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Sunday 26 May 2019
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25th Anniversary

John Babb – Newsday’s ‘founding father’

Newsday staff bid farewell to John Babb on his final day Newsday, at the newspaper he helped found. Photo by Roger Jacob
Newsday staff bid farewell to John Babb on his final day Newsday, at the newspaper he helped found. Photo by Roger Jacob

IF late Newsday editor in chief Therese Mills was the founding mother of the paper, then its first news editor John Babb was its founding father.

But the veteran journalist recalls few people believed the paper would survive.

Babb spoke about his early days of Newsday during a recent interview at his Diego Martin home.

At the time the paper was founded Babb was at the Guardian, having returned from a journalism job in Canada. He recalled people asked him why he would come back to this country.

He told them: "When I in Canada I am a second-class citizen. In Trinidad I am a first-class citizen."

He recalled he was the only media person the late Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams would call and converse with, and the two would have regular conversations.

Babb said at the height of his relationship with Williams, Mills participated in an initial meeting on the creation of Newsday. "She told me three gentlemen wanted to start a newspaper."

Mills, who had been his close friend dating back to their days at the Port of Spain Gazette in the 1950s, asked what he thought of the idea. Babb recalled the men said they had money but no expertise in newspapers, while he and Mills had no money but expertise.

Babb agreed and the team started to pick and choose staff, including current crime editor Nalinee Seelal. He and Mills worked closely together and would bounce ideas off each other.

They were looking for a location and found a building at Chacon Street belonged to some lawyers and businessmen, including the son of late former President Sir Ellis Clarke.

In 1993 the newspaper market included the Guardian and the Express, and Newsday's entry that year was not welcomed by many.

"It was a wall we were going against. Almost everybody in the market said, 'The market too small. You can't have three newspapers.'"

He added: "This time the market was mad. 'Allyuh crazy? Market so small, allyuh want three newspapers?'"

Veteran journalist John Babb. Photo by Sureash Cholai

Babb recalled for the first three months the staff at Newsday were under pressure. “Everyone worked every day, Sunday to Sunday. We didn't used to count hours. Is just work there to be done,” he recalled.

“If we didn't really put a hard hand on this Newsday thing, we would have gone. We would have crashed."

He recalled that another newspaper start-up, the Wire, sent a band of people to Chacon Street singing “We come to close the Newsday.”

"We upstairs and we watching at them. They throwing all kind of picong and thing. We say, 'All right.'

“What you think happen? Within a year or two the Wire just fade out. They came to close us down, but they close down themselves.”

He said Mills' response to scepticism would always be: "We going to produce the paper for $1. The paper is for poor people."

He recalled then Express CEO Ken Gordon had a meeting with Mills and encouraged her to increase Newsday’s price.

“She told him no.”

At the time the other dailies were selling for $2 and Guardian was “flowing,” while the Express was picking up steam, so much so that it bought out the Independent (newspaper).

Babb also noted the management’s bold decision to buy a newspaper press, housed at El Socorro, rather than renting one.

Babb had learned shorthand when he was younger and the skill came in handy during his coverage of high-flying court cases such as that of notorious criminal Mano Benjamin, “The Beast from Biche,” who sexually assaulted and enslaved two sisters, whom he blinded, in the 1960s.

While at Newsday Babb also covered the case of drug trafficker and convicted killer Nankissoon Boodram, or Dole Chadee, and his murderous gang. Babb recalled at the special court in Chaguaramas, reporters were banned from using tape recorders and were only allowed to use a pencil and a notebook. Using his shorthand skill, Babb was able to provide far superior coverage to the other newspapers.

He recalled that during the Chadee, subeditors and reporters worked every day for three weeks. “Is just the will,” he commented.

Because of his Chadee coverage, Newsday’s circulation soared from 19,000 to 75,000.

“Is cases like these Newsday was built on.”

Asked for his advice to reporters currently at Newsday, he said they must have the energy to be inquisitive about everything. He took issue generally with reporters going to press conferences and not asking any questions.

“Reporters like they ‘fraid to ask questions.”

On March 4, 2016 he retired from Newsday, having marked an incredible 70 years in journalism.

Babb said he felt good about the paper celebrating its 25th anniversary – and if he could go back in time and work at any newspaper again, it would be Newsday.

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25th Anniversary