Just Another Night at the Office
This one is a 3:00 a.m. car wreck, DUI probably, a silver Camaro that screamed into an alley just south of the Marina 8 theaters and couldn't dodge a parked flat-bed stacked high with baling wire. The driver of the car survived, leaving behind a forehead-shaped crimson stain on the dashboard and 2000 pounds of force-contorted metal that the television cameraman circles now, trying different angles, switching his light on and off. If it ends up on the news, this crash will look like every other nighttime sequence, a jittery video that sways like a ghost dance, sirens whooping in the background, glossy yellow perimeter tape crisscrossing the foreground. But this clip will never see broadcast time. "No. Nothing happened here," says Marc Siegal as the tow team fits hooks to the mangled Camaro. "The driver survived. I have millions of crash stories I've filmed, and very few of them are worth a thing." He pauses. "Well, I mean, they're tragedies, and they're terrible. But I can't sell them to the news."
Marc Siegal makes it his business to sort late-night tragedies by their market value; his company (Lights, Camera, Action! - "We cover Dade like a blanket!") is the most recent addition to the small corps of local overnight video stringers, free-lance cameramen who film nocturnal news and hawk their wares to local television stations. They are the only source of night news - stations (with the exception of WPLG-10, which is unionized) do not retain camera crews overnight - and from midnight to dawn, they cruise the city's streets, listening for things that go bump in the night. Two other companies, Miami Bureau and Miami TV News, preceded Siegal into the market by almost five years, but whereas the other ventures have grown beyond their infancy and supplemented their overnighting with daytime work, Siegal's fledgling business, which he co-manages with his girlfriend, Sheryl Reid, is almost completely dependent on overnight news. And while he hasn't flourished economically since he began work on August 1, 1990, Siegal has made nearly 100 sales to local news stations, a figure comparable to his more established competition. Those in the industry attribute Siegal's early boom to lower prices and decreased standards, but whatever the reason, he has cut himself a sizable portion of the local free-lance pie.
Some overnight free-lancers stay at home with their equipment, operating from a stationary base, listening to police scanners, waiting for an incident to tempt them onto the road. Siegal drives as he monitors, averaging nearly 100 miles per night. We meet in mid-December at 11:30 p.m., just as the evening news reports are signing off, at the open-all-night Hats Off to Bagels & Donuts on the 79th Street Causeway. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a photographer's vest - mesh in front, a half-dozen snap pockets, back wrinkled like a brown paper bag - the 32-year-old Siegal greets me at the entrance of the coffee shop. He seems far younger than that until he speaks, and then gravity takes hold of his face, revealing his age. He bears a resemblance to Griffin Dunne, the actor. I don't mention this.
We shake hands, and he returns immediately to studying the steam rising from his coffee. He isn't the friendliest person in the world, which is good, because I don't think I could endure riding eight hours through the middle of the night with the friendliest person in the world. "Should we go," Siegal says, and since it is less a question than an announcement, I follow him out to his car, a gold Honda Civic packed fair and square with equipment - car phone, FM scanner, video hardware in the trunk (Siegal's camera costs nearly $10,000; the other overnight companies' equipment runs upwards of $40,000). Then we hit the road, west on 79th, toward Biscayne.
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The volume on Siegal's walkie-talkie-size scanner is hiked high, its brays and static filling the Honda, and the night begins to percolate immediately - an unarmed man threatening his ex-girlfriend in Hialeah, a West Miami Farm Stores franchise robbed by bandits with a straight razor, two white teen-agers pinching beer and music cassettes at a South Dade Amoco. But petty thefts are for the radio and newspapers; to tempt the attention of TV, events must be visual and available, the more visceral the better. Because most of Siegal's night is spent waiting for news to break, he has devised a holding pattern, a predetermined route he drives through Miami, complete with food stops and answers to the call of nature. Holding the steering wheel with his left hand and his coffee with his right, he starts through the circuit, making only minimal small talk, concentrating on the scanner. His silences grant me time to take in the terms of the darkness, and I spend the first half-hour of the drive steeped in my own unease, divested of colors in peripheral zones, vision directed forward in a way daytime sight never is, shadows immense on either side.
