IT'S NOT EVEN 10 AM on Friday, June 11, and I'm at Still Smokin' tobacco emporium on SE 123rd and Powell, holding several hundred copies of Busted and staring at a glass display case full of knives and pepper spray.
I don't want to like Busted. The same way I hate Cops and CSI for asking us to laugh at people who are sent to jail because our mental health and addiction safety net has holes the size of all of East Portland, I try to prefer the New Yorker to the weekly tabloid that offers printed mugshots of Multnomah County arrestees. But the New Yorker is shit for rubbernecking. Busted is a juicy, voyeuristic train wreck. At only $1, it's a great guilty pleasure.
To mark the just-over-one-year anniversary of the tabloid's first arrival in Portland, I ask Busted's premier delivery guy, JC, if I can tag along for his paper route. He says it's okay as long as I don't use his real name. "I've got people yelling and screaming at me all the time about, 'You've got me in the paper for meth! What the hell is that!'" he explains. Clearly, I'm not the only person in a love/hate relationship with Busted.
We hit a dozen East Portland convenience stores in an hour, swinging open the door of the silver Chevy Astro, grabbing a bundle of 100 papers, heading inside the 7-Eleven or the Bizy Mart or the Minit Mart. Busted is sold at 278 stores in the Portland area. All of them seem to smell like cigarettes and fried chicken. When we reach the counter, JC drops the new Busteds and counts out the old stack between the energy drinks and the alarmingly flavored potato chips.
"Did you hear the story about Car Toys?" he asks the clerks at store after store. "This guy robbed them and they had him on video, a little while later, one of the employees was looking at Busted—ID'd him." There are a dozen stories like this, a new one every week.
JC writes a receipt and takes the cash, sometimes $8, sometimes $80. We jump back in the Astro, throwing the old papers in back on a pile of 1,000.
Before he was a paperboy, JC was a real estate agent. The market crashed and he took the chance last March to become Busted's Portland distributor. It's not a glamorous job, he knows, but it's good money for working only three days a week.
"I'm just lucky to have a job, and I don't have to answer to anybody," he says. "Does it stop crime? I dunno. A lot of people think it's a joke. It's a forum for public humiliation. But I'm taking my moral judgment out of it. It's just another product that's sold in convenience stores."
We hit a head shop that sells University of Oregon bongs. While the clerk talks with a customer, I flip through the new issue of Busted. On the cover is the infamous TriMet barber. Inside are special theme pages ("Faces of Meth," "Clownin' and Frownin'") among the blocks of assault, animal neglect, and "reckless burning." I can't stop gawking.
"I figure if you're in business, you're in business for one reason: To make a profit," says JC. "Whether you're selling cigarettes or Playboy or Busted, it's the same."
Busted's business model is of the "just crazy enough to work" variety: They take mugshots that are available for free online, hire a small team in Florida to stitch them together into unique Busteds for 12 different states and then charge people $1 a copy. Busted's founder and publisher, Ryan (who also refused to give his last name "because I have a crime newspaper that makes people angry"), says he got the idea for the paper two years ago, after watching, you guessed it, the TV show Cops.
"That crappy TV stuff would draw me in and I figured, 'Hey, let's give it a shot, just do a paper on people who have been arrested,'" says Ryan. "We get thousands of phone calls from angry people. The best way to not get in the paper is to not get arrested."