The Medium Is/Is Not The Message

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Finding the right place to get your content to resonate has never been easier.

Still, finding the right place for your content to resonate has never been harder. Let’s go back. Let’s go way back. In the late eighties, I was a journalist (though, I always preferred the title “music writer”, I felt that the title of “journalist” was a little too pompous for the work that I was doing). This was long before connectivity, as it is today. Fax machines were still nascent and hardly being used by publishers, journalists and companies. Pitching stories to be published was a brutal affair of rejection. In fact being rejected was welcomed, compared to the usual radio silence. Pitching a story back then was the social equivalent to being ghosted these days. Just nothing back. When social media took hold – the early days of Blogger and Movable Type – it changed everything for me. The ability to use one of these online publishing platforms was – in the purest sense of the word – transformational. I could write, edit and publish my ideas (in text, images, audio and video) for free, to the world. Yes, literally “the world.” My content could reach everyone online, by simply publishing it. No more gatekeepers (as Seth Godin calls them), no more editors deciding which articles go where (and how long/what it should say). This was long before anybody really understood the power of viral content, and just how connected and shareable great content could be.

Now, it’s close to 20 years later and blogging is nothing more than publishing. 

The unique qualifiers that made something a blog post over an article is gone. Blogs used to be different because they were personalized (like an online journal), on a blog platform, RSS feeds, comments, etc… Now, there is nothing that distinguishes a blog post from an article these days. That’s fine. One of the true innovators of publishing is Ev Williams. Ev was behind that first Blogger platform. He then went on to help launch Twitter. If that were not enough, he then launched Medium. For years, Medium bounced around with what it was. For me, Medium always felt like a more independent Huffington Post. You could leverage the growing Medium brand, without investing in your own publishing platform, and the Medium brand didn’t have a political slant or a brand that over-shadowed that of the writer’s. 

More recently, Medium became more and more exciting. 

As a writer, I am constantly looking for places to publish. Recently, the growth, tools and sharing capabilities made Medium a formidable platform. It was – almost – like having your own publishing platform, while leveraging a bigger brand, and the readership of other – more established – writers. It became clear that posts on Medium got more traction, attention, readership and reaction than the articles posted on a standalone blog (like Six Pixels of Separation). Medium seemed like one of the better places to publish your words. 

Now, Ev and the Medium team are rethinking the platform

It’s not because the content is strained. If anything, the quality and value of the content on Medium has only increased, and become more interesting (if you don’t believe me, you should sign up and get their e-newsletter. It is filled with really smart voices). Today, for Medium, the problem seems to be the business model. It’s the trouble with publishing today. No matter what forms of content monetization the team at Medium has tried, nothing has really worked and – with what has worked – it didn’t seem like a long-term strategy. In short: the content is working great, but the advertising is not. 

The real problem with publishing. 

People often comment that the trouble with newspapers was that they did not digitize fast enough and/or they gave the digital content away for free. This created an environment where consumers would not be willing to pay for content in the future (like, today). Or, if consumers would pay for content, it would be digital pennies for the paper dollars of the past. Still, here is Ev Williams – true Silicon Valley royalty and an innovator – that has proven – multiple times – that he not only understands publishing in a digital world, but how to scale it. He too is struggling, because the ad model is both not clear and not effective (more on that here: Display Advertising Is A Failed State). In short: the advertising model is broken. It has shifted from one of scarcity and timing to abundance and constant availability.

Why we all need to watch the current state of Medium. 

Pay attention, fellow business professionals. Medium is now going to be a public and live case study in publishing, journalism, new media, revenue models and advertising. Native advertising and promoted content have proven to be a failed state for Medium (hard to execute and scale). Display advertising and targeted messaging have not worked, either. So, how do publishers capitalize? Those who think that the answer is simply having great content, or content that works have not been paying attention. Content marketers will tell you that great content wins. They’re not paying close enough attention. Some of the best content is happening – right now – on Medium. People care about it… more than they’ve cared for text-based content in a long while. And, with that there are no dollars flowing from it. The result of Medium’s true success with content, is that they are now cutting one-third of their staff, shuttering two of their offices in New York and Washington and making proactive changes to their business model in an effort to figure out where the dollars may be outside of advertising. This is all happening as Medium does appear to have serious momentum. According to Ev’s article about this situation, year-over-year, readers and published posts were up about 300%. Medium has raised over $130 million since it started. I’m hopeful that someone like Ev Williams can help us all figure out how to monetize content in a past-advertising model. 

Still, this is all very scary if you care about content, publishing, journalism, advertising and the future.