Time and again a tech firm wants to support journalism but finds out it is a hard business. No shit Sherlock!
Media people have always had a special interest in Medium, the online publishing platform started by Ev Williams in 2012. A strange mix of tech and journalism, the platform has gone through pivot after pivot. At this point, it mostly has a reputation of not knowing what it wants to be.
Medium brought a few revolutionary changes to the media industry. It grew famous for its clean style of blog posts and a handy WYSIWYG editor (what you see is what you get).
I believe Medium had a lot of influence on content management system (CMS) developers over the years. Just take the Gutenberg editor introduced in 2017 by WordPress (many reviewers have compared it to the Medium editor).
ProseMirror is one of the most popular toolkits for building rich-text editors on the web. It was started in 2017, and has been used by the likes of The Guardianor The New York Timesto build their own text editors for their custom CMS. You don’t have to look too closely to see where the influence came from.
Pivot after pivot
The late David Carr of The New York Times wrote a column in 2014 on Williams and Medium. He described it as “a place where stories are made and read. It’s a blogging platform, and anyone can contribute, with writing on all manner of topics”.
But Medium doesn’t have the best track-record when it comes to journalism.
At one point in 2016 it allowed selected publishers to operate paywalls on its platform. At a time when many doubted the whole subscription/ membership revenue model this was quite a revolutionary idea. But just a few years later you have Memberful and WordPress, Ghost, Substack, Revue and others doing more or less the same.
Unfortunately, two years later, Medium stopped the program and those publishers were caught unprepared and clueless as to what happened.
Chris Faraone, founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, one of the organisations that used Medium to sell memberships, told NiemanLab at the time: “Our experience in dealing with a lot of these tech-oriented operations is that there’s some good reception, but in the end, it’s whatever their whim is”.
The latest pivot brings an end to Medium’s editorial operations. Over the last two years the platform hired a bunch of journalists and writers to boost its own publishing. But even though Medium’s membership has grown it wasn’t the journalists’ work that played the biggest role. So Williams decided to pivot again and cut inhouse editorial staff.
Casey Newton of Platformer takes an insane insider’s look in his “The mess at Medium” piece..
Tech companies, journalism and trust
I am far from the first or even last to call into question a tech company’s motivations when it comes to journalism.
Sure, almost all of the Big Tech firms (and even other tech companies) support journalism in some way. And bless them for that.
But I would be very wary of relying solely on a tech company to support your journalism in the long run. Or getting hired by a tech company to do journalism.
Of course, you could argue that starting a new publication on Substack or Revue is easy, gives you all the tools and you could put all of your effort into creation. In my mind there is a difference.
Substack is a tech company providing service and it’s future depends on giving writers and publications the tools they need. In return it takes a 10% cut. So far, so good. If suddenly Substack started creating its own content or pivoting into other areas that do not make sense for this business, I would get nervous.
Also, with Susbtack, and as far as I know other similar services, you get to take your members (you own the email addresses) away with you. So there is a backup plan and you should always have one in these cases.
But this is the exception, rather than the rule. Journalism is a difficult business, and most naive tech companies that tried it out left bloodied. Medium will not likely be the last – and journalists, too, should be cautious.
This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its bi-monthly newsletter here.