Firm Files Believable, Newsy Copy, for a Price

Rick Smith, founder and chief executive of NewsUSA Inc., with copies of clippings from his service.
Rick Smith, founder and chief executive of NewsUSA Inc., with copies of clippings from his service. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 12, 2005

Not long after entrepreneur Rick Smith arrived in Washington 18 years ago to start a new business, he insisted on renting office space in the National Press Building, even though he could've found a cheaper deal elsewhere.

Smith is not a journalist. But he wanted to be near journalists. He liked the cachet.

"When the address says National Press Building and it has its own Zip code, that's cool," he said.

More important, his business, NewsUSA Inc., depends on its ability to mimic what journalists do.

Now based in Falls Church, the 70-person company churns out audio clips, newspaper copy and radio scripts, all based on information provided by paying clients -- corporations, associations and others. Reformulated into journalistic style, with a pitch for the client included as unobtrusively as possible, the articles are distributed free to newspapers and radio stations around the country.

Invoking the credible tone of traditional news media for commercial purposes, the articles find their way into the advertising supplements of major dailies. They fill out the news pages of staff-strapped small-town or community newspapers. They get airplay in the guise of consumer tips -- often rounded out with a mention of a Web site or a company that can solve problems like hair loss or how to set up a bridal registry.

Though news placement services have been around for more than 50 years, they have recently come under fire after articles and columns commissioned by the Bush administration appeared in U.S. and Iraqi newspapers without disclosing who paid for them. But such criticism is not likely to end a practice that for first-time authors, small trade associations, and even well-known corporations such as Home Depot Inc. and Volkswagen AG offers a handsome payoff: the ability to place a message before a mass audience for much less than the cost of buying traditional ads.

NewsUSA, which bought out one of its competitors a few years ago, says it has been growing in recent years. It was among the first in the field to distribute content directly to webmasters and through automatic Internet feeds.

The company's typical clients "can't afford to buy Super Bowl ads to get their message out to the public. And not all newspapers can staff full-time writers to cover all the topics of interest to consumers," Smith said. He added, "This is not hard journalism news, and I don't pretend that it is."

NewsUSA counts about 4,000 newspapers, such as the Fort Dodge Messenger in Iowa and the Norman Transcript in Oklahoma, and 700 radio stations as regular users. The Washington Post has used NewsUSA copy in advertising sections in the past, Smith and a Post advertising official said.

"It's not glamorous. It's not for the client who wants to see whiz-bang techniques," said Patti Londre, president of the Londre Company, an ad agency in Los Angeles that has hired NewsUSA to do work for Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc.

For example, a recent NewsUSA piece offered readers ways to trim their electricity bill. It mentions the sponsor, Heil, a maker of air conditioners, once. Another story that ran several years ago in West Virginia's Charleston Gazette was titled "Family togetherness increases after Sept. 11," in reference to the 2001 terrorist attacks. It started as a typical trend story and ended with a plug for Dole Fresh Vegetables.

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