Anniston Star’s Bad Wrap (Might Mug Shots Save Journalism?)

The front page of last Monday’s issue of The Anniston (Alabama) Star was particularly, um, arresting. Have a look:

Ten mug shots of “Calhoun County’s MOST WANTED” splayed across page one of the Star’s June 29th edition. Photos and vital stats of the WANTED— five wanted for “child support”-related reasons, none particularly new additions to the list — presented as front-page news. The first of a four-page, broadsheet, newsprint “wrap” around the real paper. All “a product of the marketing department of The Anniston Star,” as it said in unobtrusively-sized print beneath the The Anniston Star banner (just below the paper’s tag line, “a home-owned newspaper.”)

Eye-grabbing…to some of the Star’s reporters, too, who expected last Monday’s issue to look like this (the actual— with news!— front page) and were, as you might expect, not particularly happy to see the marketing department’s version:

While Star subscribers received the regular (above) version of the June 29th paper, all “rack sales” copies, according to the Star’s Dolly Robinson, who sold to local businesses the two full-page ads which occupied pages two and three of the marketing “wrap,” were draped in “MOST WANTED” mug shots in hopes, said Robinson, of increasing rack sales for the paper’s Monday edition (which has been a slower sell than the rest of the week). “We felt we’d have a lot of readership because of the mug shots,” said Robinson. (If not, sigh, for the actual news…)

Mug shots seem to be doing the trick, as two Star reporters mentioned to me, for Bama Busted, a 99-cent publication that has appeared in local convenience stores since March, features “weirdest mug shots” and “hot girls’” mug shots, and has been drawing local advertisers (something the Star’s marketing department has likely noticed).

Bama Busted’s owner, who refused to give me his name on the phone because he “publishes news about bad people,” says his goal with Busted is to “help clean up the community” and now sees the Star, circulation approximately 23,000, as a big-footed competitor. While he would not share Bama Busted’s circulation, he offered that since his March 1st launch “we’re in 300 stores,” suggested Busted’s appeal was “gossip…who’s doing what,” and told me he felt ripped off by the Star’s June 29th look-alike “wrap,” claiming Star employees met with him a few months ago, talked of a partnership and wanted “to know what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Which, it seems, the Star figured out on its own, producing last Monday’s cheesy (at best), misleading (at worst) mug shot “wrap.” To add to the line-blurring, the “MOST WANTED” content also ran on the “breaking news” section of the Star’s web site on June 29th, and the back page of the four-page wrap bore two (what looked like) news articles, complete with headlines and bylines (the bylines are actually marketing employees, which isn’t immediately clear — see here, and click on the screen to magnify). In the end, conduct unbecoming (or, at least, unexpected) of a paper with a reputation as a beacon among small newspapers, a locally-owned paper committed to quality journalism (I wrote as much for CJR in 2003 —and I’m not alone).

In today’s troubled times— the Star has had its share of recent layoffs and pay cuts — if there’s money to be made from mug shots, can we fault a newspaper for aiming for some of that market (come for the mug shots, stay for the news… if you can or care to find it)? But, did the Star have to give over it its entire front page (and then some)? And, not even to the highest-bidding advertiser but to marketing-department-generated content (not particularly timely, presumably publicly-available information, re-purposed) made to look like “news” —- but that might be (fingers crossed!) more of a draw to someone standing in line at the grocery store than the day’s actual news?

Well, newspapers are feeling pressed to get creative with revenue-generating ideas these days (Washington Post, anyone?)…

(I have calls in to the Star’s VP of Operations—who spearheaded, I’m told, the “MOST WANTED” “product” — to find out more, including how Bama Busted factored in to this; if/how editorial was consulted on it; and, of course, whether mug shots did anything for the Star’s lagging Monday circulation. Will update when I hear back).

UPDATE: More background, after speaking to the person who oversaw the MOST WANTED “product,” the Star’s Robert Jackson. Bama Busted was indeed the inspiration for it. “[Bama Busted] did our readership survey for us,” Jackson said, noting he “watched it selling like hotcakes” while “charging two times what the Star charges,” and determined the Star should try offering a “mug shot-driven” product. (Jackson confirms he met with someone at Bama Busted but says there was no partnership talk, just talk of a “commercial printing project;” Consolidated Publishing, which owns the Star, does assorted outside print jobs).

The primary goal of the MOST WANTED wrap (a new version of which appeared in all Star editions yesterday, this time as a four-page insert), Jackson said, was to “drive the Star’s Monday single copy sales” (he’ll know by tomorrow whether that happened).

Jackson chuckled when asked about the wrap possibly rankling people inside or outside the Star newsroom, saying he “respects” the editorial side but that “with declining circulation sometimes you’ve got to try different things.” Jackson said he “did receive the publisher’s permission to do” the wrap and that he consulted with a top editor, though “editorial was more interested” in something that did not include photos. Jackson sees a “big difference between what we did and what [Bama Busted] does,” in that “they include sensational stuff, we include just public data, as a public service” for which the area police departments, he said, have been “very grateful.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.