We are not paying for quality journalism. At least, not like we used to. Subscriptions to newspapers are at an all-time low. And online and offline advertising has not brought the riches we hoped for either. The result? Quality journalism increasingly under threat.
Ev Williams – a former co-founder of Twitter – introduced a new solution to tackle this problem: a publishing platform that enables everyone to share their stories and ideas.
Medium was born.
It might not sound revolutionary, but there is a double twist. First, the platform is all about reader interaction, e.g. exposure is based on how readers vote an article up or down, rather than through editorial discretion. Second, it is not about the author, but all about the content, e.g. instead of categorizing your work after publishing, you first think about the topic you want to contribute to, and only then start writing (NiemanLab, 2012).
To get traction, Medium had to build two separate value propositions: getting the writers to write, and publications to publish; and getting the readers to read.
That was not an easy proposition: due to network effects, it is difficult to create value for both readers and writers. Having more readers on Medium will make it more interesting for other readers to join: it allows you to see which articles are trending, follow what friends or key opinion leaders read, and comment and discuss with peers. In addition, for writers and publishers, it is also advantageous: the more people are on the platform the higher the likelihood that readers will find my articles, and give me access to a new stream of potential readers.
It’s a classic self-fulfilling prophecy: the more people are on it, the more newspapers want to be on it; and the more newspapers are on it, the more people will find the platform, and the more publishers need to be on it to beat competition.
Medium realized that the key was getting people to start publishing – the readers would follow. As a result, it did everything it could to get writers to use the program. Three actions stand out.
First, by making the platform incredibly easy to use. If you think WordPress is easy, try Medium. Within 5 minutes you could have a beautiful blog up-and-running.
Second, by allowing only a select group of journalists and whiz kids to use it at first, creating a certain exclusiveness (and secretly hire a few top writers to help produce excellent early content) (The Atlantic, 2013).
Third and last, by developing a sophisticated content management system built for larger publications. For instance, Pacific Standard, who admitted to never having a developer in the first place, was given a whole team that helped transfer its entire archive to Medium. After they migrated, they got access to Medium’s proprietary tools such as customizable paywalls and sponsored content (NiemanLab, 2016).
In so doing, Medium was quick to establish itself: big publications such as ThinkProgress, The Awl, The Ringer, and later also Forbes, started migrating to the system. In total, more than 7.5 million posts have been published. And readers quickly following: 60 million unique monthly visitors (up 140% from last year’s numbers, and quickly catching up with the New York Times who has 72.9 million unique visitors) (Adage, 2017; VentureBeat, 2016).
The question remains if Medium has enough time to beat the competition, become the platform by default, and then start capturing value.
Investors are getting anxious. In January of this year, CEO Williams was forced to reduce its staff by 33% (letting go of 50 of the 150 employees) (Medium, 2017; NiemanLab, 2017). It comes at an inconvenient time: with lots of publishers considering migration, further uncertainty about the platform’s future might have serious consequences. They will only migrate if they can be sure they will be supported in years to come.
The problem of multi-homing still exists: both newspapers and users are still using different applications. Although Medium is trying to lock-in its customers on both sides (through newsletters, subscriptions, and full archive migration), they face an uphill battle.
And then there’s the challenge of competing platforms such as Facebook. They too are entering the content market. The more people are captured by content, the more likely they are to stay on a platform (explaining the introduction of instant articles by Facebook – they ensure people do not multi-home).
The Atlantic (2013). https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/08/what-is-medium/278965/