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A crime paper flourishes by printing mug shots

Isaac Cornetti, aka ‘Dash Dangerfield,’ finds an audience for ‘The Slammer’ in North Carolina – a publication that some think provides a public service but others call an unethical crime rag.

By Staff writer / January 6, 2009

Blotter fodder: Isaac Cornetti poses with a copy of his crime paper, ‘The Slammer.’ He goes by the nom de plume ’Dash Dangerfield’ on the masthead.

Ashley Lorenz/Courtesy of Isaac W. Cornetti

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Raleigh, N.C.

Looking like a “Goodfellas”-era Ray Liotta, Isaac Cornetti strolls into the Raleigh Times restaurant here in a faded corduroy jacket. He’s carrying a stack of his famous – and infamous – tabloid newspaper, The Slammer.

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Patrons grab copies. Some chuckle, some hunch over newsprint, and some simply gawk as they scan rows upon rows of mug shots and rap sheets in a frenzy that would spark envy in the hearts of newspaper publishers nationwide.

If “Jerry Springer” came in newsprint, The Slammer could be it – a garish compilation of the week’s local crimes and their alleged perpetrators. The men and women, with their dour mugs, bloodied noses, and booze-induced grins, have been arrested for everything from skipping a court date to robbing a food mart. It is, in essence, the local police blotter writ large.

To devoted readers, The Slammer and similar publications – like Cellmates in Florida’s Tampa Bay area and Jail in Orlando – perform a valuable public service, putting the gritty side of life on display and even protecting the community from predatory criminals.

“It really lets you know what’s going on around you,” says Omar Williams, a Raleigh bail bondsman who advertises every week in The Slammer and – no surprise – reaches a lot of clients through its pages. “You could see your best friend in there for forging checks or selling cocaine, and he’s driving around in the car with you, and you don’t know this stuff.”

Critics, on the other hand, see the papers as sensational, tawdry, and ethically dubious – a modern form of the “crime rags” that flourished in the heyday of early 20th-century yellow journalism. “This is a sad commentary on the state of American journalism,” says Bob Steele, a journalism ethics expert at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It’s really painful to know that so many publications are struggling terribly and something as schlocky as this is succeeding.”

And succeeding it is. At a time when dozens of US newspapers are searching for buyers and for cash, The Slammer’s newsstand profit margin is four times that of most local dailies, and its circulation has grown to 29,000 – up nearly 50 percent from 20,000 just last year. At more than 500 convenience stores across North Carolina, it’s selling at a buck a pop.

In fact, the chief complaints the weekly paper gets come from perps complaining that their photos didn’t get printed. In February, the paper will expand its operations from three major North Carolina counties – including the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham – to add Columbus, Ohio.

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