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Closing the loop on unfinished business at FLIBS

We rolled back into Fort Lauderdale last week with some unfinished business on our agenda.

Our multimission at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show this year was to produce stories and video for the Trade Only Today e-newsletter, to gather material for Soundings and Trade Only monthly print magazines and to publish two 56-page show dailies called Fort Lauderdale Today. The dailies are a mix of “live” pages that we report, write, edit and lay out at the show and other features and interviews done in advance. (All of the photos in today’s blog are from this year’s show.)

The “unfinished business” is a reference to last year’s experience publishing the dailies as Hurricane Sandy tousled the town and caused the power to flicker and our Internet connection to drop out — right on deadline.

A year had passed, but it was impossible for the Soundings Trade Only team to forget the experience. Everyone involved walked away a little shell-shocked. Reporters and editors who forget the past are fated to remain holed up in dark little rooms, repeating their mistakes. I was determined that was not going to be our fate.

First, a look back. Publishing a daily in real time means writing stories and taking photos at the show, editing them, laying out the pages and then sending them electronically to a Florida printer, which runs 10,000 copies overnight and has them back at the show well before dawn. Senior editor Michael LaBella coordinated the editing back at the home office in Essex, Conn. Sounds easy enough, right?

It’s not rocket science, as they say, but the operation does require two key ingredients that proved unreliable last year because of Sandy: electricity and a fast, reliable Internet connection. A little luck doesn’t hurt, either.

I remember well the voice of the printer on the phone as we neared the deadline on the first daily, asking when he was going to receive the first batch of files. The lights along our street were flickering. The Internet connection had dropped out. And designer Steve Jylkka was suddenly having no luck uploading pages. Damn Sam.

In the calmest voice I could muster, I told him: “We might be having a small problem here with our Internet. We’re working on a solution. I’ll call you back shortly.”

And I hung up. Printers aren’t in the sympathy business.

We needed to find a place fast that still had a stable Internet connection. That oasis turned out to be a Starbucks a couple of blocks down the street. We’d scouted it the previous day as a possible backup, given the weather rolling in. We were just a couple of hours from deadline, still trying to finish the last pages, but there was no way we could move a big desktop publishing unit down the street.

It was time to shoot off a flare. Help arrived in the form of two colleagues from Power & Motoryacht, one of our sister magazines. Editor-in-chief George Sass Jr. (who is now our Marine Group VP and group editorial director) set himself up at Starbucks with a laptop loaded with the necessary software to upload files.

We transferred the pages to a thumb drive as they were completed, and fellow editor Chris White sprinted to the coffee shop on foot to deliver the goods. I remember watching Chris disappear down the darkened road, dodging cars as he crossed the median, and wondering: Is this really going to work?

Somehow, George was able to “convince” Starbucks to stay open past its closing time so we could finish the job. You do what you’ve got to do.

The files made it just in time, the presses rolled, and we all collapsed.

Day 2 had its own particular drama. Fast forward to the same office, two hours until deadline. Editors Rich Armstrong, Jim Flannery and I are batting out stories, checking facts, trying to ID photos taken by Billy Black, writing captions. Chris Landry has finished his last assignment and is on his way to the office by bicycle.

My cell goes off. It’s Chris. I can still hear his voice. He says he has crashed his bike and is lying on the side of the road. He’s hurt. At a railroad crossing, the front tire of his bike got wedged between the asphalt and a rail, pitching him off. He’s having trouble breathing; it sounds as if he might have broken some ribs.

Chris is a tough hombre, a triathlete with a high tolerance for pain. “Where are you?” I ask.

“I’m behind the convention center. I need help.”

With that, Jim tears out of the office, running in one direction, and Rich takes off on foot in the other. It’s like the Keystone Cops. Neither can find Chris, who arrives 10 minutes later in a good Samaritan cab — bruised, bent over and bleeding. I gingerly lift his shirt and look at his back. Swelling has already begun.

I confess I had one eye on Chris’ back and one on the office clock. The deadline was less than two hours away. We talked about calling an ambulance, but decided it would be faster to have Jim take Chris directly to the emergency room. Chris spent six hours in the hospital with two cracked ribs. Jim got him back to his hotel room after midnight.

Two men down, and the clock ticking. The rest was a blur. We got the pages finished and uploaded. The next day we flew out of town, passing Hurricane Sandy as the Essex crew sped to New England at 30,000 feet to pull boats and batten down our homes.

This year, everything went smoothly. We worked out of a hotel room at the Bahia Mar, overlooking the show. The closer proximity to the action helped a great deal. We never lost power, and the Wi-Fi did the job.

There were still as many as seven of us squeezed into the room at various times, but the tension was greatly reduced and the pace, though fast, was manageable. We filed 16 stories and four videos for the Trade newsletter over four days. And we got 17 live stories and about 30 photos into the daily.

We finished with 45 minutes to spare. And we didn’t let Chris bring his bike this time.


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