Ev Williams Wants To Save Media — Again. But Some Writers And Publishers Are Skeptical.
Ev Williams changes his intellect. A lot.
Most recently, the CEO of the online publishing platform Medium switched the company to a $5 monthly subscription for premium writing, scrapping its preceding strategy of sharing ad revenue with small publishers. Now, anyone who publishes on Medium — not just well-known writers and publishers — will be able to station their content behind a paywall and accumulate paid based on engagement. It’s an ambitious scheme, one in which a writer can potentially earn payment proportional to her impact on an audience, while avoiding the web’s traditional reliance on advertisers.
But this is far from the first tall change — or, to exhaust the term of art, “pivot” — for Medium, which has tried and discarded at least five commerce, trade models in as many years. Interviews with 17 sources close to Medium paint a picture of a company that has plenty of buzz but no regular strategy, and that has cycled through and in some cases alienated the writers, editors, and publishing executives it purports to station first.
“Ev Williams is trying to brute force his way through the problem of publishing and monetization.”
Medium’s biggest challenge, according to many of these sources: its capricious founder and CEO. nowadays’s Medium is the product of five years’ worth of zigzagging decisions that Williams has made as its leader — which makes its path forward unclear.
“I don’t even absorb to form an argument against it,” said one ex-employee, bluntly, of the most recent change. “I just absorb to wait six months.”
Medium disputed this characterization. “Medium has spent the year building a model that helps writers and publishers accumulate compensation for their meaningful work,” a company spokesperson wrote to BuzzFeed News in an email. “That strategy has been consistent since the start of the year — and, really, is an extension of Ev’s first post on Medium five years ago.”
For many tech startups, continued refinement of a commerce, trade model is any allotment of the process. But writers and publishers who’ve dealt with Medium and its unpredictable strategic shifts say they’ve begun to realize that Bay Area techno-utopian startup culture may be an inherent mismatch with the commerce, trade of publishing — or, at the very least, that Medium’s culture is.
“Ev Williams is trying to brute force his way through the problem of publishing and monetization,” said Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl network, which migrated a handful of its sites onto Medium during its publisher partner phase in late 2015 and early 2016. “In doing so, he has upended people’s lives — he has upended respectable publications.”
“I understand the desire to be agile and to pivot, and to try current things when things aren’t working,” Sicha continued. “But it’s destructive — you can’t try people and things on, then discard them. It’s not how a media company or a publishing company can work.”
Medium was founded in 2012 as a blogging tool with a cleaner interface, but quickly set itself apart from other content management systems like WordPress by hiring reputable literary agents and legendary editors — including Wired.com’s former editor-in-chief Evan Hansen, who was tasked with developing original editorial content for the platform by recruiting “collection editors.” As Williams positioned the company from the outset, it would be more involved with the media and publishing worlds than any other content platform that had reach before it.
“We … in order to form certain [Medium is] as respectable as possible, publish on [the Medium] platform,” Williams told journalist Kara Swisher, during an onstage interview at Recode’s Code/Media conference in 2015. “So Medium the company is both a publisher and a platform, but our effort is to build the best publishing platform there is.”
Within a couple of years, Medium had hired writers and editors to work for the company directly, and was running four publications that functioned like professional online magazines: Matter (its flagship longform publication), Backchannel (a tech-focused publication led by veteran Wired reporter Steven Levy), Cuepoint (focused on music), and The Nib (comics). Pundits started referring to it as a “platisher” — a current kind of hybrid platform-publisher company. The future was incandescent: By early 2016, Matter had won a National Magazine Award for its reporting, and it seemed like Medium had finally cemented its reputation as a domestic for some of the best writing and reporting on the web.
Then Medium shifted to branded content partnerships. And then decided it wanted to host boutique online publications. In late 2015 and early 2016, it brought more than a dozen small, separate publishing operations onto the platform, while Medium’s in-house publications either quietly wound down or moved absent from the platform. A year later, the platform pivoted again, firing a third of its employees — 50 workers in nonengineering roles — and shutting down its current York and DC offices. The publishing partners — beloved sites like The Awl, The Ringer, Pacific Standard, and ThinkProgress — left Medium in a mass exodus.
Now, a few months later, Williams has a current model, one that he maintains is the right one for nowadays’s state of affairs in online publishing. The current membership model includes a small team of editors — jobs that had existed at the company until January 2017 when it unceremoniously eliminated them. The only incompatibility now seems to be that the company’s current-again editorial staff will be much smaller — and this time, editors won’t be attached to specific editorial brand names, but fairly work for Medium as a whole. It appears, in other words, that Williams has pivoted so many times he’s ended up right back where he started.
