Written By Chris Secrest
Edited By Andrea Losey
Being accused of a crime is embarrassing, and not only might you have to do the time or pay the fine, your alleged misdeeds could be immortalized in The Jail Report.
Greg Rickabaugh wants his crime sheets to shame the accused in addition to letting people know of misdeeds in their neighborhoods to prevent future crime. He's also continuing a long history that shows crime can pay – for publishers.
"I find it interesting to find out why people break the law and cross that line," said Rickabaugh, who worked for 12 years at Georgia and North Carolina newspapers. "We're filling a gap for local crime information. Local daily papers don't have the manpower."
He started The Jail Report about two years ago in the Aiken-Augusta area, where Rickabaugh says it now has a circulation of 18,500. There also is a version for Greenville-Spartanburg, with about 9,000 subscribers, and the newest edition, in Florence and the Pee Dee, started in March and has about 4,500 subscribers. Rickabaugh's twin brother, Craig, started an edition in southern California.
Each issue of about 30 pages is filled with crimes, mugshots, jokes, guest editorials, personal stories from Facebook and most wanted lists. Rickabaugh boasts about 36,000 "likes" on Facebook, where reader comments run rampant.
Rickabaugh, 39, said he started The Jail Report after a weekly competitor ran his monthly Jailed In Charlotte publication out of business. Rickabaugh does most of the reporting out of his Rock Hill home, using the phone and email to get crime reports from police. He also hired some part-time, private contractors for things like graphic design.
The Jail Report joins the ranks of former crime sheet publications like Snitch, a free weekly that started in 2004 and had a South Carolina circulation as high as 28,000 during its yearlong run. Like Rickabaugh, Snitch owner Jerry Adams looked to fill a gap left by newspapers already cutting back coverage.
"I used to get hate mail. I'd look for burglaries, threesome busted at the motel, all sorts of weird stuff," Adams said. "I'd take everything I could off public record. I had my car keyed one time."
But mostly, Adams said, "People loved it. People laughed and were amazed by some of it."
Crime reports have long been popular and date to the early days of printing. By the mid-1500s, accounts written by an "urban intelligentsia" began to appear increasingly in topical publications, according to Joy Wiltenburg, history professor at Rowan University. Readers gravitated to the active, eye-catching language and violent depictions.
Early examples were written lyrically and set to music, attracting a wide audience beyond the wealthy and literate, said Wiltenberg. Later came "true crime" magazines, depicting infamous crime scenes while maintaining an air of journalistic integrity.
After leaving Charlotte, Rickabaugh looked to Augusta, where he spent six years writing at The Chronicle.
"Those people have lived there all of their lives," he said. "When they see people, it's who they recognize, people they've worked with."
"Half of them count each week how many people they know in the paper," Rickabauagh said.
Rickabaugh says his interests lie with the greater good, such as exposing those driving under the influence.
"DUIs are a huge thing for me, getting them in the paper," he said. "If people know they will be pictured in the paper, it will make sure they have designated drivers."
The Jail Report makes money off its $1 cover price and advertisements. It also offers mail subscriptions: 10 issues for $30 and 30 issues for $75. Rickabaugh won't discuss revenue.
The Jail Report reminds readers that those named are innocent "unless" proved guilty, as the arrested are sometimes exonerated.
But Rickabaugh says that has happened only a handful of times, and University of South Carolina media law and ethics professor Jay Bender says that sort of predicament is fairly rare, with police "getting it right 85 to 90 percent of the time."
There are no legal or ethical difficulties with printing such information, as long as it's public record, Bender says.
The problem is that any correction, no matter how timely, doesn't always catch up with the first story, he said.
"When the cops realize they've made a mistake and dismiss a case, that doesn't make any news," Bender said.
Rickabaugh says he realizes the danger, but says: "We are not a conviction paper. We are an arrest paper."
"It's a public record and a public service," he said.
One reader questioned why the paper needed to publish the photo story about a suicidal Augusta man.
"Every time someone complains on Facebook, 10 people come back and say we want to know this information," Rickabaugh said.
"If it's not ethical, we don't do it. One guy offered us $20,000 to keep his picture out."
Rickabaugh ran the image.
"We have some fun with stuff, but we want to help," Rickabaugh said. "When a cop calls me, I want to help."