When Las Vegas Sun staffer Scott Den Herder saw Tony McDew at an area nightclub last year, he could tell by McDew’s “outrageous” 1980s outfit and high-top fade haircut that he’d make an interesting character in a story. What he didn’t know was that McDew was a gambling addict who had been filming himself for years. Den Herder says,
“I met up with him and interviewed him for a while on video. During the course of our talk, he mentioned that he had been shooting video of himself. He didn’t mention anything about gambling, just that he had all this video and wondered if I’d take a look. Going through it there were some clips of gambling stuff, and I thought, ‘Whoa, this is kind of interesting.’
“It seemed like he was shooting not only when he would do well but when he would do poorly, which to me was remarkable. That was pretty huge. You think people would want to conceal the negative aspects. It takes a special kind of person to document the worst parts and put it out there for the world to see. He had been doing this for a few years, and when I met him, he was still gambling. So I just wanted to follow it and see what would happen with it.”
Eventually, Den Herder edited the footage and combined it with his own interview of McDew to create a video that provides the spine for “Bottoming Out: Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas.” The final Sun project grew to include print stories, an interactive slot machine, still photography and a Google Map of Gamblers Anonymous meetings. Citizen journalism, meet multimedia storytelling.
According to Den Herder, editing the footage was tedious, as much of it involved McDew onscreen repeating phrases about getting his money back. He suggests the easy thing to do would have been to have an expert talk about addiction, then use a clip from McDew to illustrate the point. But Den Herder felt that somewhere in all the unusable material, there was an organic story that the gambler could narrate coherently. “Even though the video was rough,” he says, “I felt like it was really compelling.”
The final product delivers a wealth of information through visual details, from the “UNOBETR” miniature Nevada plate under McDew’s rear view mirror to the gambler’s contortions climbing into his van through the passenger side (the driver’s door handle is broken). As reporter J. Patrick Coolican notes in his print piece, “His home movies reveal a McDew who blends several strains of the American psyche—desire, compulsion, confession.”
McDew himself plays journalist in one clip from a bus stop. When he announces that it’s a beautiful day, his benchmate responds, “Vegas sucks.” McDew proceeds to interview the man about the city and gambling. Putting the video together, Den Herder says he imagined this bus stop companion as “the ghost of Christmas future,” indirectly warning McDew what would happen if he didn’t change trajectories.
The challenges of including McDew’s footage included having to verify events that were sometimes hard to pin down. Den Herder visited a pawn shop and a title loan company to confirm that McDew’s description of his finances was accurate. It took some ingenious thinking and cooperation from the bus dispatchers of Las Vegas to locate the stranger from the bus stop.
The narrative arc of the piece is the long slide down from McDew flashing fanned bills after a win to the eventual pawning of his electronics. The resolution comes when we find that after more than $35,000 in losses, he has quit gambling.
Of course, stories don’t end so cleanly. Den Herder was laid off from the Sun late last year. He talked with McDew recently and learned that the recovering addict has managed to stay away from casinos, but his water has been shut off, and he continues to shop compulsively for items he can’t afford. Still, by showing us the internal monologues of a gambler who looks and sounds like anyone’s neighbor or co-worker, “Bottoming Out” uses home movies with wonderful results, creating a comic yet terrible cautionary tale.