Whether it’s reading only half an article before having to pay to get to why the story matters, or shoe ads filling up your screen, readers can get frustrated with the very thing that keeps news sources afloat — finances. It costs money to produce the news that informs you and your community. Lane County Mugshots, an independent online crime publication, has started asking for a few dollars to stay afloat, and some readers see it as a burden.
Recently, Lane County Mugshots and Lane County Mugshots Uncensored founder Mike Weber started a GoFundMe to help with the constant bills and costs of keeping his volunteer publication alive. This fundraising effort, though in support of the community and a popular form of independent journalism, has, he says, brought controversy among his audience on whether people should support the media he’s passionate about and has become a vital part of Lane County’s media ecosystem.
Lane County Mugshots Uncensored is a public forum group on Facebook meant for open discussion within the community on crime-related topics. As a closed group, only its 76,000 members can see the posts. The Lane County Mugshots website itself features articles about local crime written predominantly by Weber. He initially worked as part owner of the online newspaper Lane Today, and shortly before its dissolution, Weber started his work with LCMU. But none of this work brings in revenue, leading to the GoFundMe to raise money for his website.
“We did crime news, and one day we decided, why don’t we post a couple of mugshots and give people a chance to see a couple of the criminals? ‘Cause our thing was unbiased news,” he says of Lane Today.
The original Lane County Mugshots Facebook page posted mugshots with details of nearby crime in the community gathered from local jails and police departments. When Lane County Mugshots Uncensored was added, it became a place where community members go to stay up-to-date — and comment on in real time — local crime.
Charlie Dietz, a journalism instructor at the University of Oregon, says that independent journalism is represented here in a unique way and offers the community another source to be aware of criminal activity in Lane County.
“What I imagine independent journalism to be is untethered to a larger corporate entity, or entity in general,” Dietz says.
With increased knowledge of the legal system and crime nearby, Weber is filling in the gaps where local media outlets might fall short, Dietz says, and the community is using it constantly with posts made all day every day.
Posts range from a woman looking for witnesses to a car accident she was involved in on Hwy 99 to lost loved ones and wildfire updates. Comments might be from a random troll criticizing the driver to the Eugene Independent Police Auditor’s office offering advice.
Weber’s passion for the LCM website lies in the community and in ensuring locals have ample resources to know about criminals and investigations in the area. But without money, the process becomes more difficult.
“I am dealing with LCMU from the time I wake up until I sleep,” Weber says of the popular Facebook group. “Obviously, being a full-time parent to my 12-year-old, I am not on it all day, I also have other responsibilities. But, if an incident/crime is in progress, I’m on it. Even if it is all night.”
The answer on whether or not to keep going was in the clicks, Weber says. The work Weber was doing seemed to matter to the community, and because people took interest in the mugshots he kept posting.
“If it bleeds, it leads, and so I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to start an online presence,’” he says.
The mugshots developed into stories with details he says he got from local law enforcement agencies.
“When the mugshots were available, we would go to the Springfield jail site and would do what’s called ‘scraping,’” he says. “We would get the information from them — it was publicly available. There was no permission needed to be asked because they are a public entity and it’s publicly posted.”
House Bill 3273, which prohibits the spreading of mugshots except for certain circumstances, threw Weber an obstacle in January 2022. The bill states that law enforcement agencies may not release booking photos, aka mugshots, to the public unless the agencies have determined that it would be beneficial to the criminal investigation.
This law also serves to protect the privacy and safety of those arrested and later acquitted. Because a mugshot doesn’t prove that you’re guilty, legislators felt access to those booking photos needed to be limited.
Although this law seemed like it would limit LCM’s work, Weber was still able to use his old mugshots for repeat offenders because of the database he had created.
The website, which includes articles by him and occasionally by others, is currently down due to coding updates and vendor app replacements. Weber hopes it will be up and running within the next month, but these fixes take time and money. The Facebook group, which is used for public input and more immediate notification, remains running.
“Once the site is up, we will begin adding back features we offered, like the easier-to-read police and fire CAD (computer aid dispatch) calls, booking information, and missing persons at a later date,” he says.
Until then, Weber is posting news stories to his old blog site.
The GofundMe started in 2022, but has been brought back this past May for “constant bills and needs to run Lane County Mugshots Uncensored, and the website, LaneCountyMugshots.com,” Weber says in the GoFundMe description.
The GofundMe has a set goal of $6,000, yet Weber hopes to keep raising money every month to supplement his lack of income from Lane County Mugshots. Weber has raised $4,515 as of the present time.
In the fundraiser description, Weber says that the purpose is to keep independent local journalism alive, and people in the comments have agreed that the reporting Weber has done is often faster, more relevant and more accurate than other outlets.
Unlike local media outlets, Weber posts his content without going through editors, which he says eliminates time-consuming stepping stones that other publications must go through.
“This is also kind of tabloid journalism, too. He’s finding material and putting it out there for public consumption,” the journalism school’s Dietz says. “I don’t think he’s doing a lot of analysis.”
Social media and journalism go hand in hand today because of the immediacy of each social network. Apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have become news hubs for people to get their daily or even on-the-hour news. LCM and LCMU bring in an audience addicted to getting and giving their local updates online.
Because of social media journalism, print publications have been losing revenue, and local papers are becoming limited with the amount of reporting they can do each week. Citizens like Weber aid in getting that nontraditional type of news and some think this service should be free, creating the same problem for social media journalists that legacy journalists have been facing.
Dietz says the reluctance to pay for news is “a combination of factors: a profit-driven industry that manufactures cheap products, and a culture that’s probably tired of being asked to pay even more for something they might better equate to a service,” Dietz says.
The question of whether to support Lane County Mugshots‘ fundraising lies in whether people believe this form of independent journalism is something that fits their agenda. Nonetheless, Weber will continue to scrape information to aid in community safety.
“What I would really love to see happen is somehow find funding or a sponsorship or a continued source of money that would make it possible for me to keep doing this,” Weber says. ν