The Dow Jones news service has added a dash of "Magnum P.I." to its image—and that's causing a rift with several of the nation's top real-life private investigative firms.
The dispute began earlier this year, when the news service began communicating with private investigative firms that subscribe to its Factiva news service.
Three private investigators said they are upset that Dow Jones salespeople told them they would have to purchase the firm's reports if they wanted to continue to have access to Factiva—at a significantly increased cost to the private eyes. That's because, the private investigators say, Dow Jones no longer views them as customers—it sees them as competitors. Dow Jones is a unit of News Corp.
Factiva is a database the PIs routinely use to scan for news accounts, public records and other information they need about people they are investigating. Losing access to it, the investigators say, would be damaging and costly for their businesses.
A spokeswoman for Dow Jones said the company no longer sells Factiva as a stand-alone product, but bundles the database with a suite of other services it calls DJX. A subscription costs $249 per month per individual user for up to 100 document downloads, and $399 per month per user for unlimited downloads.
"Our Factiva representative told us that we're one of 100 private investigative firms whose contracts won't be renewed because Factiva has decided to compete with us," one private investigator told CNBC. "Dow Jones has to twist our arms to buy these reports, because they think they're virtually worthless."
(Read more: News Corp. sells Dow Jones' Local Media Group)
The Dow Jones spokeswoman said the firm is simply following its policies. "Our policy is that we do not license content to companies that intend to use that content to compete with our products," said spokeswoman Colleen Schwartz in an emailed statement. "While we've previously explored licensing our content and providing due diligence reports as a way of working with certain customers, we've never sold a product on that basis and aren't pursuing it now."
Dow Jones declined to say how many private investigative firms have been denied contracts for Factiva as a result of its policy.
The news service offers a number of products that overlap with some types of investigative products offered by corporate investigative firms, such as "Dow Jones Due Diligence" reports that the firms says "contain only legally obtained information from trusted sources in the public domain." Dow Jones also offers access to a database that includes all the usual suspects a corporate investigator might want to round up, including "Politically exposed persons and their close associates … and high-profile criminals."
All that raises a business question—where does data retrieval and aggregation end and "private investigation" begin? For now, anyway, both sides insist they're in separate lines of business. The private eyes say they add a level of analysis and sophistication that a simple computer generated database search could never offer. And Dow Jones said flatly that the firm "is not in the private investigator business."
—By CNBC's Eamon Javers. Follow him on Twitter: @eamonjavers