"Listening to the scanner is an art," Siegal says by way of apology for ignoring me. "It's a very anti-social activity. If you let your concentration lapse, you can miss something." As if to illustrate, he does miss something, a South Dade fire call. "That's okay," he says. "They'll call for it again." When the dispatcher repeats the call for multiple units, Siegal's eyes animate, and then dull when he hears the address, Biscayne Club Apartments, far south on 104th Terrace. "We could go, but usually with fires, I wait until someone's on the scene. First personnel there give a visual report, and more often than not, it's nothing. And I don't want to rush all the way out there for nothing." Sure enough, while we are waiting for the visual, the dispatcher recalls all units.
It's possible, Siegal confesses, to go the entire night without a call, and not rare at all to wait until 2:00 or 4:00 a.m. for something to break. And though he says confidently that "the odds are that something newsworthy will happen in Dade County tonight," for a while, as we motor uneventfully through the loop, down Biscayne, onto I-95, across main downtown thoroughfares, it looks as if we'll beat the odds. We pass the Miami Arena twice, roll down NE Second Avenue past Churchill's Hideaway, catch the eyes of a stray cat in our headlights alongside the Queen of Meats on NW 27th Avenue.
I try to concentrate on the dispatches, but it's difficult to decipher the crackling tangle, and more difficult still to make sense of the Metro-Dade Police communications signal codes. "It took me a while to get comfortable," Siegal says, "but you learn the codes, and at some point you start thinking in number lingo." He nods toward the scanner. "Dispatcher just called a 22. That's a stolen car. There are about ten of those per night. Then, twenties are stealing shit, thirties are dirty shit, forties are medical conditions. Seventeen is an accident, 31 is a big one - homicide - and 45 is DOA. That's a home run, stationary body." In more serious calls, he explains, the two-digit code is preceded by a "two," and a "three" prefix indicates a matter of the greatest gravity; "three-seventeen," for example, would signify an urgent car wreck, prime picking for the free-lance news videographer.
As he drives, Siegal offers me a cartography of Miami based on past crimes, a mayhem map littered with 31s and 45s and 22s. At the intersection of NW Seventh Avenue and 79th Street, he gestures toward Franco's Pizza. "A delivery man was shot in August, barely made it back to this store," he says. "I got footage of the undelivered pizza on the car seat. Sold it to Channel 4." We will pass the ghosts of many incidents - Puerto Rican man loses game of Russian roulette, Siegal gets footage of mourning family and sells to four stations; Hialeah cop dies in car wreck, tragedy results in five more sales. Two of Siegal's pieces have sold to all six local stations (Channels 4, 6, 7, 10, 23, and 51), one about an off-duty cop who shot a robber at an automatic teller machine, the other a freighter crew who swam to shore when their ship went down. Siegal, who keeps a library of all his footage regardless of whether it sells, says that although he has developed better news instincts since he began, the erratic purchase patterns of local stations still confound him. "I've learned that some stories aren't worth chasing. For fires you usually need flames. For accidents, either fatalities or something interesting, like pulling out an injured passenger with the Jaws of Life. But those are just guidelines, and the rules get broken and broken back. Some nights I've shot footage I was sure would sell, and no one would touch it. Other nights, Channel 7 will buy up accidents with injuries. It's a real unpredictable business."
