Patrick Howell O’Neill:
Verizon is getting into the news business. What could go wrong?
The most-valuable, second-richest telecommunications company in the world is bankrolling a technology news site called SugarString.com. The publication, which is now hiring its first full-time editors and reporters, is meant to rival major tech websites like Wired and the Verge while bringing in a potentially giant mainstream audience to beat those competitors at their own game.
I have no problem whatsoever with publications having advertisers. If you’re reading this on my site, you’ll see both a graphic ad and a text ad. Once a week, I post sponsored content in my RSS feed.
The difference between what I — and countless others — do and what Verizon is doing with SugarString is a clear divide between content and advertising. SugarString screams Verizon, from the red colors to the bold text. Oh, and the Verizon logo. And the “PRESENTED BY VERIZON” graphic at the bottom of the page.
Then there’s this:
There’s just one catch: In exchange for the major corporate backing, tech reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world, two of the biggest issues in tech and politics today.
Verizon is one of the worst offenders at trying to limit net neutrality and has taken a major hit in the press over this year’s shocking news about programs like the NSA’s Prism. To help counter this, SugarString editors are allowed to cover these issues outside the US, but not inside. Just check out this article on Hungary’s plan to tax Internet traffic:
It’s every government’s responsibility to keep internet charges as low as possible, so access to high-quality information isn’t limited to the rich. By artificially increasing the price of internet access, Hungary’s government would punish users who were trying to contribute to the world’s knowledge and economy. If they managed to force providers to bear the costs, they’d be punishing those companies any time they grew, discouraging them from increasing bandwidth or improving their services. An internet traffic tax is an innovation tax, and any such tax, no matter how small, would be philosophically devastating.
All that about advertising and content being intermixed is small in my eyes compared to this. SugarString is condemning Hungary for doing what its parent company Verizon has been lobbying for — sometimes in terrible ways — for years.
SugarString isn’t bad journalism; it’s not journalism at all. It’s just plain, old-fashioned PR bullshit that is brazen even for a company as tone deaf as Verizon.