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July 29th, 2009 Aaron Mendelson | News Stories
 

A Shot And A Leer

WW talks with the man who founded the newspaper of police mug shots.

     
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PAPER TRAIL: A newspaper you don’t want to run your photo.
IMAGE: Mike Perrault

Looking to indulge your voyeuristic streak or engage in some old-fashioned schadenfreude?

Then pick up a copy of Look Who’s Been Bu$ted, a weekly newspaper sold for $1 an issue in Portland convenience stores.

Busted, as it’s known to its fans, has been around for more than a year in 10 other cities across the country, with a pretty basic premise: It collects recent mug shots from local police websites or offices. The paper then publishes as many of the photos as it can fit, along with the reason for each person’s arrest.

Circulation is at 100,000 a month nationally and 5,500 weekly in Portland since Busted started circulating here in March. WW interviewed Busted’s founder, 34-year-old former real-estate agent Ryan Chief, by phone while he was touring upstate New York for potential new markets.

Inspiration for Busted:
Chief began to notice a few years ago that his friends’ favorite section of the local newspaper was the police blotter. “They were interested to see who had gotten caught with a bag of grass in their pocket, who got popped for a DUI,” he says. That gave him the idea “to have a rag paper that has hundreds and hundreds of arrests.”

Scope of publication:
Started in central Florida, Busted publishes in 11 cities in six states, with Portland being the most recent addition.

How Chief chooses those cities:
There are a few important considerations for Chief. Does he have connections in that town? Does the town have a large enough readership? And “most importantly do the police departments there share public information with the media as far as arrest information?” Some states, such as Washington, have laws against sharing mug shots with the media.

Busted’s success in Portland:
Chief says advertising has been sluggish compared with that in other markets. But he says Busted is selling very well in Portland. And he expects more ads from the paper’s advertising base of criminal defense attorneys and bail bondsmen as the newspaper expands. Since March, Busted has published a local edition with mug shots from Multnomah, Clackamas and Marion counties (with plans for Washington County in the works). Circulation numbers are likely to increase in the next few weeks as distribution expands to include Plaid Pantry stores, nearly doubling the 120 outlets where Busted is sold locally. Busted will also bump its page count up from 16 to 20 and publish the entire paper in color.

So Busted’s value to journalism is…:
Chief contends that Busted provides a public service by keeping communities informed of local criminal activity. And he says it also deters lawbreaking by increasing the chances of public humiliation.

But Chief is quick to admit the mag’s voyeuristic appeal. “I’d be bullshitting you if I didn’t say we glamorized it just a little bit to make it a little interesting. I want it to be interesting for people to buy it,” says Chief. “It’s kind of hard to put down, and especially if you see someone that you recognize, it makes you want to buy it next week.”

On innocent until proven guilty:
“When you see someone’s mug shot or an arrest photograph, it’s human nature to assume that maybe that person is guilty or they are a criminal and you don’t give them that second chance,” he says. “I am a firm believer in innocent until proven guilty.… We’ve got a disclaimer in there, and nowhere in our paper do we ever say that these people have been charged or been convicted, except for the registered sex offenders page. Those people have been arrested and convicted, and that’s why they’re on the state registry.… We’re pretty much doing what any other newspaper or publication does. We just do it on a larger level.”

Chief’s legal record:
Chief admits to being arrested in upstate New York for minor possession of marijuana when he was 19. He says the judge gave him some community service. “I think I had to dig up some flower beds at the courthouse and do a couple months of probation,” he says. “But that was it.”

If his mug had been published in Busted:
“Well, I think it would have been probably embarrassing and I think I would have thought about that again, you know, maybe next week when I was gonna fire up my car with a doobie or something,” he says. “Maybe that would make me think twice.”

 
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