As if suddenly reminded of the unpredictability, he reaches for his car phone and dials up Miami's only two all-night news producers - Mark Angotti at WTVJ-TV Channel 4 and Cathy Johnson at WSVN-TV Channel 7, asking them about the slow pace of the night, requesting that they call or beep him if any tips come in. Then we head back to Bagels & Donuts for more coffee. Cruising east on 79th Street, Siegal points out the young male prostitutes, some wearing sweat shirts with the names of prestigious Eastern universities. As we come around a wide corner, we see a burly, balding policeman admonishing a prostitute, thrusting his department-issue flashlight deep down the front of her dress. "He'll say he was checking for weapons," Siegal says wearily. "Some of the people out here at this time are real sleazy."
Sitting in the car in the coffee shop lot, I throw the question of late-night sleaziness back to Siegal. "Are you asking me why I drive alone in the dark for eight hours? People ask that a lot. They wonder what kind of person could do this." An aimless one, perhaps. After graduating from Palmer High School in 1977, Siegal entered Florida State, and quit after a year, the first bailout in what would become an eight-year, on-again, off-again undergraduate career. When he wasn't in school, which was about half the time, he was working as a busboy, or a waiter, or a bartender, or playing in a punk band, or traveling to Europe to pick apples.
Finally earning a degree in broadcasting from the University of Maryland in 1984, Siegal sampled magazine television, landing a job at America's Most Wanted in Washington, D.C., and eventually moving back to Miami to work for Channel 7's Inside Story newsmagazine. "The stories I did weren't the usual type of story; they reflected my own obsessions," he says of his time at the show. "I worked on a story about [author] John Kennedy Toole, hints of incest between him and his mother, and another on the film Mondo New York. I got a reputation for being the perverted-features guy." After leaving Inside Story in the spring of 1990, Siegal weathered a brief employment with Miami Bureau, another overnighting service, and then, in July, founded his own company. "I originally had the idea in 1976," he says. "I must have read about overnight still photographers somewhere. But by the time I was able to do anything about it, there were two companies already, and I became the third."
For Siegal, overnighting - with its off-peak hours, long patches of downtime, and short adrenaline bursts - is not just a business, but a pleasure. As a teen-ager, he had a penchant for night driving, as well as a flair for devising less conventional antidotes for adolescent anomie. "I just recently read a magazine article about first dates," he says, "and there was a woman who said that her date took her to the airport. I gulped - it could have been me. I used to ride down to the airport and hang out for the better part of the night. It fascinated me that it was in operation all the time." Even now he keeps a box at Miami International's post office, and often includes an airport visit in his route.
We hit the road with renewed energy, or at least replenished caffeine, but the scanner lets us down, just a convenience-store quick hit and a BOLO (be-on-the-lookout alert) for a suspicious male, probably armed. It's a good night for Miami and a bad night for video free-lance. As we pull up to a dropped railroad crossing, Siegal issues a driving caveat. "Never get stuck at one of these crossings. If a car pulls up behind you, you're trapped. A sitting target." He is noticeably agitated when a car does pull up behind us, and we idle, unable to move. The passing train sounds like reggae.
Here the question of the hazards of the job, lurking in the background all night, makes itself conspicuous. "If you ask my mother, there's great danger," says Siegal with a laugh. "The truth be known," he continues after a short delay, "I'm kind of wimpy. I know we're supposed to be gung-ho news and all that, but I have so much money invested in this equipment, not to mention my own health and life, that there are places I just won't go." His code of self-preservation has spawned its own driving rules. Only stop at gas stations when police cars are present. Stay on well-lighted main streets whenever possible. Do not come to a halt at intersections; hang back until red lights turn green, then drive through at a brisk clip.
In this business, as in any, there are superstitions - overnighters succumb to the uniquely human impulse to rationalize systems of explanation. Apart from the trite full-moon myth, they'll suggest that county paydays are high-crime watermarks, that the ends of the months are especially quiet. "One fire-rescue guy told me that Sunday night there's a lot of domestic violence," says Siegal. "Families spend the whole day together, they're not used to it. That and the prospect of going back to work Monday morning. And you hear that days when the county hands out paychecks are bad. But the truth is there's no pattern. It's like fishing. Waiting for a tip, using skill to turn that tip into a catch. There are long stretches of waiting, but you have to be careful not to let them dull your senses, and when there's a bite, you have to fight to bring it in." As he details the similarities between night-crawling and fishing, he tugs on the bottom of his photographer's vest. And it's an angler's vest, one of those weather-beaten ones that comes complete with hip waders and a hat with hooks and lures stuck in it. He's dressed for the metaphor.
