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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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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Mr. Cornetti – “Dash Dangerfield” on the masthead – is a 30-something publisher with a thick shock of hair and a Philip Marlowe fascination with America’s “simmering undercurrent of low-level crime.” To him, The Slammer offers entertainment and, yes, social value as well, tracing the thin line many Americans tread between upstanding behavior and the occasional lapse into lawlessness.

“You look at this paper, and you’re amazed by the amount of illegal stuff going on in what you thought was a sleepy little city,” he says, referring to Raleigh. “The appeal is voyeurism and schadenfreude, and it has some redeeming qualities, too, like helping people protect themselves, their families, and their businesses.”

Cornetti, the son of a well-to-do Smithfield, N.C., family, spent a lot of time in courtrooms as a kid: His mother worked at the courthouse, and during Cornetti’s middle-school summers, he spent days watching lawyers and judges, then went home to watch “Law and Order,” “Perry Mason,” and “Matlock.”

In his late teens and early 20s, he ran afoul of the law himself, and spent a year serving time for drug and larceny charges involving marijuana and a stolen TV. After that, he says, he grew interested in practicing law, and took the LSAT in 2004 in hopes of becoming a criminal attorney.

Instead, he took a series of entrepreneurial jobs in sales and software, then read about Jail (the Orlando-based publication) on a business trip and was inspired. He hopes The Slammer can become “the kind of wake-up call that I wish I’d had when I was younger.”

To some extent, that may be happening: Some readers claim they’ve thought twice about drinking and driving, for fear of ending up in The Slammer. And Slammer readers have helped Charlotte police locate several felons with major warrants, Cornetti says.

Even when arrests turn out not to be justified, Cornetti insists, The Slammer can do some good. A Charlotte lawyer who is in the process of trying to settle a case with the police department for what he says was a wrongful arrest recently contacted him. The client had appeared in The Slammer.

“Obviously we won’t run a correction,” says Cornetti of cases like these. “But we’d be happy to tell a client’s story.... If people are being arrested unlawfully, The Slammer is going to be a barometer for that.”

A die-hard reader of the Sunday New York Times, Cornetti is modest in his assessment of his own publication, which is produced by a staff of 12. “I don’t think [The Slammer] deserves the ‘journalism’ title,” he says. “But we do try to present research and we hope that when [readers are] finished with the newspapers, they’ve learned something.”

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More colorful and more professionally produced than its counterparts, The Slammer’s eclectic spread includes features such as the “Slammer Salon” of crazy arrest-night hairdos; a “mug shot extravanganza [sic]” of the bleary-eyed; the “Kiddie Korner” of busted young adults; and “Mature Menaces,” featuring senior alleged larcenists and check forgers. A Wendell, N.C., woman was singled out for repeated driving violations, becoming a recent edition’s “featured impaired driver.”

“Oh, Monique,” the text goes, “Aren’t you feeling weak? So upset you can hardly speak? Knightdale Police done punched your card. Now from walking you’ll be ‘tard’ [tired]. Left-right-left-right.”

Shakespeare it’s not. But to fans of such tabloids, like St. Petersburg, Fla., resident Courtney Doerr, a regular reader of Cellmates, they’re “street poetry.” And The Slammer runs more sober pieces, too: A recent editorial came down against the death penalty.

Even some police officials see little difference between the role of The Slammer and those of more prestigious media outlets. These modern crime rags “may well be reaching some readers that the daily circulation papers don’t on a regular basis,” says Jim Sughrue, a spokesman for the Raleigh Police Department. “I would say there’s a value to these publications.”

But critics say ridiculing people who remain innocent in the eyes of the Constitution is the definition of unethical. “They’re basically creating a miniature billboard in which these individuals are named and visually identified, often pejoratively, in a way that does not give them a fair hearing,” says Mr. Steele at Poynter.

Indeed, Mike Hoyt, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, calls the publications barely a “step up from the stocks.”

But Randall Brown has a different take. An avid reader of Cellmates, Mr. Brown is also a regular feature: He claims he’s been in Cellmates 10 times, all for misdemeanor alcohol violations, and he doesn’t mind the publicity. In his view, all of us are just a banana peel-slip away from arrest. “Everybody makes mistakes – the Bible says so,” he says. “People love to gossip.”

That love of gossip and the longing to know – drives older than newsprint itself – may be Cornetti’s most reliable sales force. Philip Isley, a lawyer and Raleigh city councilor, likens The Slammer to “our own little ‘Entertainment Tonight’ weekly.”

“Clearly, there’s a morbid desire for people to know exactly what’s going on criminally in the community,” he says, suggesting that awareness “can have a great deterrent effect, notwithstanding the thrillseekers who enjoy seeing their mug shot in print.”

Back at the Raleigh Times restaurant, where Cornetti is a minor celebrity, one group of barstool readers is trying to determine if a friend’s boyfriend, who supposedly got arrested recently, is in the paper. Cornetti gets up for a few minutes and returns to the table. He nods back toward the server, who had eagerly grabbed The Slammer when he came in. “She just told me she was in it in May,” he says.

Apparently, she harbored no hard feelings.

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