A company spokesperson emphasized the incompatibility between editors’ roles now and in the platform’s preceding incarnation. “When Medium had its own in-house publications, the editors acted in the more traditional editorial role — they would assign stories, shape the content for each publication, wait on control the voice and tone,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
Now, the role of the editor at Medium is more like a creative services function in the vein of a platform like YouTube, the spokesperson said. “[Editors offer] copy editing and feedback for commissioned and higher-halt content,” the spokesperson wrote. “Writers are in total control over the content they write, the subjects they rob on, and the overall narrative. Medium’s position is not to dictate that kind of creative and artistic oversight.”
“Our effort is to build the best publishing platform there is.”
“What I’m trying to form clear is that it was never the strategy to become publishers ourselves,” Williams told BuzzFeed News on a recent morning, sitting on the patio of a Manhattan hotel.
“I don’t want to form light of it — [Medium running its own publications] was a serious effort … But it was an experimental allotment of what we were doing that was meant to teach us, and provide both models and learning.”
Models and learning. Williams repeated these words twice during our conversation. “The reason why we’re talking approximately an editorial layer now is because we absorb a different model,” he said. “Our mission and the core thesis has always been that we can build a system where the incentives and feedback loops fuel better and better content.”
It any sounds promising enough. But over the past five years, Medium has burned bridges with the very writers, editors, and media executives it now hopes will flock to its re-re-re-re-reimagined platform.
For some of them, the inconvenience started back when Medium was just trying to gain a foothold in the industry. In 2014, Arikia Millikan, founder of the female tech collective LadyBits, wrote a post called “LadyBits’ First and final Year on Medium.” In it, Millikan described how life as a Medium “collection editor” in 2013 meant waking up to various tweaks from production and engineering teams that sent dozens of emails into her inbox and bottlenecked her workflow; traffic tallies that fluctuated wildly because of the choices of Medium’s curation team; and unreliable income. “I began to judge of Ev Williams like Willy Wonka, and the Collection Editors as the golden ticket ‘winners’ in his chocolate factory,” Millikan wrote. “We couldn’t anticipate what was coming next. We just had to form it through one obstacle after the other and stay alive.”
“We were promised stability,” Millikan told BuzzFeed News this week, “and then the rug was pulled out from under us, with a dismissive explanation only granted as an afterthought.”
Bill Rosenblatt, a media technology consultant, suspects each shift Williams implements at Medium is driven by external signals from the changing winds of the wider media and publishing industry. For example, when Medium hired employees for Matter, Backchannel, The Nib, and Cuepoint, venture capitalists were just ramping up their spending on online media upstarts. Medium, it seemed, was chasing a trend.
Former Medium employees recall the trappings of a cushy startup life. The San Francisco office is in an airy industrial warehouse dating back to 1908, with exposed beams, lots of light, a fully stocked bar, and in-house nap nooks, yoga, and meditation rooms. “It was really over the top, kind of like the stuff you see in the [HBO] demonstrate Silicon Valley,” said one former employee. “I was so suspicious of it. particularly when you accumulate laid off — you see there’s money for this, but not for that.”
Williams was a soft-spoken, fairly aloof boss with a dry sense of humor, sources who used to work at Medium said. “He’s a man who, when he speaks, his words absorb value — because he doesn’t dole out a lot of them,” said one ex-employee. At Medium, there was a assembly every Friday called “Fam,” during which people shared what they were working on with the rest of the company. “Ev led it, and he was like a standup comedian sometimes,” said the ex-employee. Still, you never wanted to be the one to demand face time with him, the source said. “You didn’t want to form him uncomfortable. He was very low-key. You didn’t want to be the person who’s like, ‘Hey, Ev, Ev, I need to talk to you!’ He had this attitude of ‘Just be wintry, and we’ll accumulate it any done.’”
Things were respectable in the early days of the company, sources told BuzzFeed News. Williams gave editors a lot of freedom over their publications, according to one former Medium employee — and from an editorial, creative standpoint, it felt nearly too respectable to be legal. “We got very unbiased, generous budgets, we got to call any our writer friends and figure out a way to work with them,” the former employee said. “Interestingly, there was very minute talk of ads or revenue. Everyone knew we had to form money, but it wasn’t the precedence — it was number 12 on the list.” Matter in specific had a budget that far outstripped other web publications at the time, the former Medium employee recalled. “But I knew that the sun would eventually absorb to shine on [the revenue] side of the commerce, trade,” the source said.