The first nibble we get is the Camaro wreck at the Marina 8, and it seems to energize Siegal, who speeds away from the scene full of enthusiasm for explaining the little ironies and comedies that enrich his life as an overnighter. How his worst enemy is not automatic gunfire, or raging flames, but rain, because he owns his own equipment and cannot risk water damage. How he creates mental pictures of the various dispatchers. The most interesting bit of trivia is the false alarm window, the sliver of the morning between 3:30 and 3:45 a.m., where "3-32" might be a time check rather than a code-three assault.
Soon the thrill of the wreck has evaporated, and with it the last traces of Siegal's perseverance. It's nearly four and there's no sign of calamity. When we find ourselves back at the 79th Street coffee shop, Siegal proposes calling it a night, which it is. We go for a drink, Tobacco Road, open until 5:00 a.m., always happy to serve the discouraged late-night news videographer, and as we step out of the car, a call comes across the scanner, fire units dispatched, address sounds like Hialeah. Siegal debates whether to answer the call and decides it's too far to chase, especially without a good sense of its severity. Sitting at the bar, though, he keeps the hand-held scanner pressed tightly to his ear. "When I go home and go to bed early on an especially slow night, I sleep like this," he says. "The dispatch tones wake me up." Over the sound of the jukebox, he supplies updates. "First patrol is just arriving.... Heavy smoke visible.... Code 2, possible fatality. Let's go." He is up and to the door before the money hits the bar.
In Medley, at NW 87th Avenue and NW South River Drive, in a ramshackle house stranded in the warehouse district, the fire blazes, and from across the river we can see the flashing lights, the orange flicker, the arc of hose-water. We speed along, looking for a bridge to cross, but by the time we pull up to the property, the fire is tamed. On our way over, Siegal has called both Channels 4 and 7. "Both of them sounded interested," he explains. "They'd prefer flames, though."
Eddie Cortes, the overnight cameraman for Miami Bureau, arrives soon after we do. Siegal uses the white hood of a police car to set his camera's tint balance and the two of them shoot, picking angles, zooming, kneeling. Fifty yards away, the owner of the house lies dead and shrouded on the ground. After almost 45 minutes of shooting, we finally film a statement from the improbably alliterative Pete Pacheco, Police PIO (Public Information Officer) for Medley, who then arranges for us to approach the house and shoot more detailed footage of its charred interior.
No footage of flames, though, and given what Siegal has said about station standards, I'm pessimistic about the possibility of selling smoke. In chance conversation with bystanders, some of whom work in warehouses surrounding the charbroiled home, Lib, a short man employed at Pepperidge Farm, declares proudly that he captured the early moments of the fire on his own camcorder. Lib is reluctant to surrender his videotape, which contains his daughter's Christmas party, but Siegal coaxes it from him, offering to courier the tape up and back from the TV stations, and to arrange that Lib be paid for his generosity. And he does - he drives the tape to Channel 7, dubs it onto a compatible cassette (in the name of affordability, Siegal shoots on Hi8 video, which must then be transferred onto the station's Beta operating format), runs the dubbed tape downstairs for editing. All this grunt work for no pay; at the very least he could rightfully have taken some money from Lib's end, negotiated a fair price for the driving and the dubbing. Plus, the longer Siegal spends at Channel 7, the slimmer the chance that he will beat the deadline for Channel 4's morning show, and he has already promised them film. But he's trying to build a business, he explains, and sometimes the early concessions improve your working relationships. So he doesn't touch the money that the station will pay Lib, and he doesn't complain about running up and down the control room stairs.
