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Back in 2012, Medium launched to great fanfare. Not only was Medium the brainchild of Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, but also it was a Silicon Valley darling with a lot of high-profile contributors and backers. Medium promised to revolutionize the world of online publishing by doubling down on original, high-quality editorial content and letting the magic of content recommendation engines help readers find the right content at the right time. It was a company built to celebrate great writers and great content. Fast forward nearly a decade later, however, and Medium is clearly floundering.
The downsizing of Medium’s ambitions
Yes, Medium now has more than 700,000 paid subscribers and more than $35 million in annual revenue. For any media outfit, those would be some pretty interesting numbers, especially in the current environment, when even mainstream media stalwarts are having a tough go of it. But here’s the thing – Medium just offered voluntary buyouts to its ENTIRE editorial staff of 75 employees. This is not just about “trimming the fat” or “rightsizing” (or whatever corporate jargon you’d like to insert here) – it’s about gutting the whole operation. What if the entire staff takes the buyout deal (which has been unanimously described as being very generous)? Medium wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the lights on at night because, well, there wouldn’t be anyone around at night anymore. Clearly, something has gone very wrong here.
So what went wrong?
Based on information already in the public domain, there appear to be several conflicting theories about why Medium might be gasping its final breath of air. One theory says that Medium’s founders were counting far too much on the power of great, original content to convert “free” readers into “paid” readers. The idea was that the content would be so amazing that any reader landing on a Medium story or article would feel an overwhelming desire to subscribe to the site. But is that really the way the internet works these days? Do people want to pay for anything, no matter how good the content is?
Another theory blames Medium’s management for its misguided steps. Medium was still running itself like a Silicon Valley startup, despite nearly a decade in the industry. And Medium had a similarly painful period back in 2015, when it let go of 50 editorial staffers, so it’s not like Medium’s is just now experiencing some rocky turbulence. Around 2017-2018, Medium decided to abandon an ad-supported model to focus on a subscription-based model. And Medium launched all kinds of flagship publications to entice potential subscribers. Deep down, Medium’s founders believed that, “If you build it, they will come.” But they didn’t.
And, finally, another theory suggests that Medium might have placed too much faith in “highbrow” content rather than “lowbrow” content. At the end of the day, it was low-quality content from mercenary freelancers who understood the value of clickbait who were pulling in more readers than all the fancy, highbrow contributors that Medium was paying $1 per word for original, high-end journalism. In an era when people barely read more than the headline of an article (and certainly not much more than the first paragraph), was this really a surprise? Sad to say, but low-cost content farms producing all sorts of random, clickable content might have the advantage these days.
The future of Medium
Clearly, there is a need for powerful publishing platform like Medium on the internet. But maybe it’s time for Medium to admit that its push into original, high-quality journalism was simply just an incremental improvement on what mainstream media already offered rather than something startlingly new. If people aren’t subscribing to newspapers and print magazines anymore, what makes you think that they will be subscribing to content platforms like Medium? No doubt, Medium was an interesting experiment in media and journalism, and one that was filled with so much promise when it launched back in 2012. But that was a decade ago, and a lot has changed since then.