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Stories to call their own

Some people told Michael Shoer that the idea behind NewsProNet was crazy. Television stations, they said, would never trust an outsider to produce high-profile franchise news segments. Yet today, NewsProNet Inc. (NPN), the company he founded eight years ago, claims 185 clients in more than 140 markets for its flagship product, SweepsFeed.

Its clients get 96 highly researched and produced special reports each year. Atlanta-based NewsProNet provides the research, a full script, and produced video segments complete with split-channel audio so that stations can insert their own local talent. Stations also get a complete source and background briefing as well as suggestions on how to localize each story.

"This is not filler material," said Shoer, a former CNN news producer and consultant. "This is material each station can call its own."

SweepsFeed producers choose stories based on a proprietary research scheme that screens topics for audience interest and demographic skew. NPN also acquires tips from several scientific organizations before reports are published in scholarly journals.

Stations pay for the service based on market size. Fees can range from $9,000 to $12,000 annually for smaller markets, to $30,000 for the top 10. "The cost is a fraction of what it would cost a station to produce this kind of content on its own," Shoer said.

Still, tight budgets have forced some stations to take a hard look at services like NewsProNet. Lee Polowczuk, news director of Fox affiliate WHNS(TV) Greenville, S.C., dropped SweepsFeed last month after a group-negotiated deal expired. "At some point," he said, "if I have to choose between a news service and a local reporter, I'm going to fight for my reporters."

Still, he hopes to figure out a way to bring back the service, which he says saves time and allows his staff to do more in-depth local reporting.

Tough economic times have forced changes in the way NewsProNet finances its operations. It does more barter deals, which now account for about 40% of sales.

Stations seem to like the service. Although declining to reveal specific numbers, Shoer said NewsProNet revenue will grow nearly 40% this year, despite a rough year for broadcasters. "In many ways, we offer the antidote to the pain that a lot of stations are feeling" by reducing the time need to cover some stories.

Steven Schwaid, vice president of news programming for the NBC owned-and-operated stations, agrees. "If you figure than 30% or 40% of an enterprise story is research and investigation, well, they've already done a great part of that. So it saves us that research time."