Charged and Mugly Square Off at the Newsrack As the Dallas Shame Rag Wars Rage On

Avid mug-shot magazine readers (or picture-lookers) will have noticed some changes in that sliver of the media landscape since our first mention of Busted and Mugly! earlier this month.

I've been trying to reach Busted's Ryan Chief to learn more about the shame rag business around here, and finally caught up with him this morning. First off, he told me, even though he's got seven local editions of Busted around the country -- his phone recording calls it "America's largest weekly crime fighting publication" -- the Dallas edition is now called Charged, and has been for the last two weeks.

People were confusing his paper with the Austin mug mag Busted!, which is published by the guys who sell Mugly! in Dallas. "It got very confusing," Chief told me. Plus, the new name helps "make clear to the public that we want to portray these individuals as innocent until proven guilty."

Simple enough, right?

Then we got a call back from Mugly! publisher J. Martin Ward, who told us, "OK, that's one way of putting it. There was confusion in the marketplace." But, he said, there's also this: "We have a product named Busted! as well as the federal trademark." Ward says he sent Chief a cease-and-desist letter once Chief's Busted! began publishing here in Dallas. Chief confirmed he received the letter, but says he was publishing under the Busted name in Florida back in August 2008 -- nine months before Ward began his Austin paper -- and he's "in the process of filing a wrongful trademark" complaint against Ward.

So now, nobody in Dallas gets Busted!, and each week Charged and Mugly! slug it out for gas stations' newsrack space. In this rough young corner of the publishing world, personal rivalry like this one just comes with the turf.

"I don't want to speak ill of the guy. I'll let him speak ill of me and i'll be the better man," Ward said this morning, moments before calling Chief a "pirate" and maintaining his competitor's real name is actually Trombley, not Chief. "It's like he's got something to hide, or something," Ward said. Chief told us he has no idea what Ward was talking about.

As for the papers, Ward said, "We have a completely different approach than he does." Both papers run short articles with the mug shots. Charged flexes its design muscle with multi-colored novelty fonts in sections like "Clownin' and Frownin'" and "Beauty vs. Beast" for some of the choicest mug shots in the paper. "We try to bring a little bit of humor to it," Chief said.

Mugly! includes a "Whodunit" game, where you're given a list of criminal charges to match with a set of unmarked mug shots. Charged runs one page of "Most Wanted" mugs each week, but Mugly! takes even more of a public service bent, running "Most Wanted" photos, missing children and restaurant health inspection scores.

Who knows if those nuances really register for a guy who's passing up the latest Auto Trader to splurge on a one-dollar set of mug shots. Chief says Charged crams in more mug shots than his competition each week, anywhere from 275 to 300.

Ward told us his print run this week is 12,000 papers, which he'll sell in gas stations and convenience stores, including 32 franchised 7-Elevens. Chief says he's got 200 locations selling Charged around Dallas, each of which is hard-won turf claimed by his local sales rep's door-to-door efforts.

Whether or not your mug shot ends up in Charged is "completely random," Chief said. "We don't try to choose by any particular crime or any other nationality or anything like that." Of course, he said, "If someone looks a little more interesting, they're gonna get on the front page."

Ward says his selection process is run by a proprietary formula he'd only reveal if I signed a nondisclosure agreement -- I declined. "How we choose everything -- this is what's unique about how we do things. We came up with a formula that ensures our selection is completely random. It reflects the disparity of race in the [general] population, not necessarily the population of those arrested."

Only Mugly! includes any local advertising -- a small plug for the Grand Prairie AirHogs mascot's birthday party appearances, which Ward says is an ad-sharing arrangement -- though both are hoping to take on paid ads in their Dallas editions.

From his base in Central Florida, Chief picks up a few bucks each month selling 8-by-10 photos of mug shots from his paper, and though it's usually only two or three a month, he says, he's been surprised to see orders are almost always from people buying their own mug. "People love to pick up an issue and see themselves in it. It's been really a strange revelation we've come across," Chief said. Though both agree they're focused first on their print editions, Ward also sells online subscriptions each month, and he told us he's surprised at the demographics of his online membership -- 90 percent women, he said.

Ward, a former Marine who got a Purple Heart in Iraq in 2004 who has a family history of violent crime, isn't in the business to play squash with the press club. "I'm not a member of the hoi polloi of the literary society in journalism, and I don't pretend to me. I'm a guy that got blown up in a car bomb and needed a job," he told us. "I sell an honest product to honest people for an honest buck."

The mug shot business has taken Ward on one crusade these days: a fight to get Irving and Arlington police departments to release their arrest photos, which they've been reluctant to do so far. Ward says he's appealed their decisions to Attorney General.

"There's a degree of public service there that's palpable. We've helped solve a lot of crimes, and we've also brought a lot of awareness to the missing children," Ward told us, even if, yeah, "at the end of the day, it's low-brow. It's infotainment."

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