IN 1989, Therese Mills became the first woman to serve as editor in chief of a national daily newspaper in TT.
To understand this achievement, you have to understand what it means to be a female leader in this society, then and now. And you have to understand the skill and dedication needed to lead a newspaper.
Both require military-grade fortitude.
Mrs Mills never expected to shatter the glass ceiling. She had reached the retirement age of 60 in December 1988 and the Guardian had invited her to continue working as Sunday Guardian editor on a monthly contract.
An example of her dedication to her profession was July 1990, when the Muslimeen sect conducted terrorist attacks on Parliament and the media. At the time, all that separated the Guardian building from the Red House was an open car park. Mrs Mills was not in the office when the conflict broke out, but reported to work as soon as practicable, bringing vital supplies of biscuits, cheese, tea and coffee to reporters. The building was in the direct line of fire and was sprayed with bullets during the siege. At one stage, staff in the distribution department and pressroom were confronted with armed assailants shooting indiscriminately.
She stayed with her staff in the newsroom – a sacred space – to bring out the paper.
“The immediate need was to publish the Guardian with as accurate reports as we could,” she later wrote. “One of my responsibilities was to ensure the safety of reporters and photographers who were eager to risk life and limb to get the facts.” Along with the staff, she subsisted on biscuits, corned beef and sardines.
“One night, one of the bullets pierced the window of my office and landed on the floor,” Mills wrote. “I had to go into my office to use the phone to make an overseas call and virtually had to crawl on my hands and knees so that I would not be visible above the windows.”
Military fortitude, courage.
The same qualities would be evident when, years later, she became the founding editor-in-chief of Newsday. Yet another newspaper was added to the landscape, to the chagrin of many who thought the feat impossible.
The paper was initially derided as downmarket. But that did not stop the competition from imitating it.
Under her, Newsday wrought innovation after innovation. Special editions, visually striking covers, advertising practices that prioritised quality instead of quantity.
The energy of her front pages remains unmatched. These painstakingly-composed covers reflected her hard work, acumen and profound understanding of news.
As her daughter, Suzanne Mills, remarks in her mother’s memoir, Byline, she was a journalist incarnate. Here was someone who understood the concept of public interest, the power of the media to provoke and offend in equal measure and to do so in service of a cause.
On Independence Day, 2009, when Newsday published a front page with the headline “MOM AND BABY KILLED IN CAR CRASH,” a picture of the dead infant was featured. Outrage ensued.
In an editorial published on September 2, 2009, Mrs Mills explained the careful thinking behind the paper’s decision:
It hurt us all at Newsday to place Baby Nevi’s photograph on our front page on Independence Day. We are all family people too. But our decision was taken because we felt we had to bring the stark reality of the loss of infants’ lives to you in a manner to make you stop and think. To shock you. We accepted that some of you would be offended. So be it. But for all those of you who were hurt by the sight of this unfortunate infant, we hope that you also commit yourself to ensuring that no child will ever die in a car driven by you.
Notwithstanding, one commentator called the paper, “a putrid tabloid.”
The outraged voices were mysteriously silent when, eight days later, Finance Minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira, in that year’s budget, announced the introduction of mandatory restraints in cars for children under five, as well as a suite of stiffer penalties for road-traffic offences.
Ironically, when Mrs Mills was finally honoured with a Chaconia Medal (Gold) in 2012, she was not in the country to bask in the accolade. But she was not one who did things for awards. Nor did she aspire to “iconic” status.
Could she have foreseen any of it when she reported for her first job at the Port of Spain Gazette at the age of 16, in March 1945? Did she know she would devote her life to journalism, dying on the job at Newsday at 85? Could she have anticipated a career that saw her interview presidents and prime ministers, the famous and the ordinary? Predicted all that was going to happen to her beloved country?
“Over six decades later,” she wrote,” I can still remember my first day on the job and the many people who have helped and guided me through the years and to whom I am forever grateful.”
None of those she helped and guided can forget her. And they are forever grateful.