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Newspaper Mugshot Galleries: The Next Google Target?

Jean Dion • November 19, 2013

In early October, The New York Times really shook things up for the mugshot industry by printing a scathing article full of shocking statistics and poignant stories from victims. I wrote about this piece soon after it came out (see that article here), and at the time, I suggested that mugshot sites might soon fall off the Google radar, due to algorithm changes that NYT piece inspired.

Now, some experts suggest that newspapers that print mugshot galleries might suffer the same fate. If this is true, I have some serious celebrating to do. But unfortunately, I'm not convinced that newspapers have much to worry about at this point.

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Understanding the Industry

Newspapers often populate true-crime articles with mugshot photographs, allowing readers to see the faces of people who commit the terrible crimes that take place in their neighborhoods. Journalists love these photographs, as they give the stories a bit more heft and credibility, and it's unlikely that this type of mugshot usage will ever go out of fashion. However, some newspapers are also choosing to produce mugshot galleries, in which they scrape photographs and booking information from governmental agencies and publish it in searchable form right there on the web. Running a search for a person's name might, therefore, bring up that mugshot that exists on the newspaper's gallery. Sound familiar?

It should, as this is the same method that mugshot websites use in order to populate their pages. Scrape and publish is the name of the game, when it comes to mugshots. Not surprisingly, then, experts quoted in Columbia Journalism Review suggest that these mugshot galleries should be subject to the same algorithm changes that impacted the mugshot industry. If those websites are scraping information, without adding anything new to the mix, and they're falling down in Google's index as a result, shouldn't newspaper mugshot galleries be subject to the same rules?

The Benefits of Changes

If Google did, indeed, begin to penalize these newspaper mugshot galleries, there should be dancing in the streets. I'll lead the conga line myself, as I think these galleries do arrested people a huge amount of harm. A mugshot website will publish your arrest photograph, but often, these sites provide people with an opportunity to clear their names. It's repellant, but paying a fee can make the photos disappear for good. (As an aside, the NYT article might make that payment trickier, as some servicers are considering severing their ties with mugshot sites, but that change is yet to come.)

A newspaper, on the other hand, often won't remove any article or photograph for any reason at all. In fact, many journalists stand behind a strict "unpublish" policy, in which they suggest that deleting information is akin to changing history, and that removing even harmful bits of data could do irreparable damage to the public trust. Never mind that people could be harmed, they might add, as long as journalistic integrity is upheld. (See an example of this kind of thinking here.) If this kind of thought carries over to a mugshot gallery, it could mean permanent damage that a person might never be able to repair.

On a similar note, many newspapers just have an air of respectability about them. Showing up on a mugshot website might not seem dire, as these sites are generally reviled. But showing up in a community newspaper might seem just a bit damning and a bit more authentic. The damage, as a result, might be harder to recover from.

The Flip Side

To be fair, many newspapers seem to grapple with the idea of printing mugshots in gallery format. For example, the Web Editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote a compelling blog post in which he outlined why he might consider printing mugshot galleries, along with his thoughts about why printing such items might be in poor taste. It's a good read, and he asked his readers to contribute to the conversation and help him make a good decision based on the information he outlined. Unfortunately, that post has been live for more than 2 years, and at this point, it has no comments.

It seems readers just aren't interested in this issue.

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In a similar vein, a college newspaper even struggled with the idea of printing a mugshot in a story regarding a famous student's arrest. The editors felt that the image, while newsworthy, was also a little exploitive. If the editors of the future find all mugshots a little distasteful, even in articles, perhaps they'll willingly remove the idea of galleries from their sites. However, the fact remains that mugshots remain on most sites because they make newspapers money, and those news outlets desperately need that money.

The New York Times, for example, is facing a decline of 2 cents per share from a year ago, with no end to the drop in sight. In order to stay alive, these papers need to draw in readers by the dozens, and if mugshots can pull in readers, they might be here to stay.

Finding a Solution

Tying the issue to money might be one way to make the galleries go away for good. If the algorithm changes do come to pass, then the sites won't pop to the top of search results, and the galleries won't bring in huge amounts of revenue. In fact, they might cost the sites revenue, as their journalistic content might be tainted and buried along with their mugshot-related content. If the sites don't appear in search results at all, and removing mugshots makes that problem disappear, perhaps the gallery idea will just disappear.

However, I am not hopeful. The NYT piece came out close to 2 months ago, and at the moment, I can still see several newspaper galleries on a 5-minute Google search, including this one, this one and this one. If the sites were penalized by a Google algorithm change, I wouldn't be able to find so many on a quick search. But I can. That's why we keep working to protect clients who have been arrested. Hoping that the industry will die due to the efforts of one innovative article just isn't a great idea.

Using proven techniques to remove mugshots, when possible, and bury the remaining damage with positive content can make the problem go away for good. Just visit www.internetreputation.com and click on the "Individual" button to see how it works.