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Sunday 26 May 2019
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25th Anniversary

South office – At the heart of community news

South reporters YonneWebb, Richardson Dhalai, Seeta Persad, Stacy Moore and Sharlene Rampersad. Photo by Anil Rampersad
South reporters YonneWebb, Richardson Dhalai, Seeta Persad, Stacy Moore and Sharlene Rampersad. Photo by Anil Rampersad

It had seemed like a dull news day to me while I gathered a few personal items in the offices of another daily newspaper on September 4, 1996.

A reporter colleague chuckled, “So you going to work for the dollar paper?” Those departing remarks I cherished till this day, having left one daily to join the new kid on the block – Newsday.

My interview with the Editor in Chief, Therese Mills, now deceased, was in the upper room of what was once an old cocoa house on Chacon St, Port of Spain. “Azard, you have a knack for human-interest stories,” she said.

“Yes Mistress Mills. You know, for the villager in Mayaro and Icacos, their complaints about pipe borne water and street lights are more important to them, than the announcement in Port of Spain of a general election.”

Newsday journalist Azard Ali. Photo by Lincoln Holder

She sent me packing to her south bureau on High Street, San Fernando.

Looking back to those days, weeks, months and years of news-making events we reported on from the San Fernando office still stuns me. We broke exclusive stories one after the other, highlighted near-forgotten communities and people, and captured riveting offbeat photos.

In just a few years, the other dailies were getting a good run for their money; their reporters began following ours, on almost each and every assignment.

It was in February 1997 that the Piparo volcano erupted and covered an entire village in mud. Newsday hired a single-engine aircraft and chief photographer Rattan Jadoo flew over what was undoubtedly, a phenomenon. The next day’s aerial shots, spread on the front and back pages, saw us short of copies on newsstands by the hundreds.

Our editorial staff, among them Sascha Wilson, the acting chief photographer Azlan Mohammed, Richard Charan and the late Alwyn “Bat” de Coteau, provided our Chacon Street news desk with exciting new angles to stories on the plight of the 31 displaced families, at least until each family had got alternative HDC housing. Piparo became fertile ground for news reporters and photographers.

Nine months later at 8 pm on December 17, we journeyed to the neighbouring Caratal Village. Police had unearthed the skeletal remains of three children of Kenrick and Chandroutie London. Newsday provided the graphic details of the trial of the Londons in the San Fernando High Court. We sold copies like hot hops on a rainy afternoon.

Dole Chadee and his gang were already facing trial for killing a Williamsville family. Then came police raids on his Piparo estate – fast and furious.

In 2003, we captured the fire engulfing one of his several mansions on Pascal Road, built upon a career of drug dealing and murders.

Piparo again shot into the spotlight in my exclusive front-page story about Chadee’s first wife, who sued for divorce and made a claim on his multi-million-dollar estate.

Newsday South office, 1st Floor, Room 12, Cathay House, Carlton Centre, San Fernando. Photo by Lincoln Holder

Newsday gave its readers a verbatim report of the preliminary inquiry into the murder of Chandra Narayansingh, for which her husband, Prof Vijay Narayansingh and others, were charged. After one of the hearings of the preliminary inquiry in the San Fernando Magistrates’ Court, we presented our readers with a front page filled with 21 photos of the witnesses called to testify.

Wherever Newsday reporters and photographers went into the towns and villages, we were not just another journalist. People told us Newsday broke new ground in journalism. In our pages of letters to the editor, they praised us for our detailed reporting and capturing of their plights in photos.

We were first on the scene when now-deceased UNC minister Dhanraj Singh, nicknamed “The Sheriff,” was arrested in 1997 on the highway for slapping Assistant Commissioner of Police Norton Registe. We carried an exclusive photo by Ena Maharaj of the “Sheriff”’ arriving in New York after being fired from the Basdeo Panday Cabinet.

His arrest and trial, for the 2000 murder of Mayaro/Rio Claro Regional Corporation chairman Hansraj Sumairsingh, provided riveting copy and photos. John Babb’s verbatim reporting of the trial in the San Fernando High Court again broke new ground in the southern landscape.

South reporter Laurel Williams. Photo by Jeff K Mayers

A year after, south Trinidad hogged the spotlight and Newsday’s pages again when Panday fired Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj as attorney general. Mrs Mills held back the front page until 9 pm for our reporter’s story on Maharaj’s address to his Couva constituents, hours after his dismissal.

As was customary in those non-digital-publishing years, our south-based photographers sent their rolls of film via north-south taxi drivers.

As Azlan Mohammed has commented, “Newsmen like us have had the best of both worlds: the analog and the digital.”

Readers complained that they often got a busy signal from our news desk telephones. They came from Point Fortin, Cedros and Icacos residents in the deep south; Rio Claro and Mayaro in the east.

For the other dailies, these were unknown “news-making” areas, except when the Venezuelan Guardia Nacional captured fishermen, or if there were a drowning. Newsday had ushered these far-flung areas into the spotlight with almost daily reporting of bad road conditions, lack of pipe-borne water, landslips, unemployment, sea erosion, the cries of squatters, school repairs…

Our south office had placed Newsday on the cutting edge of real journalism. And after 25 years, our paper costs just a dollar more than it did then.

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25th Anniversary