Channel 7 leads its 7:30 news with Lib's home video. Siegal's night's work - his seven hours of driving, the 100-mile strain on his odometer, his coffee and gas - nets only a few seconds of broadcast footage, a vocal bite from the Medley PIO. He bills, as usual, for $50.
Overnighting in general smacks of alienation, but even within his own field, Marc Siegal is an outsider, and the backbone of the Miami free-lance video news industry is composed of two other companies - Mo Moghari's Miami Bureau and Miami TV News, owned and operated by William Schmidt - with histories stretching back to the beginning of the decade.
Mo Moghari, born in Iran and educated in American universities, is generally considered the premier independent news videographer in Miami. Once a filmmaker in his native Iran, the 42-year-old Moghari came to the United States at the dawn of the Eighties, after the fall of the Shah, and took a position as a cameraman for WTVJ-TV Channel 4. It was there, as a staff videographer, that he detected the need for overnight coverage. "The morning assignment editors had no video, and they were going nuts. There was a 3:00 a.m. Eastern crash landing, and guys were digging for video. Or the Red Cross headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard caught on fire, and no one had that," says Moghari. "I had a regular daytime shift, but I volunteered for the night because I got to take the car, a gas card, and the gear. They said it was a great gig, that I would hardly ever get called. Then all of a sudden I was getting beeped three times a night and the next day I had to do my usual shift. My eyes were always red and blown out. People probably thought I was on dope or something."
In 1984, after nearly four years in local television, he quit and established his own business, Miami Bureau/Prime Time Productions, dedicated to free-lancing video to local television news programs. "When I first started, I thought I was crazy," he says. "I was considered a top-level videographer, and here I was taking a pay cut and worse hours. I thought I was ready, but there were times when I said, `This is bullshit,' when I wanted to quit. It was lonely and depressing."
Through the loneliness, the rampant crime of early-Eighties Miami kept Moghari company, and kept his company afloat. "I've lived in Beirut, and Miami at that time was worse, far worse," he says. "The news director used to say, `If it's not a triple [murder], don't even bother with it.' Once there was a shooting in a small bar, gunfire in a Little Havana club, Villa Havana. I'm a very aggressive driver with a lousy driving record - what do you expect, I'm a news photographer - so I get there, all enthused about covering it, I grab my camera and run in, and then I see a cop car coming. The police weren't even there yet. I threw myself on the ground and heard bullets above my head."
That untrammeled commitment, explain other overnighters, has been Moghari's greatest asset. "Not everyone likes him," says Marc Siegal, "but everyone knows how dedicated he is. He's the workhorse of spot news. He works day and night." In fact Moghari rarely works nights any more; he has hired help to assume that shift.
While Moghari spends his days managing his production company and Siegal spends his days sleeping, William Schmidt - the owner of Miami TV News - spends his days in the Dadeland Medical Building, reading charts and writing diagnoses. In a profession full of former and future TV newsmen, Schmidt is a decided oddity, a full-time physician specializing in internal medicine and endocrinology.
A heavyset man with graying hair and strangely thick features, Schmidt, who describes himself as "like a little kid as far as electronics go," has been a video hobbyist since technology made equipment available to home consumers, and he parlayed his obsession into an involvement in local TV news. In 1984, along with a cameraman he hired away from Channel 6, he sought and obtained the contract to operate the Miami bureau of the International News Network, run by WPIX in New York. Soon after, he founded Miami TV News. "I realized that if the business was just going to be depending on the bureau, if they decided to drop us, we'd be out of luck with expensive equipment," he says. "It was then that I became aware of overnighters in other cities. For a little while, I wondered, `Why couldn't we do that?' and then I realized we could." Schmidt's foresight did not go unrewarded. The bureau arrangement did in fact end when INN folded in June of 1990, and Miami TV News's business now consists of committed shoots (filming health-care pieces and newsmagazine features with medical themes) and overnight news.
