Making money off mug shots
An Orlando man capitalizes on the fascination with everyday people's arrest photos.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published March 27, 2007
ORLANDO - America loves a good mug shot. The more frizzed, frazzled and frantic, the better.
An Orlando entrepreneur has seized on that fascination, recently starting JAIL, a weekly newspaper filled with nothing but the unflattering thumbnails. Page after page, with only a few ads in between.
"A mug shot is a couple notches below your driver's license picture," said Devin James, 41. "And everyone takes a messed-up driver's license picture."
Mug shots have gained popularity online thanks to sites like the Smoking Gun, which feature arrest photos of professional athletes, musicians and Hollywood A-, B- and C-listers - Nick Nolte, Glen Campbell and Mel Gibson, among them.
In JAIL, the stars are the readers' neighbors, charged with everything from drug possession to prostitution to murder.
Some mug shots beg for more detail, like the bare-chested man arrested and charged with burglary. Perhaps a shirt was one of the items he hoped to steal.
James carefully chooses the mug shots for the front page - issues with attractive women on the front move fastest.
"Sex sells," James said.
James said he got the idea nearly a decade ago after a three-month stint in the Orange County Jail after he says he got into an argument with a girlfriend and the police sided with her. He denies hitting her. He published two issues in 1999, but gave up when it didn't take off.
Using $600 he earned moving furniture, James launched again in December.
"The timing is right for this paper now," he said. "America is in the midst of a crime wave."
Before jail and JAIL, James' journalism experience consisted of reading the occasional magazine or newspaper.
"I was always bored with English and anything that had to do with that in school," James said.
James said he now distributes more than 8,000 newspapers weekly and struggles to keep stores stocked.
The papers are sold for $1 at about 175 mom-and-pop convenience stores throughout Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties. James delivers them himself.
The merchants provide counter space in return for half the profits.
"We sell out of them each week," said Rafael Gil, manager of the Plaza Market in downtown Orlando. "I had to place the paper by the cash register because customers thought it was free and were walking out the door with it."
Thousands of arrests each week in the paper's three-county distribution area provide plenty of material, all obtained free from police and sheriff's departments.
Some of the pics are organized into sections of cold cases, convicted state prisoners, missing persons, sex offenders and impounded dogs and cats.
Sue Cravens, a bail agent in Sanford who advertises in JAIL, said the paper may have helped authorities capture some suspects.
"I can't say the newspaper got (the suspect) caught," Cravens said. "But I can say his picture was shown one week, and a few days later, he was off the streets."
Sindy Lowe said she's recognized people in the paper - even members of her family.
"Once I even saw my sister-in-law in there ... ," Lowe said. "I didn't even know she had been arrested."
James said the secret to the paper's success is simple: "It's like that expression from a long time ago. A picture is worth a thousand words."