As publishers abandon Medium, can the platform survive?

After completely abandoning traditional display advertising from its site, publishing platform Medium is losing major publications to rival content management systems (CMS). So, can the platform survive in the modern media landscape, or are its ambitions too lofty?

Medium was founded by the billionaire Twitter co-founder and former CEO Evan 'Ev' Williams in August 2012, as a super-clean slate (with highlights!) for writers. It had the ambitious goal of becoming a platform that "defined a new model for media on the internet" and that wasn't dependent on pesky display advertising.

It has since raked in $132 million (£102 million) in venture funding from the likes of Spark Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners and regular contributor and venture capitalist Chris Sacca.

Williams and his team sold bloggers and some smaller publishers on the idea of Medium by offering a platform that could "eliminate the need for any investment in tech".

According to Medium at the time, it would: "Provide access to a growing network oriented towards meaningful engagement, and deliver constant, always-on innovation from a world-class product development team, whether you're a single blogger or a large commercial publication - all for free."

It's clear now that this platform-for-free business model wasn't viable.

Medium sharply shifted focus in January as Williams dropped a blog post titled 'Renewing Medium's focus', and let go of a third of its team, eliminating 50 jobs.

Williams wrote at the time: "We are also changing our business model to more directly drive the mission we set out on originally."

The post read like a reality check for Williams. He wrote: "In order to get these publishers paid, we built out and started selling our first ad products. However, in building out this model, we realised we didn't yet have the right solution to the big question of driving payment for quality content."

His solution? "Shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they're creating for people."

And how was Medium going to achieve this lofty aim? "It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like," Williams wrote. Oh.

The Ringer abandons Medium

Medium initially promised to be "an excellent place for bloggers and professional publishers to set up shop and run their operations," according to former head of partnerships at Medium, Edward Lichty.

One such publisher was the cult American sports, tech and pop culture site The Ringer, created by former ESPN staffer and media heavyweight Bill Simmons.

After leaving ESPN acrimoniously in 2015, Simmons decided to launch The Ringer, essentially a rehash of his now-shuttered ESPN site Grantland and its podcast network, going all-in with Medium as its publishing platform.

The deal was hailed as "groundbreaking" by Medium itself, and the most optimistic observers saw it as a new way forward for publishing, uninhibited by annoying things like ugly banner ads, and the dollars associated with them. That dream died when Williams renewed Medium's focus in January.

Some small independent publishers also migrated fully to Medium around the same time, like The Awl, The Hairpin and Backchannel. The Hairpin is back on Wordpress, while Backchannel outgrew Medium and is now hosted by Conde Nast's, while remaining independent.

So, 14 months after launching, The Ringer needed a new platform, quickly porting over to Vox Media's content management system, Chorus (it is still a clean user experience, but note the banner ad at the top of the homepage).

Here it has agreed to a unique revenue sharing arrangement with Vox Media, essentially outsourcing its advertising to another venture capital-backed media company in Jim Bankoff's Vox.

Following the migration this week - which went off without a hitch externally - The Ringer's editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey wrote that he is "grateful to the folks at Medium who helped The Ringer come to life last year."

However, he was also pretty clear that the platform wasn't working for the site. "What you see today is, as before, a website - but hopefully one that is a more readable, more navigable, better organised, and more coherent experience," he wrote.

Fennessey throws plenty of shade at Medium throughout the post - "plainly, this thing works better" - but to be honest, the new platform doesn't look all that different to the reader.

Where The Ringer appears to be really happy with its new CMS is in the all-important multimedia space, as Medium is predominantly a publishing platform.

As Fennessey points out: "Practically, you'll see that our stories are more deftly organized, our categories clearer to discover, our podcasts collected and sorted to eliminate furious Googling, and our videos prominently displayed on our homepage."

The advertising revenue driven by podcast and video advertising is clearly significant at The Ringer, with loyal partners like SeatGeek, Blue Apron and Verizon often sponsoring shows. This sort of diversification of ad revenue is vital to modern, digital publishers.

What next for Medium?

Medium is still running, and doubtless has plenty of contributors - how else will venture capitalists apologise for their misdemeanours, or startup founders announce why they are leaving? But a route to actually making money still hasn't emerged, which is probably why publications that have to, you know, pay their staff, are abandoning the platform while bloggers remain.

It has been suggestedthat Medium is looking to go down the micropayments route to monetising content, but this is a nut that the tech sector has yet to crack. Then there is the subscription option, which will be tough for a site as general interest, and as intent on democratising publishing, as Medium is.

Nevertheless, a spokesperson for Medium told "At this time we’re dedicated to building a subscription model," but what this will actually look like remains unclear.

There’s no love lost for display advertising among readers or publisher. It’s unattractive for the former and low value for the latter, and is slowly being displaced by harder-to-ignore advertising through video or sponsored content.

But display ads and Google Adwords still pay the bills for many publishers, in particular smaller outfits that lack the resources to negotiate their own branded ad campaigns or to staff a video studio.

So it would appear neither Williams, nor anyone else in Silicon Valley, has the magic wand that will do away with advertising-dependent online media, despite ambition, funding, and the best of intentions.

Until that day comes, please don’t use an ad blocker.

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