When Medium was born in 2012, and especially when it reached its maximum impact in 2015, it was seen as a savior. The savior of laid-back journalism in the age of click-bait and intrusive ads. And also, as the regenerator of the blog model that had lit the beginning of the massive internet and that had lost a lot of presence in a way.
Today there is hardly any of that left. Evan Williams, founder and CEO of the platform (if it ever decided to be a platform or more a medium in itself) announced a few days ago that it offered the 75 publishers who were still on staff the option of an agreed exit. It has not been confirmed, but it is to be expected that this will cease all the publications that Medium had promoted in recent years, and that it will simply remain, now, as a technology company, and not a media company, that offers a writing platform .
Along the way here, Medium has undergone many changes in its business model, in its relationship with freelance writers and media groups itself. To the point of becoming completely blurred.
Is Medium a blog network, a portal network, a blog post trying to find direct money for writers, a CMS like WordPress…? Surely, he has wanted to be all and none of that at the same time.
This is the story of how an idea that was welcomed with open arms has ended up falling into unimportant importance. From how it has gone from the phrase “you have to open a profile or a blog on Medium” to almost completely leaving the conversation both in journalistic and technological terms. The epilogue is missing, but surely we are also already talking about the story of a failure.
The birth of Medium, the obsession of Ev Williams
Medium’s history is inextricable from that of its founder and CEO, Evan Williams.
Williams is today a billionaire who made his fortune after being the co-creator of Blogger -in origin, Pyra Labs, acquired by Google in 2003 to create its blogging platform- and Twitter, of which he became CEO during a stage.
Williams devised and launched Medium in 2012 as a platform for writers under the slogan “A beautiful space to read and write, and little else”. In a way, as a response to Twitter, its own creation, and its character limitation, and also to a time when the internet was cooking the explosion of intrusive ads and click-bait that in a way still continues. .
Medium was offered in its beginnings as a free platform, in which the written text was the center. There were no banners, and the design was committed to minimalism.
But what was initially a place for anyone to write long texts soon began to pivot. In 2013 Medium took over Matter, a science and technology publication, incorporating it as its first medium within the platform itself. Medium had started to emerge as a publisher.
The rise of Medium – as it collected investment rounds that were not very important compared to other companies but big for the media industry – coincided in 2015, the moment in which Barack Obama started posting on the platform. Today the profile of the president of the United States is still active, with the Executive of Joe Biden retaking it in recent months. But in just this five years, a curious anecdote illustrates the direction that the company has taken.
A few days ago, The Verge published an article in which he spoke with 14 Medium employees reviewing their major failures. One of the most recent was that Biden’s team found that the president’s profile was receiving recommendations for erotic stories. Something had changed. Medium grew by putting editorial content curation at the center, something that it seems to have left behind to rely on algorithms that, apparently, consider that these stories are the ones that most increase retention on the platform.
Something of the original idea, as pure as utopian, had been broken.
Many model changes
But let’s go back in time again. In 2016 Medium was proud that the metric it gave the most weight to was the time its readers spent on the platform, above any profit margin. In fact, since 2016 it seems that only Williams funds have been active.
That year, however, was the one in which Medium leaned more because it was a media platform, and no longer independent bloggers or personalities. In 2016, he reached an agreement for Bill Simmons, a renowned sports journalist, to merge The Ringer with Medium as a CMS.
They would be joined by several more registered media to join Medium. Backchannel, focused on technology, was another of the most important. Two years later, and in view of the drop in its traffic and the difficulty of integrating greater possibilities of advertisements and monetization -Medium always prioritized advertising through non-intrusive sponsored content- The Ringer went out to VOX Media and Backchannel was integrated into Wired.
As for independent authors, the models also changed. In 2017 it introduced a membership or subscription option for $ 5 a month or $ 50 a year that allowed readers to read content behind a paywall of their own brands. It also enabled an autonomous option for independent authors, who were rewarded for the amount of ‘Claps’ (applause) they received in their texts. Later, he pivoted that model towards another in which they were offered a proportional share of income based on the reading time with which they retained the reader.
Many changes, in a nutshell.
And little profitability
Medium has always been fairly non-transparent with its metrics, arguing that it wasn’t something they cared about. By 2016 they assured that their platform received an average of 60 million visits per month, although Comscore as an independent auditor only registered 3.
The payment wall option was also weakening, and in 2019 it announced that visits from Twitter would not encounter the payment wall, allowing these users to read freely.
In that interlude, and while their ‘signed’ media left, Medium changed models again generating their own brands in order to produce engaging journalism and stories. He then founded OneZero, his own science and technology publication; Elementary, wellness and health; and Zora, focused on the experiences of black women.
Those publications were awarded for their content, and were fed directly by the editorial team of 75 people who are now offered paid leave.
As a last proposal, Medium has tried to become a kind of bundle of other media such as The New York Times or The Economist, including in its membership content that these media hide (although sometimes not), within their own paywalls. To be a kind of Netflix of the media, in short.
The announcement of a few weeks ago limits its activity only to its offices in San Francisco – it closed and those in New York – and the silence of its international editions. In the Spanish edition, for example, they will stop curating content.
We do not know what will become of Medium in a few years, if it will continue to bet on being a media network -something that seems complicated with the layoffs- or will it really try to make a hole as that kind of Netflix of the media. The only certain thing is that there is little left of that utopian attempt to return blogs and quiet journalism to the gap they occupied in an internet very different from today.