In SugarString, the already crowded world of online tech news gets a new entrant. And a new publisher, too, one noted in the gorgeously-designed site's footer and at the bottom of each story: the telecommunications giant Verizon.
With the publication, Verizon Wireless — the United States's biggest mobile phone service provider with $80 billion in annual revenues and 100 million customers — is offering what is being called "brand publishing," a new twist on the growing trend of corporations pushing their own stories out on journalism sites and and social media.
Quietly launched this summer as a pilot project of Verizon Wireless's marketing department, SugarString says it will publish "thoughtful tech-focused stories that track humanity's climb towards the new next." To date, the site's articles have been focused on simply affirming the mobile tech lifestyle, with stories like, "Can New GPS Tracking Technology Empower Victims of Domestic Abuse?," "Is Everyone Tweeting Without Me?," and "Just How Terrible Is Hungary's Proposed Internet Tax?"
SugarString's approach has been straight, if sassy, news reporting. "Hungary’s parliament is considering a bill that would impose a tax on internet use, a hefty 150 forints (US $0.62) per gigabyte," reads the lead on that story. "And the internet is pissed." But to some, that only compounds the concerns. Despite the small "Presented by Verizon" tags sprinkled at the bottom of Web pages on the site, the content is more subtle than "sponsored advertising" modules embedded on many news websites, which have been criticized for confusing readers. What's more, when SugarString stories appear on a Facebook or Twitter feed, Verizon's connection to the site is obscured. SugarString is aimed at serving Verizon's interests with a light touch, including simply through the editorial judgment of which stories appear on the site, and which don't.
To some, SugarString triggers worries about blurring the line between marketing and news stories in a way that erodes the expectation that journalism will focus on what matters most and be driven by a desire to get to the bottom of things. "It's troubling for what it portends about corporate journalism's attempts to steer discourse," said Victor Pickard, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book, America's Battle for Media Democracy.
That's especially so right now, added Pickard, given that policymakers are in the middle of a debate about so-called "net neutrality." Advocates for net neutrality rules worry that Verizon and other major providers of high-speed internet service could slow content that is not in its interests.
But brand publishers say that Verizon is simply doing what it has to do to be heard in today's media landscape.
"There's room for brands to create content in the marketplace," said Piers Fawkes, president and co-founder at PSFK, a New York City firm helping corporations create "thought-leadership" digital publications. And instead of a press release on the merits of the new Droid Turbo phone, it's stories highlighting the freedom of being able to catch-up on your favorite TV show from the sidelines of your kid's Saturday soccer game. To Fawkes, such concerns overlook how much the online conversation -- and the media landscape in general -- has changed.
"As long as content is flagged appropriately," he said, "that should be sufficient."
Much of the attention SugarString has attracted thus far has come because of what's not on it. Cole Stryker, the site's editor-in-chief, told would-be writers for the publication that they'd need to avoid covering the touchy subjects of net neutrality and government surveillance, areas in which Verizon has particular business interests and sensitivities, according to the Daily Dot.
Verizon denied such constraints this week. "Unlike the characterization by its new editor," it said in a statement, "SugarString is open to all topics that fit its mission and elevate the conversation around technology."
Maybe SugarString coverage of such subjects could still come, and in ways that support Verizon's take on them. But, say experts, SugarString can succeed for Verizon without broaching those topics, simply by continuing to reinforce the company's technological ambitions.
"Everything here," says Andy Abramson, the founder of Comunicano, a 17-person marketing agency in Del Mar, California, "is there to promote greater flow of traffic over Verizon's network."
The chance to help well-resourced brands participate in the online conversation has proven appealing to some journalists. SugarString relies on contracted freelancers, many from Brooklyn and other writer-saturated places close to Verizon Wireless's New Jersey headquarters.
What Verizon is up to is a natural evolution, says Brian Dietz, vice president of communication and digital strategy for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. "The Internet has enabled everyone to become a publisher," says Dietz. "People love technology, and it makes sense that technology companies would want to be involved in this conversation. And the whole idea is to produce visual content that get people to click on it. Everyone's competing for eyeballs."
And where once there was just earned media — coverage in journalistic outlets — and paid media, today there are new options out there. "In the old days," says Comunicano's Andy Abramson, "we called it corporate publishing. You'd buy 36 pages and make it look and feel like a magazine." In the modern age, that has become the corporate blog.
SugarString blends earned and paid media: grabbing attention with content that's "on-brand" but presented as journalism. Companies have dallied with the editorial-advertising hybrid known as advertorials, run by publications like BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, or the Washington Post. But the growing prominence of brand-driven editorial content — edvertising, perhaps? — may be rooted in a realization that those corporations might not need those publications' platforms after all.
Today a growing number of people are reading news stories through social media, search engines and what's shared with them via e-mail rather than finding content by going to the main home pages of news sites. Where an article comes from becomes less important than a headline, photo, teaser, and who's sharing it.
"Traffic comes in sideways," says Dan Rowinski. "That's the media world we live in now." An experienced reporter and former editor at the tech publication ReadWriteWeb (and later, ReadWrite), Rowinski is himself in the process of launching, as editor-in-chief, an online publication published by the app-testing company Applause.
On Facebook, at least, a publication name appears only as a tiny attribution rendered in a boxy, gray font. And who can tell a SugarString from a PopSugar from a ClickHole? It's a trick enjoyed by ShareAmerica, a site launched in September by the U.S. State Department to encourage the social sharing of pro-American-values articles.
"Social media allows content to be shared in a way that doesn't take the source with it," said Christina Shaw, the chief marketing officer of the New York City digital advertising firm Blue Fountain Media. "Users typically don't discriminate in the source of the content they're reading."
That's a good thing, say some brand publishers: it forces companies to compete on the quality of their content.
CMO.com, from the software firm Adobe, is a highly-regarded news site for marketers. Txchnologist is an online science and technology magazine sponsored by GE. Food giant General Mills operates the food publication Tablespoon. Collectively is an online publication aimed at giving readers "something they can do to begin creating the world they want to live in;" it's co-produced by Unilever, the Coca-Cola Company, Marks and Spencer, BT Group and Carlsberg.
But brands, like everyone else, are figuring out how to navigate the media landscape. Verizon is taking the long view: "It took the universe fourteen billion years to make a homo sapien," reads SugarString's mission statement. "It's taking homo sapiens just a few decades to make a universe. What kind of a universe will it be?"