After Union Push, Medium Follows the Trend

Medium CEO Ev Williams, in a companywide email:

Though Medium has been an open platform since day one, we’ve had an editorial team almost as long. The original thesis was that we wanted to establish that Medium was both open and high quality. We wanted to set the bar high. We were successful in doing that, and, since then, the editorial part of our company has gone through many iterations as we’ve strived to find the right way to integrate it. In 2014–16, we published great original content but we didn’t have the right business model to support it.


As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I strongly believe that the editorial talent we have assembled here is a strategic asset that is in line with our business and strategy. For the foreseeable future, we will focus that talent on supporting independent voices on our platform. This means identifying writers — both already on Medium and not — and offering them deals, support, editing, and feedback to help them tell great stories and find their audience.

So instead of house publications like OneZero, GEN, and the just-launched Momentum, Medium is following Substack’s strategy of hiring individual writers. This is because, as Williams writes, “the role of publications — in the world, not just on Medium — has decreased in the modern era”, which is a sentiment I worry deeply about. I love following the work of individual writers, but there are also plenty of publications that I read because I trust them and their editorial standards.

As I was writing this, I was reminded of something Steve Jobs said eleven years ago:

I don’t want to see us descend into a nation of bloggers … I think we need editorial oversight now more than ever.

With a somewhat liberal definition of “bloggers”, this remains true. There is plenty of great reporting done every day by people who are not star journalists.

Medium’s latest pivot is yet another example of the company’s inability to focus on anything, at all, ever. About seven years ago, Medium had a handful of in-house publications like Steven Levy’s Backchannel and the Nib. Those brought in regular readers, so the next step was monetization.

Davey Alba, writing for Buzzfeed News in 2017:

Then Medium shifted to branded content partnerships. And then decided it wanted to host boutique online publications. In late 2015 and early 2016, it brought more than a dozen small, separate publishing operations onto the platform, while Medium’s in-house publications either quietly wound down or moved away from the platform. A year later, the platform pivoted again, firing a third of its employees — 50 workers in nonengineering roles — and shutting down its New York and DC offices. The publishing partners — beloved sites like The Awl, The Ringer, Pacific Standard, and ThinkProgress — left Medium in a mass exodus.

Now, a few months later, Williams has a new model, one that he maintains is the right one for today’s state of affairs in online publishing. The current membership model includes a small team of editors — jobs that had existed at the company until January 2017 when it unceremoniously eliminated them. The only difference now seems to be that the company’s new-again editorial staff will be much smaller — and this time, editors won’t be attached to particular editorial brand names, but rather work for Medium as a whole. It appears, in other words, that Williams has pivoted so many times he’s ended up right back where he started.

That was then; this is now, with Medium pivoting to Substack because it cannot commit to sticking with anything or maintaining job security. And that latter thing seems to be related to this latest corporate shift.

Edward Ongweso Jr, Vice:

The move comes less than one month after all Medium employees — including the editorial unit — attempted to unionize and lost by one vote. Employees at the company say that journalists who work at Medium’s nine publications were not the initial driving force behind the union, but were some of the most vocal supporters of it. The news media industry (including VICE) is highly unionized; the tech industry is not.

Four current Medium employees told Motherboard that in the leadup to the vote, Medium and Williams himself discouraged the company from unionizing. Medium hired the unionbusting firm Kauff McGuire & Margolis in the leadup to the February union vote. Williams also held “coffee chats” with small groups of workers, where four current employees told Motherboard that Williams said that it would be difficult to raise money from venture capitalists if the union won the vote.

Medium keeps trying to eat its tail, and venture capital firms keep sinking tens of millions of dollars into its flailing efforts. Five years from now, Medium could have pivoted two or three more times, or it could be entirely wiped from the web. It’s anybody’s guess.