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The Internet sets writers free…to get new audiences, and also to “dive into a giant flaming garbage pile”
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April 9, 2009, noon

If you’re arrested in St. Petersburg, make sure to smile for the camera

A new archive of mug shots on The St. Petersburg Times’ tampabay.com isn’t wanting for viewers: 100,000 people reportedly visited the site in the first three hours after its debut on Monday. And in some ways it’s just a web iteration of the old police blotter — or a technically advanced version of the old Puritan public stocks.

The feature, which posts a linear gallery of faces oddly reminiscent of The Washington Post’s uplifting onBeing — call this one “onBeing Busted” — includes sortable information by height, weight, gender and location. The busts are typically for the usual drug possessions, DUIs, and other charges a newspaper cop reporter would likely rifle past, looking for something more newsworthy.

Unlike The Smoking Gun, to which is has already been compared many times, it does not limit its focus to celebrities or those accused of particularly spectacular wrongdoing. These are people who don’t usually command the public eye. And unlike some previous efforts, this one seems to be posting even people arrested for misdemeanor offenses — not to mention a few for whom the site says it “had trouble” figuring out the exact charge an individual is facing.

How much is this for reader amusement and pageviews, and how much is for civic impact? Does the lens of the web change the way we think about things previously available as public records, but obscured by their location in some booking folder down at the jail? The mugs stay up for 60 days, and the site helpfully notes “those appearing here have not been convicted of the arrest charge and are presumed innocent.” Just like Cops.

It happened that the Poynter Institute’s multimedia guru Al Tompkins was here in Cambridge Wednesday, and we asked him for his take on it, both as a journalist and as a Tampa Bay resident. (Note that Poynter owns the Times.)

POSTED     April 9, 2009, noon
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