Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Boca Raton News: It Launched Me on a New Career Path

Although there are a plethora of reasons for me to think well of my days toiling in the fields of the Boca Raton News, near the top of the list is that every other newspaper in the country would have taken itself too seriously to ever put me in charge of its freshly minted automotive section.

This isn't a self-deprecating statement rising from some sort of false humility. Honestly, I had no business editing this section. Not a single word of mine had ever been published. I had no journalism or editing background. I didn't know a compound modifier from a compound fracture.

I was a retail-ad rep for the love of God -- and not a particularly effective one at that.

Yet, when the idea for a stand-alone auto section that had been kicking around the paper for a couple of years finally found its legs, I got the nod to run it.

This was around 1986 or '87.

Here's the condensed version of the story: Boca Raton, Fla. at the time was a fairly sleepy little resort town that only really sprang to life from Thanksgiving until Easter, when the East-coast snowbirds and Canadians descended upon it by the thousands. It was the time of year we hated to love. It's what kept the local economy chugging throughout the year, but was absolutely miserable for the locals. Two-hour waits to get into restaurants, streets over-crowded with out-of-state cars and thousands of people milling around with no place to go.

I remember a popular t-shirt read: "Yes, I live here and no, I don't give directions."

At the time, Boca worked hard to maintain it's small-town appeal. Zoning restricted commercial buildings to just three stories, and car dealerships of any stripe were forbidden.

Behind real estate, automotive advertising was the life blood of newspapers of the era. For a paper to survive in a city without car dealerships was a challenge.

My sales territory included sections of Broward County -- Deerfield Beach and northern Fort Lauderdale -- that contained as many as 30 new-car dealerships. So I was on the front line of attempting to attract retail display ads from these dealers.

The year before we launched the auto section -- MPH for Motorcars, Profiles and Highlights -- I think the total retail display ad revenue from auto dealers was in the neighborhood of $2,000. Even in 1987, this was a joke.

By its second full year, MPH was adding $1.4 million to the paper's bottom line. I was flying high.

My years running MPH were also the years in which I felt most connected to the readers and certainly to the auto industry. In the beginning, we were one of a handful of papers with a stand-alone car section. And it was a paper that served a very wealthy readership. I had a high profile among auto journalists and managed one-on-one interviews with the top dogs of the industry. I had no clue what I was doing.

It was a crazy time and I loved it.

In the early days, there were so few auto journalists in South Florida that the car companies didn't have press fleets available south of Atlanta. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a press test car. I would wait until someone at the paper bought a new car. I'd borrow it at lunch, drive it for a few miles, snap a few photos of it and write it up.

One day in 1988, I received a call from the general manager of the new Lexus dealership in Coral Springs. The dealership was still under construction, but he had 30 or 40 new Lexus LS and ES sedans in a warehouse in Deerfield Beach. He asked if I would like to drive an LS for a week.

Hell, yes!

A co-worker drove me down to the warehouse and I picked up the Lexus. These cars weren't on the street yet, and here I was piloting around in one. It was the first time that happened to me. Talk about showing off. It takes a lot to grab the attention of curbside gawkers in South Florida where Lamborghini's and Ferraris crowd every intersection. I snapped around a few necks that week.

I drove it to the Jaguar-Land Rover dealership in West Palm Beach. I was friends with the owners. I let them drive it around the block. They returned with eyes the size of saucers. It was a blast.

Of course, the LS 400 was the cover story that week. It led to a friendship with Jim Moran, the owner of Southeast Toyota that was Toyota's distributor in the southern U.S. He didn't distribute Lexus, but he owned the Lexus dealership that provided the LS.

One thing led to another and he invited me and 100 of my friends out on his yacht, The Gallant Lady for a Christmas cruise. Most of the "friends" I invited were from the newspaper. It was a spectacular night of partying.

Yeah, I get warm fuzzies when I think about the Boca News. It was a terrific experience.


  1. Newspapers of that size and time were fun. Once when I was working in Bloomington and IU was looking for a football coach (which happened about every five or six years), we were sitting around speculating about candidates and the M.E. threw out the name Y.A. Tittle as a joke. Tittle had just retired as the Giants QB at the time. Well, it was a slow news day, as they say, so we actually got in touch with him to ask him. He was flattered, he said, but not really interested. We put a banner headline on the story at the top of the page. I couldn't imagine the Indy Star doing that. Another time, we used to have a football pick 'em panel and one of the guys went by a made-up name, Ollie Dart (Ollis T. on formal occasions) with a mug shot of a gorilla. Reproduction was so bad nobody really noticed. One time an irate reader showed up at the office demanding to see Ollie because of something he had written. We actually had him paged. Can't imagine any paper of any size doing that today. Journalism was more fun then.

    1. I still can't believe some of the stuff we used to get away with. It was even more fun when we were an afternoon-only paper. The entire staff from newsroom to pressroom worked pretty much the same shift. When we had happy hour, the entire newspaper was represented.