A couple of weeks ago, Ev Williams announced big changes at Medium. The company, whose mission back in 2011 was to offer an alternative model to the existing and predominant platforms and publishers, had found themselves to be floundering.
Williams attributed this decision to a number of things, including the fact that he felt Medium had become a different company to the one he originally founded, and that, more broadly in the journalism sector, there was a problem that, “incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it – or society as a whole”.
Anyone remotely connected to the world of journalism would have been unsurprised by the decision to axe a third of the staff and begin the process of exploring other options, but cynicism aside, it’s an amazingly brave decision to have taken. Essentially, this is one of the most notable startups of recent years grinding the gears of progress to a halt and wondering what many of us have been wondering for a while: what is Medium, exactly, and what place does it have in our industry in 2017? There’s a lot to ponder in that question, particularly in light of the changes afoot (or not) in the White House press corp that might extend access outside the traditional roster of publications.
What Medium represents is an ideal of journalism: a place where content is king and good writing is championed irrespective of who has written it. An inclusive, smoothly-running platform where intelligent debate can be facilitated, writers can write untethered from traditional publishers and unburdened from the constraints of the ad-revenue model. Which is presumably why Williams has hit the brakes on the current version of the platform. Not only does the version he currently oversees fail to match his own ideals, it’s clearly not the Medium that any of us need and it runs the risk of reinforcing the current failing model of journalism that we’re all so eager to change.
It’s fascinating to see how long it took them to realise they were heading up the same old blind alley. While the company may have been built on idealistic and forward thinking principles way back in 2012, once they were faced with the realities of life in the industry, those values began eroding. Like other companies trying something different, they have instead, as Sean Blanda wrote recently, “slowly become something antithetical to the ‘better system’ they hoped to build.”
The antitheses in question have principally to do with the way the company appeared to be funded. Firstly, there was the temptation to chase page views in what would presumably have become an advertising frenzy. According to industry observer, Frederic Filou, this model never had legs simply because, “Medium is not a mass/general public destination, and will never be, even if it claims 60 million monthly unique readers.” As Filou points out, it’s unlikely it would have reached that point anyway, simply because Williams was always so uncomfortable with the idea. Even down to its basic architecture, it was never a natural fit for the advertising model.
Still, it went after growth over quality anyway – a sure sign that its idealistic heart had developed an arrhythmia. Our head of content, Jon Wilks, took up the tale in a recent blog post on Medium itself. “Last year I spent some time advising at a big content publishing company who were being actively pursued by Medium,” he recalled. “When I arrived at the beginning of my consultancy, I was told that the plan was to shut down their existing blog and transfer all daily publishing activities to their Medium channel. What struck me most was what a good job their marketing department had done.”
Elsewhere, scale will have allowed for experimentation with branded content, and anyone who contacted Medium with the aim of investing in any form of advertorial, whether it was their ‘Creative Exchange’ programme or otherwise, will have noted that it wasn’t on offer for loose change. Whether this is a route that Williams continues to pursue has yet to be seen, but as Blanda points out, it’s not a path that leads to strengthening of trust. “News outlets,” he says, “are ‘renting’ their credibility to advertisers by muddying the waters for what is ‘news’ and what is ‘advertising.'”
“Rather than pause and review what went wrong, our industry tends to jump from one botched solution to the next”
Perhaps Williams will look at persuing the subscription model, but this feels just as uncomfortable. Having been founded on universal-access principles, Medium is simply not conducive to the forms of subscription as utilized by the models more successful exponents, such as the Economist and the New York Times. By subscribing to either of these traditional publications, you are signing up for a level of quality control that was never baked into the Medium model. As right-on as universal-access principles may seem, why would anyone subscribe to something that can only guarantee minimalist page architecture? Leonid Bershidsky’s puts it succinctly: “Writing to which people will subscribe is not a commodity. It’s rare and expensive [and it] can only consistently be good if its creators can make a living from it”.
So what’s next for Medium? Whatever it might be, we get the sense that sitting back and thinking might be just the tonic Ev Williams and his team requires. For a long time now there has been a kind of frantic desperation in the air, which extends across the industry and into the tech world that we’ve grown to rely on so heavily. ‘That didn’t work, so what’s next?’ Rather than pause and review what went wrong, we tend to jump from one botched solution to the next. As Jon Wilks wrote last week, “denizens of the media world are very quick to coalesce around the latest shiny new monolith and start throwing all they have at it. They’ve never been very good at stepping back for a moment to consider what it is that they’re looking at.” DHH, the creator of the Basecamp software goes a step further: “In Silicon Valley you can’t merely make a better typewriter and sell that at a profit. No, you have to DISRUPT. You have to REINVENT.”
What Williams needs is the chance to refocus on the core of his product – the written word – and in doing so, he wouldn’t be alone. Industry forecasts for 2017 are all striking similar tones: after the issues with the press, fake news, click-bait and audience-media disconnect, they all seem to agree that the only way out is to champion quality content. (Does anyone else get the sense that we’re going around in circles here; that audiences are always going to fall for great writing first and foremost, no matter how much time passes, and that bells and whistles are never going to be the answer?)
As we’ve seen time and again amidst the turmoil of the US election – and other elections elsewhere – it’s a lack of faith in the news industry that’s undermining our situation, and that’s where our redoubled efforts have to focus. Quality content is key. It’s king and it’s everything. It’s here that we are going to rebuild trust, grow a reader base and build reader loyalty, especially when – as Sean Blanda says – “the methods used to fund modern journalism simultaneously undermine trust in the news outlets.”
Medium understood this at the outset. How it refocuses and remains afloat will be fascinating to watch.
As I finished up the edits on this piece, the following tweet from Medium appeared in my newsfeed:
These assertions that will be music to the ears of many. The question is, what are you going to do about it, Medium?