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T-D’s new brand of Gotcha! journalism

Al Harris March 24, 2010 19

Stalking, brandishing a bladed weapon and even stealing poultry will get you arrested and, as of five weeks ago, publicly humiliated.

That’s because being picked up for a crime could also get you on the cover of Gotcha!, a new weekly newspaper published by a division of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The paper launched about five weeks ago and sells for $1 at convenience stores and gas stations. Each issue is filled with arrest photos of the week collected from the metro area, which are available as part of the public record. The paper’s only advertisements are for bail bonding companies.

Floyd Spencer, a new products manager for the Times-Dispatch, said the publication is similar to others that have cropped up across the country over the past five years. Many of those are run by small independent publishers.

“From a print side, it is one of the few newspaper types that are actually growing,” Spencer said.

With its own weekly crime news rag, the Times-Dispatch has beaten others to the punch.

“Over the years we’ve heard rumblings of different organizations coming into town with a crime publication, and we know from our research that crime is one of the highest interest areas with our readers,” Spencer said.

Spencer said weekly circulation is between 5,000 and 6,000 copies.

“We always felt we could produce one that could be sold free-standing and people would buy it,” Spencer said.

Spencer said the Central Virginia edition of Gotcha! is the first and only, but it could be easily expanded to Media General’s other markets if it does well, although there are no immediate plans to do so. The Danville Register and Bee, also owned by Media General, has a similar publication called Bee Sting that it has run for a couple of years.

With the advent of computers and digital cameras, many police department began posting arrest photos on their websites. Celebrity mug shots from Hollywood precincts became a popular source of entertainment on the Internet. (Click here to see a particularly grisly one of Nick Nolte.)

Then enterprising publishers, mostly in the South, started to turn the public record photos into free content for their tabloid-style papers. An early example is JAIL, which was started in July 2006 by Devin James. James, like many other independent crime paper publishers, got into the business after a stint in jail. (You can read more about that here).

Some have become local sensations: One media report about a paper in Portland, Ore., quotes a store owner who had a girl buy five copies for her family because her boyfriend was in the paper.

Like its progenitors, the T-D’s Gotcha! incorporates snarky headlines by creating sub sections such as “Bad News Beards” and “Beauty and the Beast,” in which attractive arrestees are pictured opposite rougher looking faces.

Spencer also said the paper serves a public service by including photos of missing persons and wanted criminals, as well as restaurant health inspection results.

The latest edition has missing student Jonathon Dorey on the cover.

Jeff South, a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, finds the publication troubling.

“While this is public info, it certainly puts the person in a bad light. Since you are innocent until proven guilty, who will come back and report what the outcome of these cases will be? Probably nobody,” South said.

South said a similar product, a website of mug shots produced by the St. Petersburg Times, generated a lot of discussion on a journalism message board. South said the consensus was that just because the publisher has a right to use the information does not mean they should exercise that right.

“The news media does have a role and responsibility to differentiate between any old arrest and those that are newsworthy,” South said.

Spencer said there is a notice on the first page that says all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Robert Dybing, a civil litigation attorney at ThompsonMcMullan, said for those that appear in the paper and are cleared of any offense, there is little recourse they can take against the publisher.

Legal precedent and case law has repeatedly supported a strong First Amendment right for the news media to publish information released by public agencies, including the police department, called the fair report privilege.

“In most states, the publisher has substantial protections. In Virginia, the protection is less clear owing to the fact that the state Supreme Court has not specifically adopted a fair report privilege,” Dybing said.

Virginia courts have recognized a similar protection known as fair comment, so anyone featured in Gotcha! planning a defamation suit would have an uphill battle.

Dybing said they would have to prove the paper published the information even though they knew it was false. Dybing said the paper would be protected even if the police supplied the wrong photograph of an innocent person because the paper would have no reason to believe the police department was mistaken.

Kent Jennings Brockwell, a former journalist and co-owner of Hacksaw Bailbonds, said the paper skirts a fine line between privacy and freedom of the press.

“Legally the paper is in the right, because it’s public knowledge,” Brockwell said. “This is freedom of the press.  But it can screw people over. Then again maybe these people should not have had a reason to get picked up.”

Brockwell said his fiancée is no fan.

“She thinks it’s a disgusting form of voyeurism,” Brockwell said. “It’s a sick human fascination with the downtrodden, and that is really all it is.”

Brockwell said he would consider advertising when his bail bonding company opens for business.

“There are lots of bail bonds guys going in there. It’s a great idea,” he said, “I hope the thing is successful.”

Al Harris a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to Al@richmondbizsense.com.

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19 Comments »

  1. Charles Batchelor March 24, 2010 at 8:09 am - Reply

    I was not aware of this. Excellent reporting.

    Editor and Publisher’s Jen Saba has compared this kind of publication to printing pictures of “scantily clad ladies.” It’s tacky.

    Chesterfield Observer (a free weekly but a big deal; over 55,000 printed and some 49,000 mailed to homes) has been doing something similar in recent months, running what appears to be a half-page public service type ad of mug shots in every issue. They got (and printed) several letters objecting to it. I don’t believe they’ve got a sponsor for the feature, but they have been running small bail bondman ads of late.

    But, I think it’s more than a question of taste. VCU’s Jeff South’s analysis here is good: “The news media does have a role and responsibility to differentiate between any old arrest and those that are newsworthy.” This fails that test. “Just because the publisher has a right to use the information does not mean they should exercise that right.”

    Maybe it will make them a buck. But, if I had to attempt tacky, I would have first tried publishing pics of scantily clad ladies.

