Why Medium failed to “fix the media”

Apparently Medium failed to fix the media. Maybe it didn’t need fixing?

The story of Medium

Nathan Baschez recently wrote a post titled Did Medium Succeed? He wrote it the day after Ev Williams left his seat as the CEO of that platform. I’m not going to comment on Baschez’s story, but I am going to pick up on one little line that everybody seems to gloss over.

That line is:

…the full truth is more interesting and complicated. It’s worth taking seriously by anyone who wants to know how traditional publishers and open platforms collide, why so many well-intentioned efforts to “save media” seem to end in disappointment…

Nathan Baschez, Did Medium Succeed?

The key points in Baschez’s article are that:

  • Medium was created to solve discovery
  • People stopped turning to Medium to discover what to read, instead using it as a PR ‘dumping ground’
  • Click bait posts became the most popular
  • Medium hired influential writers to write for them, which cost them bucketloads
  • They introduced a subscription model
  • The subscription model’s value proposition was super broad, which weirdly kind of worked for them, partly because the platform keeps 50% of all subscriptions
  • On Medium you hit publish and earn; on Substack you hit publish and grind
  • The majority of revenue is still captured by the top publishing companies
  • Writers prize more than independence: Access, risk, prestige, support among them
  • Distribution is still more impressive via traditional publishing than digital platforms
  • Substack’s ideology is at odds with its commercial incentives
  • Medium is still in with a fighting chance to get the model right.

But again, at the bottom of the article is this unaddressed elephant in the room:

There was a lot of lofty rhetoric in the early days about fixing the attention systems that feel so dysfunctional on the internet, and I think it’s clear those systems are going as strong as ever. But was it ever reasonable to expect otherwise?

Nathan Baschez, Did Medium Succeed?

What is ‘the media’, anyway?

In 2022, talking about ‘the media’ as a catch-all for public-facing publishing is a cop-out. It does not answer the question of what the media is or how to define it. Equally, it does not establish parameters that allow us to interrogate the success or failure of any venture, online or offline. In order to establish whether ‘the media’ is broken, you must know what you are talking about.

In Baschez’s world, ‘the media’ encompasses traditional media (as in, plural of medium), which are in hardcopy print, and which have a digital component. That is: Newspapers.

In Casey Newton’s world, ‘media’ is equal to ‘publishing’, whether that is online or offline. In evaluating Ev Williams’s departure from Medium’s Executive Officer role, Newton included Williams’s history in blogging and social media platforms as part of his ‘media’, despite focusing entirely on the publishing aspect of his work.

Scathingly, Newton writes:

It was always grandiose to suggest that a humble blogging platform could fix the internet. Now Williams has kicked himself upstairs, and it will be up to someone else to try to fix his company.

Casey Newton, Ev Williams Gives Up

I define ‘the media’ much more broadly, but for now restrict it to long-form writing.

This means that the ‘media’ I refer to here and throughout includes:

  • blogging
  • magazines, in print
  • magazines, online
  • newspapers, in print
  • newspapers, online

It does not include social media, creator platforms that enable writers but do not focus on writers (lookin’ at you, Deviant.Art and Patreon).

Why is ‘the media’ broken?

Baschez repeats that the media is broken. Newton’s phrasing is ‘systems that feel dysfunctional on the internet’. If you follow the references down the line, it becomes Ev Williams commenting that the ‘internet is broken’, and investors stating that Williams wanted to ‘make publishing profitable’. I’m not going to go further down this line; I merely want to point out to you that the claims made by writers about other writers is often like a game of Chinese Whispers.

Back to the point. If ‘the media’ is broken, what are people trying to solve? What does it mean for it to be ‘broken’? From whose perspective?

If you are to zoom out a little bit and include televised media (television, streaming, YouTube, etc), then the argument that the media is broken is untenable. It does a fantastic job at distributing messages, creating earworms, and even brainwashing people. Repeated information is often perceived as more truthful than new information.

Here is a brilliant example of multiple news stations saying the same thing verbatim:

The above clip from YouTube is not an isolated example. There are plenty of others if you choose to go looking.

Perhaps it’s an issue of politics

It is instructive to study how the Murdoch empire developed, in order to understand that publishing is a powerful business. While Rupert Murdoch has famously stated that he ‘never asked a Prime Minister for anything’, his domination over media landscapes is telling. In Australia, almost every newspaper–free or paid–is owned by NewsCorp.

