Even in a digital-media landscape that is dotted with odd startups, Medium is a strange beast: founder and former Twitter CEO Evan Williams has said it uses the magazine as a guiding metaphor, and yet it is also a platform for anyone to publish. It has “collections,” which are sort of like mini-magazines, and yet the site itself is like a magazine. As part of the relaunch of Matter, a journalism startup that Medium purchased last year, Williams tried to put some of the questions about his site to rest, but instead seems to have only compounded the confusion.
In a post on the site — cleverly entitled “What is now the Matter at Medium? And Other Questions, Answered” — the Medium founder addressed the debate about the company’s focus head on, or at least seemed to, by saying: “Yes, we are a publisher.” Only a few sentences later, however, Williams states that the site is a platform, and that Medium the company is just one of the publishers on the platform. Matter is another publisher that also uses the platform, he said.
For his part, new Matter editor Mark Lotto (formerly with GQ magazine and the New York Times) admits that what the new site or collection or section or whatever you want to call it is doing “is hard to explain.” It will do some news, but isn’t a news site, and it will do long-form, but isn’t just for long-form. In a nutshell, he calls it “sort of a magazine for a generation who grew up not caring about magazines.”
We’re not going to be Wikipedia-broad, but we’re not going to be niche either. We’ll jump in big on the stories and issues from across the globe we actually care about, and think you care about too, and we’ll skip the rest.
The terminology is falling behind the market
What we have here are a bunch of terms being used more or less interchangeably: “magazine,” “platform,” “publisher,” etc. In a nutshell, Medium is in that intermediary space between a traditional media company and a platform — a similar space to the one occupied by a number of other digital entities, including the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Forbes and Gawker (some have tried to coin a new word to describe this hybrid model, but I would rather not use it).
So on the one hand, Medium the platform allows anyone to publish, and then the crowd and the site’s algorithms and editors decide what content rises to the surface. At the same time, Medium has hired editors to run what it calls “collections,” which are essentially curated mini-magazines (and the tension between the magazine model and the platform model has caused at least one editor to leave the site and take her content elsewhere).
On top of that, as Williams notes, Medium also acts like a magazine itself and commissions writers to cover certain topics, as it did with former Reuters writer Felix Salmon recently. Those writers are paid a certain fee, while other writers for collections are paid based on an in-house metric called “total time reading” — and then of course some writers aren’t paid at all.
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) June 9, 2014
Sometimes it’s okay to experiment
Confused yet? You’re not the only one. But while there’s a natural tendency to want to fit Medium into a specific kind of box, or to get it to answer the question of what it is once and for all (a question I myself have asked in the past), I think it’s sort of admirable that the site is experimenting with a bunch of different models — not just for finding or publishing content, but for compensating writers and tracking metrics around how that content engages readers.
In fact, I wish Williams had embraced this approach more openly in his post — that he had said something along the lines of: “You know what? No one really knows how this online media thing works, or what the best model is, so we are throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and we’re going to see what sticks” (to be fair, he did hint at this approach to some extent, saying the relaunched Matter will get new features that could later be rolled out site-wide).
That was my response to some of the confusion around Vox as well, before it launched. As media theorist Clay Shirky said some time ago, we actually need the new-media environment to be chaotic and confusing, because so little is known about what works and what doesn’t. Medium may not have it all figured out, but it is fascinating to watch. Who knows? Maybe we might learn something.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier