Port of Spain Gazette as a journalist, she stayed true to her calling: writing and selecting the news that's fit to print, every day. That she survived in this competitive - self-destroying - industry for as long as she did, is a tribute to her discipline, grit, and the support of her family, her own mother who was a mainstay in her life, her three children and her grandchildren who were her inspiration.

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