Both because of Schmidt's lack of formal camera training and because of the special conflicts that arose between his news and his medicine, Miami TV News's infancy often proceeded under strange circumstances. "In the beginning, I used to go out on shoots myself, and I had a hard time explaining to my patients why their doctor was [on TV] at a crime scene with a camera," he says. "Once I was coming back from filming a shooting in Homestead and there was a horrible fog on U.S. 1. I was creeping along and a guy passed me at a much greater rate of speed. In a little while I came to a bank of sirens and saw that he had driven under a semi. I had a decision: what am I, a doctor or a shooter? There was never any contest. I did everything I possibly could as a physician before I even touched the camera. I made sure fire-rescue was squared away. At the point where it was impossible to do anything more, I shot the story. It was bought."
As their companies have evolved, both Schmidt and Moghari have trimmed their own overnight commitments and hired staff videographers to man that shift. Moghari views the position as an entry-level apprenticeship, hand-picking his overnight cameramen from local university programs. "I train young photographers because I think there are a lot of talented kids here. You have to give them a chance," says Moghari. Eddie Cortes, his current overnighter, is 22 and attends Miami-Dade Community College, where he majors in broadcasting. "It's a great experience," says Cortes. "The first time I went out by myself, I was driving along and I saw a bunch of lights up ahead. There was a big accident, people lying on the ground. I was so nervous I was shaking, just whispering to myself, `Do the job, do the job.' As soon as I hit the record button, I wasn't scared any more."
Schmidt's videographers, Lynne Winner and Roger Prehoda, both in their late twenties, are television-news veterans recruited from a station in Erie, Pennsylvania. Prehoda works Sunday through Thursday night, Winner Friday and Saturday.
Schmidt issues his shooters bulletproof vests, and all of the overnighters concede that there is a certain amount of danger inherent in the business - because of high-crime neighborhoods and late hours; because the job requires pursuit of, rather than flight from, disaster; and because the people at the other end of the camera often don't take too kindly to the intrusions of media. "You just need to be cautious," says Winner, "to keep your cool and be aware of what's happening. There are some situations that I suppose it doesn't matter what you do." In December, after a shooting at Luther Campbell's Strawberry's nightclub, an angry bodyguard thrust Winner into one of those situations. "Two cops were holding a bodyguard and he was handcuffed," she says. "He was trying to hide his face, and you can't. One of his buddies, another bodyguard, all of a sudden came after me. It's on the film, him coming toward the camera. Quick feet help sometimes."
When situations get sticky, a little tact can act as salve. "Sometimes you just need to be quiet about it," explains Prehoda, who says that angry bystanders have threatened him with violence. "It's hard to be discreet at night, when you come up with the bright light, but you can get your shots without getting in people's way." Siegal believes that people should understand the presence of overnighters as a necessary, if sometimes intrusive, by-product of our society. "I've been attacked by the families of accident victims. People don't like to see you in their face when they're mourning, and I don't blame them," he says. "I might do the same if it was my friend or family. But if you're going to live in this society and expect the fire department to come when there's a fire and police when someone gets shot, then you also have to expect the press to be there."
When they're not being physically attacked, overnighters are often the victims of an onslaught of verbal and moral abuse. The nicknames for the profession are hardly flattering - night crawlers, ghouls, vampires, video vultures, ambulance chasers, gorehounds - and that's only how they describe themselves. Self-deprecation seems to come with the territory when you subsist off scavenged tragedy, and riding in the dark all night inspires introspection about the desensitizing implications of TV news. "Everything I've shot, I find myself worrying," says Siegal. "I get pangs of conscience. I was concerned for a while that it wasn't bothering me enough, to see what I was seeing. But you're affected in strange patterns. There was an FIU student who made a wrong turn, ended up in a bad neighborhood, got out of the car to take a piss, and was shot. That really touched me in a way I can't explain. You could see the body, and he was white, middle-class. He kind of bore a physical resemblance to me. For some reason it made me depressed. It's despicable of me, I know - I see black men dead every day and they don't have that effect. But it's just that simple. He looked like me."