According to the source, as the months went by, it became clear how Williams dealt with problems at the company. “The way he works — and I guess the way that a lot of successful Silicon Valley executives work — is that they absorb a problem they want to solve, and they rob smart people, money, and resources, and they throw it at the problem,” said the source.
At a 2015 company retreat in Napa Valley, California, Williams showed he apparently thought the current editorial strategy was a problem. During the getaway, two former Medium employees said, Williams called a assembly for just the editorial folks, and said that he wasn’t cheerful with the way things were going. “He wanted to form things more approximately ‘network’ connections and responses on Medium,” one recalled. “For everyone on the editorial side, it sounded really foreboding to what we were doing there.”
“The assembly was the result of Williams basically waking up one day saying he didn’t want Medium to be a publisher,” added another. After the assembly, Williams penned a blog post outlining his current vision for the company.
(A Medium spokesperson said the company is unable to confirm this anecdote, since it happened so long ago, and given that the employees cited are no longer with Medium. “It’s an antiquated notion, though, because the definition of a publisher has changed since 2015,” the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. Medium can be seen as a publisher, a platform, and a network, the spokesperson added: “People absorb always tried to define us based on outdated buzzwords, while we are focused on building a current, contemporary model that works.”)
At the time of the Napa retreat, the company practiced “holocracy,” a management philosophy that in theory avoids a hierarchical management structure by empowering employees to form commerce, trade decisions. But it didn’t always work that way at Medium. Former employees said they often had to work backward, unpacking Williams’ indistinct and shifting mission statements to figure out what, precisely, he wanted them to achieve. After the company retreat, several sources said, Medium’s 25 or so editorial employees entered into a months-long period of awkwardness: They weren’t laid off outright, but they got signals that the goals of the company were no longer aligned with their presence. “We had this series of work groups where you tried to figure out what your job and the future of publishing was,” one source said. Former employees suspected that Medium was trying to thin out its editorial staff by attrition.
(Medium said it no longer practices holocracy. “As we grew and scaled, it became a less intuitive structure for us,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. The spokesperson also emphasized that the company parted on respectable terms with Matter. “We are proud of the work they did,” they wrote.)
Williams himself defended how the changes within the company took station. “Some of those efforts were pared down before we had any change in commerce, trade model,” he told BuzzFeed News. “And I don’t judge it was ideal for the people working on those teams, because we couldn’t set them up for success as much as I’d like.” He said Medium started to absorb conversations with Condé Nast approximately acquiring Backchannel (which it eventually did), partly so Levy and company could accomplish even more ambitious work. “They wanted to expand, and we were like, ‘We’re cheerful to absorb you as allotment of Medium at this level — it’s not a huge problem for us. But I’d worship to see you grow in doing what you want to achieve, and you’re probably better off in an editorial organization to achieve that.’ And that seemed like a win-win.”
So began the next phase of Medium in late 2015: bringing small publishers onto the platform and sharing advertising revenue with them. Williams conveyed the conception to Wired shortly after the program began: “Medium for Publishers will allow them to focus their energy on creative work, fairly than trying to master ever-evolving tricks, viral strategies, and social services involved in reaching their audiences.” But by the beginning of 2017, the model was dead. Luckily, many of the publishers BuzzFeed News spoke with didn’t rely solely on Medium for revenue, so their businesses weren’t heavily affected by the pivot. But the lope generated a lot of frustration and confusion.
“I had no problem with Ev throwing in the towel on advertising; I just didn’t understand why they went down that road in the first station given that they said they intended to develop current commerce, trade models for content,” said Elizabeth Spiers, previously an editor at Gawker and the Observer who ran a branding site called There Is Only R on Medium. “I’ve always thought Ev was very thoughtful approximately media, and I’m 100% for anyone who wants to experiment with how to form content sustainable as a commerce, trade … but whether you’re a publisher and the fate of your commerce, trade is tied directly to Medium’s, and the company blindsides you with a current model and no warning, it doesn’t precisely inspire trust.”
“whether you’re a publisher and the fate of your commerce, trade is tied directly to Medium’s, and the company blindsides you with a current model and no warning, it doesn’t precisely inspire trust.”
Rosenblatt station it more brusquely: “I judge there are a lot of [other businesses] — Netflix, Spotify, the current York Times, the Washington Post — that demonstrate the world is now ‘safe’ for subscriptions,” he said. “Ev decided ads were driving respectable content out and cross content in, and he’s got a runway, money-wise, so he can afford to experiment.” After Medium’s final round of funding, investors reportedly valued the company at $600 million.