  2. Kent Jennings Brockwell March 24, 2010 at 8:11 am - Reply

    It wasn’t put in this story but I also told Al that even though it’s a “disgusting form of voyeurism”, I’m not above taking a peek. The Chesterfield Observer has been running a “recently arrested” column with mugshots and all the gory details for years on page four. I have to admit it’s the second thing I read after the front page. Even though I think it’s sick, I still have to look. It’s just like Cops and Jerry Springer. It’s a trainwreck. It’s rubbernecking at a car accident.

    I’m not above it. I’m just a blood-and-gore seeking rube like the rest of America…only with a vast knowledge of the 1st Amendment.

  3. Patrick Simkins March 24, 2010 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    I agree with Jeff South. This isn’t news, and it isn’t entertainment — it’s a print equivalent of putting someone in the stockades, only without an actual conviction. And frankly, it sickens me that someone stands to make a buck off publicly humiliating people, some of whom will not have deserved to be humiliated.

    Kent, I will say there’s a side of everyone who finds this kind of stuff appealing, but I think we ought to leave this trashiness to the already trashy websites out there. This isn’t a public service; it’s certainly not going to slow crime. And, frankly, the “if you don’t like it, just don’t do anything wrong” argument is a cop-out. It’s never that simple, as I’m sure any innocent person whose photo appeared in this garbage would attest.

  4. ng.morris March 25, 2010 at 8:15 am - Reply

    apparently this is what we are becoming, a nation of mindless gawkers being pandered to by a scruffy buffon mugging for pennies from the crowd

  5. Ryan Charles March 25, 2010 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

  6. Robert Mealey April 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Where can I buy copies of this paper?

  7. Richmond BizSense
    admin April 2, 2010 at 12:27 pm - Reply

    7-Eleven

  8. Bill Farrar April 8, 2010 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Notice there is not a single name of anyone at Richmond Media Group responsible for this shameful exploitation of the community listed anywhere in the publication. They list a post office box and a Yahoo! e-mail address. Nor does Media General, RMG’s owner, list Gotcha! as a property on its Web site (http://www.mediageneral.com/properties/va_tn_group/richmond.html). Nor does the RT-D mention Gotcha! as one of RMG’s papers in its recent coverage of RMG’s restructuring (http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/business/local/article/B-MEDI02_20100301-221208/327681/). Names of those responsible are included at that last link, however.

    Kudos to Richmond BizSense for writing about this.

  9. ashley April 26, 2010 at 8:39 am - Reply

    i recently saw this paper and my boyfriend was in it…..im just disgusted while i believe that you should be able to view local sex offenders to keep ur children safe i do not believe in this garbage… i dont believe they should be puttin peoples mugshots and charges in the paper!!YOU ARE INOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY!!!and my boyfriend will definetly beat this charge ive consulted wid a lawyer and now while my bf is looking for a job he cant find one …at one of the interviews he went to there was a gotcha on the desk ,thats how we found out about this paper..all this paper is doin is makin it hard on honest people to make a living..frankly i dont think anybodys name/pic should be in some paper like this especially if they are innocent…and i do really wish people that read it will get a life and find something better to do than get into peoples bussiness that they dont personaly kno…i fully intend to take legal actions on the newspaper…

  10. jackie May 4, 2010 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    i would like the web address this newpapaer so I may look at the paper on line, i tried all the link can not found the main paper Gotcha!!

  11. Cheryl May 26, 2010 at 8:06 am - Reply

    I think it is fine especially since it is not me. Its a good idea to keep up on what is happening in our community that is illegal. I know you are innocent until proven guilty. Most of the charges we see will more than likely be reduced anyway. I think the paper just keeps you informed and any thing that is public record is that, public record. I have one and I will always have one I have checked to get it removed and was told there is nothing I can do the imformation will always be public record.

  12. alice j kinzer July 29, 2010 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Unfortunately, it will take some person’s suicide to put this rag out of business. Shame on the publisher. I think this is disgusting and folks who take delight in it just haven’t been arrested-YET! I’ve never been arrested in my life so I can be objective. Decent people wouldn’t pay a dollar get their “kicks” out of someone else’s downfall.

  13. cant believe it August 12, 2010 at 3:16 am - Reply

    This is horrible and embarrassing. What about the assault victim who gets falsely arrested? What about a professional being accused of a crime? It happened to me and im visible in the community daily. This could ruin lives.@ Alice that is so true someone could be so humiliated nd embarrassed that they end their life. And where does the money go? They profit off others criminal activity? How about donating it fighting crime crime solvers or Richmond police.

  14. moniqe bansk September 28, 2010 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    um im thinkin thas its good to get the bad people off the street

  15. Ashey February 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    i think it is a GOOD idea … keep out of trouble you wont get put in there bottom line … im not from around her but anywhere else everything is printed in the paper EVERYTHING richmond va is no differnt its a great idea…

  16. olivia March 21, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    where can i recieve a copy of this paper, right now!!!!!!!!!!!!

  17. Morgan March 22, 2012 at 8:24 am - Reply

    my college paper has done something similar called “police beat” for years and years. although they don’t post mug shots but names are disclosed. it’s really popular but of course sometimes gets some flack. nothing new for everyone who thinks it’s horrible and embarrassing…

  18. Roxanne March 23, 2012 at 7:15 am - Reply

    I’m guessing this rag is targeted to the Jerry Springer demongraphic…hometown tabloid journalism. Whatever happened to “innocent until proven guilty?”

  19. Lorraine May 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    Publishing mugshots of true arrests by professional law breakers could really careless about mugshot pictures. Gotcha makes me disgusted. This only hurts wives, husbands, children, and potentially someone’s life career. Innocent until proven guilty. Shame on anyone supporting Gotcha!

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