Just Another Night at the Office

"When real news comes along, you realize immediately how disposable this spot news is," adds Prehoda. "Buy it, eat it, throw the paper in the garbage. It can be gone from the broadcast by the noon report."

While overnighters wrestle with the moral essence of their jobs, the economics of the business are becoming increasingly discouraging. The busy international climate is boxing out local news. Competition and cheaper technology have driven down market prices. No one is profiting from overnighting.

Siegal, especially, seems to be suffering from the bottom line. At $50 per story, he does everything he can to break even, including maintaining a detailed ledger of his expenses, every gallon of gas, every cup of coffee, every doughnut. And still he cannot turn a profit. "The stations know they're paying us next to nothing," says Siegal. "If it was cheaper for them to hire overnight cameramen, they would."

For the other videographers, the low market value of their work is not an issue - Eddie Cortes receives a few hundred dollars a week in salary from Moghari, and Schmidt pays his shooters nearly $100 per night. However, money is still a vitally important business factor, and no one is unaware of, or unconcerned with, the decreasing profitability of the overnight news market. "Now it's like every used car dealer who is out of work gets a camera and starts shooting news," Moghari complains. "TV stations are getting so cheap. They see a VHS for $25 and they're not going to pay Miami Bureau $75 for spot video. Two years ago I used to do it myself. Then the stations wouldn't buy inferior video from Marc Siegal and all those guys. Now they don't care. They're just trying to get cheap video."

He retains the night service, Moghari says, to keep an edge on competition, and as a training ground for young photographers. "For us right now it's a PR thing. If someone says, `Did you have this footage?' I hate to say no. Plus I can start the young guys there, where there's room for them to learn."

"Quite honestly, at this point, on that operation I'm not concerned with making a profit," says Schmidt, who charges between $75 and $90 per story.

Conscious of the low yield and high stress of their job, most overnight news videographers say they look upon the job as an intermediate step toward a better arrangement. "I'm not going to do this forever," says Eddie Cortes. "I mean, I like Miami and everything, but I want to work in other markets. You have to pay your dues, though."

"I'm starting to make a name for myself locally, to get some daytime shoots," says Prehoda. "When I get more established and I get so busy that I'm working a predominant amount of the days, it'll be time for someone else to get hired." And even Siegal, the newcomer, is already beginning to diversify, taking daytime assignments - commissioned shoots, depositions - whenever he can.

Almost three weeks after our first ride, I meet Siegal at the Little Gables house he shares with his girlfriend Sheryl and ten cats. He is wearing a "Barbiturate OD Buffy's Killer" T-Shirt, which reprints the news account of the death of Anissa Jones, the child actress who starred in the Sixties sitcom Family Affair. For the new year, Siegal has streamlined his business, raising his rates to $75 per story, taking most weekends off, and originating from his home to save money. At first word of disaster, he starts cruising.

We sit around and talk - me, Marc, Sheryl, and their friend David Gurney - as Siegal regales us with tales of the trade. He has had lean weeks with a few notable highlights - the footage of the Alpha 66 gun-battle victim walking out of the hospital, the spectacular 30-car police chase that ended with the suspect being yanked from her car. Tonight the scanner remains politely silent, offering only news of shots fired into a Long John Silver's in distant western Miami. It doesn't sound like much. We end up visiting only a single site, a mediocre arson in a derelict grocery in Overtown. Interesting circumstances, the arsonist took a sip of his own Molotov cocktail and ended up running down the street with his shirt ablaze. But we don't see him, and there's no video footage to speak of, just an ordinary shot of the fire department ventilating the entrance. Nothing that will sell. It's very tiring - the car is dangerously low on fuel and so are we, and there's not even any mail in Siegal's airport post office box.

"I try not to get discouraged, but it's hard," says Siegal as we sit in his house later, the clock ticking toward dawn. "Two bad nights in a row and I think I would be better off in a normal career, then one good night and I think I could really make a go of this." At 5:30 a.m., he hints that he'd like to get some sleep, and as he shows me out the door, his expression is a peculiar mixture of frustration and relief - frustration at another fruitless night, relief that continued barrenness might force him out of overnighting for good. And even though he's about to vanish into the bedroom, he is, as always, carrying his scanner in his hand.

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