Sacramento by scanner

John Armstrong

Photo by Larry Dalton

John Armstrong is part of a small fraternity of freelance videographers known as stringers. He listens in on police and fire scanners to figure out which of the crazy things that happen here in Sacramento might turn into big news stories. When he hears something juicy, off he goes, often in the middle of the night, to film the drama and ask a few interview questions in hopes of selling his material to the local television stations. After 10 years in the news biz, he’s come to understand what will make the big fish bite.

For whom do stringers work?

About 95 percent or 99 percent of this stuff, we go out and get on our own via the scanners. There’s only about three of us in Sacramento. We monitor all of the local police, fire, [California Highway Patrol] in Davis, Folsom, Roseville, places like that—even the dog pounds sometimes. And if it sounds like something that’s newsworthy, we’ll go after it. And the definition of newsworthy changes from time to time.

What’s newsworthy today?

Well, 10 years ago, even if nobody got hit, if it was a drive-by shooting. That was newsworthy. Today, they take almost none of those. Today, it has to be a significant injury or usually a death. And usually, it has to be almost proven that it’s non-gang related. It if happens in a lower-income neighborhood or something, they’re suspicious. … It’s just not something they want to cover because there are so many other violent types of crimes happening in those neighborhoods.

Who defines what’s newsworthy?

The management of the TV stations, the news directors. I wouldn’t put it all the way to the top as far as the station managers themselves. But generally, the news directors dictate to the producers and the assignment managers. They’ve been actually doing it with their own staff, too, not just the stringers.

How do they explain that to you?

They don’t. They’ll just say, “If we need it, we’ll call you back.”

What’s your work schedule like?

Twenty-four/seven. Between my personal body and the car, I’ll have about six scanners going at one time. And at home, I have about 10 scanners on at one time. So, that way, I’m constantly in contact. When I go to sleep at night, I have them on, but I have them turned down. The fire department and the police department, usually on significant calls, they put out various tones. You can almost wake up to them like an alarm clock. After so many years, you get used to these certain tones. You’ll say, “Uh-oh, this is a structural fire or major accident coming or something like that.”

Are you ever nervous being the first guy out in the middle of the night?

I’ve lived in Sacramento all my life, so generally, I have a pretty good idea of what neighborhoods I should go rushing into and the others, where I better sit back and wait with the medics until the troops get there. Once in a while, we get threatened by people who are upset. Maybe a family member’s been shot to death or something like that.

What are the most interesting things you’ve been able to look at?

Most of the stuff we shoot, to tell you the truth, is tragedy. You know: fires, homicides, major traffic accidents. These recent church fires—I shot two of those out in West Sacramento. As far as news photography goes, when you come to the scene of a multiple homicide, when there’s carnage everywhere, you feel guilty on one hand because you’re living off somebody else’s tragedy. But it’s news, and so you kind of ask yourself, “Does the public want to know this? Do they have the right to know this? Should they know this?”

What kind of relationship do you have with the other stringers?

It’s pretty competitive. One of them lives way up in North Sacramento, and I’ll call him up and say, “I just heard this. Are you on your way?” He might be out of town or doing something else. He’ll say, “I’m out of town. Why don’t you try to get it if it’s not out of range?” Out of range means that if it’s a major apartment fire, and I’m going out to Sunrise and Greenback, the odds are that I’m not going to get there in time. The fire department will be there, and there will be some smoke, but the TV stations play up the image of big flames. Big. Almost the first question they’ll ask: “Did you get big flames?” I remember the first time I heard that. I thought, “This is pretty gruesome. Big flames?” But that’s the rule of thumb.