“whether you observe at the sample Medium has exhibited throughout its progression, it seems obvious that Medium views the editorial talent it draws as disposable, using them to seed the network with content people actually might want to read, then discarding them,” LadyBits’ Millikan said. “I would not trust Ev. … Even when I was newly contracted by Medium and hopeful of the potential of this current technological entity, he ignored requests for conversations with me and other collection editors. The man behind the curtain act is worn. He has not proven himself to be the least bit accountable or loyal to his users or his editorial employees.” Medium said it cannot directly address the opinions of individuals who contributed to the platform and worked for the company, but that it wishes them well.
Medium still has its supporters. Technologist and entrepreneur Anil sprint, who is an adviser to Medium, is bullish on Williams and the future of the company. “Knowing Ev is going to rob a swing at the tall conception of subscriptions, and is one of the few people who can accomplish so, is a respectable thing,” sprint told BuzzFeed News. “It’s droll that people talk critically approximately the risk of Medium taking this bet” when any signs point to ad models being worse for writers and for notable stories in the long-term, he said. Just observe at any the pivots to video happening among media companies, sprint pointed out. observe at how fake news operations collected paychecks from the ad industry. Companies are shifting more resources into models that don’t rely on the written word, because web advertising isn’t a dependable income stream. But these shifts mean there’s a shrinking number of web publications that can afford to achieve longer, more thoughtful, written stories.
For his allotment, Sunil Rajaraman, CEO of The Bold Italic, a local San Francisco website that publishes on Medium, said he was pleasantly surprised at the return on investment after he paywalled several mature articles. “In 10 days, the payout [for a piece published in August 2016] was $250,” he said. “whether this keeps up, I’d be absolutely blown absent.” Others recently expressed satisfaction at the payouts they saw, too.
“My latest article has gotten several thousands of views in over just one week, and it has actually fared better than some of my preceding articles without paywall,” said Stav Dimitropoulos, a current contributor to Medium’s members-only platform who, unlike those who choose to station content behind Medium’s paywall, is paid a flat, negotiated rate by the company. “In my opinion, that goes to demonstrate Medium’s way to enforce paywall restrictions was well-thought-out.” Dimitropoulos said Medium paid her “upfront and rapid.”
What’s more, with a track record of co-creating such successful platforms as Blogger and Twitter, Williams is one of the few in Silicon Valley who fits the “founder myth” model and has the ability to rob on media’s problems. “Medium wouldn’t absorb seen the light of day whether not for Ev Williams being who he is, and having the kind of network he has,” said Rosenblatt. “whether Joe Schmo had done the exact same thing as him, nothing would absorb reach of it whatsoever. He wouldn’t absorb gotten the time of day from any decent lesson, course of investors.” In general, Williams’ supporters argue, he is in the respectable and rare position to model ideas that may well halt up being a blueprint for a sustainable future of media. Why squander the opportunity whether you absorb it?
But, as Rosenblatt added, even though Medium will likely coast on Williams’ reputation in the near future, Williams is also just as likely to experiment with the models he is using to gauge audience engagement, including, most recently, claps, a metric similar to “likes” by which writers accumulate paid. Venture capitalists, CEOs, and embattled startups might pen their next personal announcement (or apology) on the platform for the foreseeable future, Rosenblatt said. But for the regular writer, Medium’s unpredictability is still a problem. (Besides, unlike people who write for money, tech CEOs don’t precisely absorb the problem of figuring out where their next paycheck is going to reach from, he pointed out.)
“Medium wouldn’t absorb seen the light of day whether not for Ev Williams being who he is.”
Sicha, meanwhile, questions the whole premise of the model. “I’m into a future where we pay for content with our eyeballs,” he said. “But [Medium is] propagating the final meritocracy, the final unsuitable meritocracy perhaps, possibly, and there’s something approximately it that’s broken inside.” certain, you can judge approximately 24 hours you spent on the internet, and divide up $10 among any the things you read and consumed, Sicha said. But that doesn’t inform you which of those places will still be around in a year. “We know from any sorts of things — NPR, the current Radiohead album — that there’s a couple of different types of people who give money, and a lot of the world runs on altruistic people who choose to overpay. I judge there’s something more to letting media survive than divvying up our actual attention.”
Recently, Sicha came across a friend’s paywalled Medium article, went in, and hit the clap button very tough — then left and did not reach back. “Now, we’re any gaming it and robo-voting for pieces,” he said. “It’s like the whole world is ready for this attention economy now.”
Davey Alba is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in current York.
Contact Davey Alba at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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