Last year Medium made a big push to line up a number of high-profile publishers to migrate to its site. It was part of Medium’s ongoing balancing act between being a straight-up publishing platform a la WordPress and a publishing company with a number of brands under its umbrella. It attracted The Ringer, Film School Rejects, Think Progress and others and made a big deal of how it would handle ad sales as well as offer other attractive features to take some of the pressure off those publishers so they could stop worrying about business and keep working on content.
Earlier this year Medium’s Ev Williams announced the company was pivoting and that it would shutter many of those logistical support operations. Since then FSR – and now The Ringer – have announced they will leave Medium and go elsewhere. FSR decided to go back to WordPress while Bill Simmons’ The Ringer has opted to seek hosting and ad sales help from Vox Media.
Lots of headlines were generated as various sites talked about how and why they were choosing Medium and the future of that site seemed to be bright. But the shift in focus this year has called it into question and the doubts are only growing with each new publisher that abandons it for greener (literally in terms of dollars) pastures.
As I’ve said many times before, this is just the latest in Medium’s seemingly endless lack of ability to answer the question of exactly what it is. There’s no doubt it’s a decent publishing platform, but it’s not as powerful as WordPress or other tools. The main attraction seems to be the network and how the site handles discovery, promising to surface content to interested readers in ways that WP and others don’t. But at the same time it’s tried to be the modern version of something like Time Inc., a company that has publications in its portfolio. It’s not quite that, though, since it doesn’t have the same oversight or editorial role.
If Medium won’t provide the kind of support for big-name publishers then the best bet it can make is to continue working to attract independent writers and bloggers. For that it will continue to make the same “we’ll show off your work to friends” pitch it’s been making for years.
In that sense it’s the very culmination of the “blogging is free” mindset that has been plaguing the online world since the early days of Web 2.0. Whereas staring a WordPress or other blog brings with it a number of design and other considerations (especially if you’re a brand looking to start a corporate blog), Medium is simple: Just sign up and start publishing. There are no look and feel factors to deal with.
The problem that’s unique to Medium, especially when compared to something like WordPress, is that you’re subject to Medium’s terms and conditions. Yes, that’s true on WP as well, but with WP’s open source commitment you’re pretty safe if Automattic, which manages it, should go under. WordPress will go on because it’s embedded in a large community. Barring a bigger change in strategy, if (or when) Medium goes under then that’s just it. You will likely be able to export your posts for usage elsewhere, but that network will be gone.
The Ringer, FSR and the other publications that are exiting Medium have found that a company that can’t decide between being a platform and a publisher is committed to no one who chooses either option. Medium once more faces a moment where it has to decide what it is and wants to be before any path forward can be taken.