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This woman can sell your sob story for £300

Former 'Daily Mail' journalist Natasha Courtenay-Smith has set up an online business offering the case studies that provide the human interest in articles by the press. Sophie Morris reports

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom, whether for a quality paper or a red top, will be well acquainted with the frequent if not daily scramble for case studies to illustrate a news story. If a five-year-old has been left without a primary school place, the editor will want a picture of that child in the paper, alongside a few words, in the first person, from their parents. If women are being denied vital breast cancer treatment, or students failing to feed themselves on a shoestring budget, the cry will go up for "real life" evidence to support the claims.

The first stop for journalists in search of a willing interviewee is usually a charity or other institution connected to the subject in question. Former Daily Mail journalist Natasha Courtenay-Smith is in the process of building up an alternative database for these case studies, which casts her as the middleman between the publications hungry for personal commentary and those with a story to tell.

Or should that be "sell"? So in demand is the real life genre, many magazines and newspapers are happy to pay handsomely for the right sort of in-depth, soul-baring information. Courtenay-Smith manages her service, which she set up in late 2007, via a website, Talktothepress.com. Its homepage describes the thousands people apparently stand to earn from the right story, alongside grateful testimonies from satisfied customers who have sold their stories to The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror, The Sun and Grazia.

She says 300 is a typical fee for a case study which does not involve celebrities or salacious detail. That is the amount the News of the World's Fabulous magazine paid Ellie Lloyd for her story of post-natal depression and laxative abuse, which had received an unsympathetic hearing from her primary care trust.

Since her story was published earlier this year, Lloyd has appeared on Trisha, which is paying for her to attend private counselling sessions, and there is further interest from Woman magazine and an American show. She has also achieved what she set out to: naming and shaming the health service into improving the level of care on offer.

"It was about getting the story out there to make a difference, not for me but for other people," says Lloyd. "I was totally shocked when Natasha mentioned the money, but it is helpful."

It is unusual for quality newspapers to pay for any sort of interview. Apart from the cost incurred, it is widely considered that information should be given freely, and that any financial incentive might cast a shadow over the veracity of the information.

"It's just the way the media is," explains Courtenay-Smith. "Certain publications pay and others don't. That's been happening for three or four years. If they are providing a good story and filling a double page, and the publication in question is willing to pay, I don't see what the problem is." Courtenay-Smith first realised the popularity of real life stories when she was working on the now-defunct Shine magazine. At the time she didn't even know what the term "real life" even meant. "I'd been doing write-throughs with quotes from experts, and suddenly they wanted one person with an amazing story, and that was the driver. That has not stopped, and it has spread through all the magazines and into the papers," she recalls.

In addition to setting herself up as a one-stop shop for time-pressed editors in search of a case study, Courtenay-Smith aims to provide would-be story sellers with a link to the national media. She thinks she can offer better advice than a harassed reporter on deadline, who cannot spare the time to talk an uninitiated outsider through the process of getting a story into print. She is also pitching herself against local news agencies, who regularly sell case studies.

"I was doing shifts at Closer and regional agencies would send in copy, but it would need to be rewritten and the case study would need to be re-interviewed," she says. "I thought that was outrageous. Effectively, they were just paying for the case study's contact number."

Courtenay-Smith is not the first person to realise that providing a service of this kind for free will bring in ample ripe material for stories. A quick search on Google throws up Featureworld, Frontpageagency, Cash4yourstory and Firstfeatures. The latter is notable because, like TalktothePress, it was set up by another journalist with experience in the real life sector, Katy Weitz. Going to journalists with a story, rather than larger agencies, should ensure the end result is well-written and help guard against the interviewee feeling ripped off or misrepresented in some way.

The majority of TalktothePress's stories are sold into weekly magazines and tabloids, "How to feel bad naked" (a bad experience with lifestyle guru Gok Wan, in The Daily Mail) and "I stole from my friends and family to buy heroin" in More magazine are average stories for the organisation, but it will also work where there is no fee involved, apart from for the writing itself. Courtenay-Smith is currently talking to The Sunday Times for a woman who does not want to see herself in any other publication. Let's hope her face fits. In 2006 a journalist writing for Glamour caused waves by requesting that war widows, whose case studies were to be featured in the magazine, were "photogenic", giving the "real life" concept a distinctly unreal flavour.

If there is a further danger of sources inventing or embellishing their stories in the hope of a huge payout, Courtenay-Smith believes any publication would sniff this out. "You can't just write a story and get it published. You've got to stand it up, especially if they've slept with a celebrity and want a high fee. They can't be charlatans. There are lots of hoops they have to jump through to get a story like that into print."

The frequent fines for damages newspapers pay show that this is not always the case.

In a way, TalktothePress operates just like a digital contacts book for Courtenay-Smith. It is much easier for her to let anyone with a story know she exists this way, than to chase down case studies one by one to go with individual stories.

She is not quite a publicist, as she or one of her two writers turn out all the copy themselves something a newspaper would never let a PR do but perhaps she is operating somewhere between the two worlds of journalism and publicity.