"You become two different people when you're a photojournalist," says Moghari. "If two people are making love, that's not news. We end up searching for tragedy. It's not ambulance chasing, but it's more or less the same thing."
But life among America's Goriest Home Videos is more complicated than that. Despite the sorrow and horror of the incidents they film, the overnighters can't help but betray a certain exhilaration. Hovering over accidents with a camera is the ultimate in rubbernecking, and you get to record it for posterity. "It's vicariously thrilling," says Siegal. "Why go see Stallone's next movie for six dollars when I can see real exploding bodies for free, when I can get paid for it?"
Ambivalent about their own dependence upon tragedy, many videographers are also openly critical of the market hunger that maintains the demand for their video. "I think a lot of this stuff should never be covered," says Miami TV News's Roger Prehoda. "News is a matter of the impact of a story. Does it affect the viewer, and how many viewers? But some of the footage I shoot that gets bought - car accidents? I don't see it. It affects a family. Where's the news value?"
Unlike radio and print, TV news requires hard video, and news value, it seems, often depends as much upon the affordability and availability of film as upon a story's circumstance. For Miami's early-morning news (Channels 4, 7, and 10 carry the programs, beginning with Channel 7's 6:30 a.m. show), which hit the air before stations' regular daytime staffs are in place and before the day's events begin to coalesce, overnighters' footage is especially convenient, and a station's reliance upon free-lance late-night news seems to vary in direct proportion to the amount of early-morning news it offers. Those stations without morning shows do purchase from free-lancers, but they are less dependent upon them, and less willing to invest in stories with fleeting news value. (WPLG-TV Channel 10, however, rarely buys free-lance footage. "Ten is unionized," explains Siegal, "and they're generally required to call their own photographers any time of day or night and notify them of stories. They can buy from us if they had no knowledge of a story until after it happened, but that's rare.")
Given the coverage-to-purchase ratio, the main customer for overnighters is WSVN-TV Channel 7. With six and one-half hours of local news coverage to fill every day, WSVN accounts for almost half of Siegal's sales, and other videographers confirm the station's predominance in the market. "Channel 7 is the only station locally that asks for fresh video," says Moghari. "No one compares to them. They are our best clients, and pretty much run anything they can get their hands on."
"You never know what they're going to want," says Prehoda, "and sometimes lesser stories become really popular. Right now they're running home invasions again, and it doesn't have to be anybody shot and killed. Generally you don't pay much attention to those stories, and usually even their requirements would be stricter."
Citing a June New Times story they felt cast their station's news practices in an unfavorable light, Channel 7 refused to comment on this subject. "I don't have any comments for New Times," says News Director Patricia Clemm. "We try not to use them [free-lancers] much."
Channel 4 morning-show producer Mark Angotti says he tries to limit his purchases to noteworthy news. "We'll buy anything if it's a good story," explains Angotti. "But there's getting to be an awful lot of what I call the `nebulous crime-scene shot' - maybe two police cars, a distant ambulance. I wonder if television is becoming so saturated with that sort of thing that crime scenes are becoming a channel changer."
The local free-lance news market also relies heavily upon relative inactivity on the national/international front; more important stories can spell the death of overnighters' footage. This past fall, for instance, two major stories - the serial killings in Gainesville and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - swallowed local TV time, bumping local news almost completely off the agenda. "That's a very real phenomenon," says Angotti, "and the greatest example is what's going on right now. I watched the evening news tonight, and there was not a single local story on any of the newscasts because of Iraq. Do you really think that yesterday the crime was any less? What people don't understand is that a news show is a commodity, 30 or 60 minutes, and you've got to represent what's most important."
"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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