When Laurie, a 20-something saleswoman in Tampa, Fla., got pulled over this summer for a minor traffic violation, she (and the police officer) discovered that her driver's license had expired. She was arrested for that misdemeanor, was released and dutifully got her license renewed the next day.
Her case is hardly fodder for the crime pages. But since this is the Internet age, Laurie got her mug shot, name and arrest data splashed on TampaBay.com, the website of the Pulitzer-winning St. Petersburg Times. Mug Shots, a prominent fixture on the site's home page since it debuted earlier this year, posts every arrest photo from the four Tampa Bay-area counties, complete with the dazed scowls, bad hair and, for folks like Laurie, the humiliation of appearing alongside alleged murderers and car thieves. "This is completely horrible," says Laurie, who asked TIME not to print her last name to spare her further public shaming. "What if my boss sees it?"
Chances are, he already has. Mug-shot galleries are increasingly popular features on newspaper websites, which are on a crusade for more page views and the advertising revenue that accompanies additional eyeballs. While big dailies like New York's Newsday and the Chicago Tribune have caught on to the trend, mug-shot mania is especially prevalent in Florida, where liberal public-records laws make it easier to obtain these photos. "It's a huge traffic driver for us," says Roger Simmons, digital-news manager for the Orlando Sentinel, where mug shots garner about 2.5 million page views a month, 6% of the site's total. The Palm Beach Post estimates its online police blotter, which streams its own ads, drew half of the site's 45 million page views in May.
Print newspapers have long run police blotters, but they're usually just boring-looking text. Website blotters, on the other hand, can affordably offer every color portrait the local precinct shoots. Like television networks opting for cheaply produced reality shows, the newspaper sites believe they've found their cash cow: readers seem as eager to gawk at the average alleged DUI perp as they are to ogle celebrity mug shots on sites like the Smoking Gun.
That, media watchdogs warn, is a troubling sign that newspapers are using voyeurism to survive. "It feeds societal prurience with no journalistic value," says Robert Steele, a journalism professor at DePauw University and an ethics specialist for the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. And while most mug-shot galleries advise viewers that the defendants are innocent until proved guilty, Steele says there's a "stench of unfairness to this kind of cyber-billboard." Robert Wesley, the chief public defender in Orlando, calls the mug-shot features "online Salem pillories."
Mug-shot backers argue that the cyber-billboard can help prevent repeat offenses. "If you're screwing up with DUI or domestic violence, it's harder to keep doing it if it's harder to hide it," says Dwayne Mayo, a former St. Petersburg security guard who publishes Cellmates, a weekly print tabloid dedicated solely to mug shots. Stephen Buckley, publisher of TampaBay.com, where mug shots draw about 13% of unique visitors each month, says his site didn't start up its gallery for the shame factor.
"But this is information that's local, useful and interesting," says Buckley, "and if someone types in his zip code to see who's been arrested in his neighborhood, yes, it can have practical benefits."
While editors like Simmons say they do worry when they hear puerile radio jocks making fun of the newest mug-shot faces, they reject the idea that they're cheapening mainstream media "We also list restaurants that don't pass inspection," says Simmons. "We're in the public-information business." True, but minor lawbreakers like Laurie are wondering why their business is now everyone else's too.
This is an expanded version of a story that ran in the Sept. 21, 2009 print edition of TIME
Download the new TIME iPhone app at app.time.com.