Ownership is a big deal. In the USA, only six companies that own almost all of the media outlets:

Source.

They are Comcast, Disney, National Amusements, NewsCorp, TimeWarner, and Sony.

In Australia, the situation is even simpler. Four corporations control the majority of print and radio media: NewsCorp, Nine, Seven, and Southern Cross Holdings.

Media ownership is a landscape of shifting sands. If that’s something that interests you, it’s useful to keep an eye on the Harvard Index of US Mainstream Media Ownership.

As independent journalist Elizabeth Minter aptly writes that the concentration of media ownership (in Australia) corrodes democracy. When you understand that this is because media platforms are the prime gateway for message dissemination, you understand why ‘the media’ is so influential: Access to voters.

The pen is more powerful than the sword, no?

This fabric is influential beyond politics

As I wrote about traditional versus vanity publishing, and as Baschez wrote in his summation of reasons why traditional media is successful, there is a whole bucketload of distribution, prestige and influence that you can only achieve via commercial publishers.

It’s not just that vanity publishing has no equivalence in terms of objective evaluation of your work, it’s the perception of others. You can test this by running various statements past your friends and family. If you say, ‘I published this in my online newsletter’, you’ll get a very different response than if you said, ‘I published this in the New York Times‘ (or your newspaper of choice.

That is even before we get to subsidiary issues of control. While editors and owners do strongly control the messages that appear in their publications, the internet is filtered too. And not just at country level (hi, China): Depending on which search engine you use, you won’t even realise that you’re not seeing a whole lot of material that isn’t in Google’s favour.

Right now the ugly truth is that mainstream media works

If you’d like to massively increase your profile, get fantastic backlinks to your own website (or newsletter, or Substack…), gain opportunities to be headhunted by book publishers, then you can’t do better than to get yourself a regular publishing spot in a major newspaper or magazine. If you achieve this, then you can let all of your social media go. You can literally write a column, and your books, and off you go.

However, that’s not a palatable story for many. It requires focus and attention. You have to trade your stories and portfolio up the chain, as Ryan Holiday wrote in Trust Me, I’m Lying. It is also a very long play.

The internet has trained us to expect that the hard work is done for us:

Medium ‘solved discovery’ for writers. Yes, well, so did The Australian newspaper; Vogue magazine; Harper’s Bazaar.

Substack allows writers to earn subscriptions. Yes, well, so does PayPal; but if you get paid for your writing by a major publisher, you don’t also have to grind to grow your list.

The argument that journalists don’t have jobs is one that I often hear. That there are no jobs for journalists, that they’re all being sacked because someone can’t afford to pay them. On the other side of that coin are the many hundreds of outlets seeking pitches and writers for the insane content churn required by any publication in modern times.

We’re a long way past a daily news cycle. We’re in an sub-hourly news cycle. If you can pitch and deliver, then you’ll have your work in front of other people consistently, and you won’t have to keep spamming LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or any other platform to do it. If news isn’t your bag, then you may be interested to know that personal essays are among the most sought-after types of work. The challenges that editors face is (1) work ethic, (2) delivery, and (3) quality. If you can hit all three then the world is your oyster.

So is the media broken?

The answer to the question is the media broken depends on which lens you’re looking through.

If you’re looking through a lens of distribution and access to your work, the media is a powerhouse that is not going to get any weaker.

If you’re looking through a lens of autonomy, it depends on what your take on autonomy is. Is it I want to publish this thing without any other input? Then, yeah ANY media is broken to you. Is it I want to publish thing and would love to make it better? The media is not broken; you just have to find the right outlet and pitch it so that they’ll publish it.

If you’re looking through a lens of money, it depends on what you want to earn. Want megabucks? Build a profile and a quality portfolio that demands megabucks. Want the occasional donation? Run a blog, send a letter. Want to hit publish and get paid? Then opt into an advertising-driven model like YouTube or Medium, but don’t expect to ditch your day job.

The humble little blog on your own domain is still powerful, too.

Many proponents of new publishing platforms will argue that blogging is dead. That’s what social media proclaimed, too. And yet what are ‘new’ platforms like Substack and Medium? They’re blogs. They just happen to be on someone else’s domain, with a few extra features.

If you publish a blog on your own domain, then the SEO benefits are yours. Publishing blogs is still a key driver for good SEO: Active sites get more traffic from bots. And you stand more chance of other people finding your work and linking to you.

It’s just that blogs are no longer considered ‘media’. Are they?

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