Last week, a partnerships manager at Medium working with the White House found that there was a strange problem with the platform: President Joe Biden was being served porn.
The manager was in a video conference with a White House staffer to discuss how Biden, who had used Medium as a campaign blog in 2020, could begin posting to the official Medium @POTUS account. While sharing his screen with the White House, the staffer logged in to @POTUS and saw the first article recommended to him by Medium: “A is for After,” which a sub-headline described as “a cuckold love story.”
The episode captured Medium in all its complexity: a publishing platform used by the most powerful people in the world; an experiment in mixing highbrow and lowbrow in hopes a sustainable business would emerge; and a devotion to algorithmic recommendations over editorial curation that routinely caused the company confusion and embarrassment.
On Tuesday, it also cost dozens of journalists their jobs. In a blog post, billionaire Medium founder Ev Williams announced the latest pivot for the nearly nine-year old company. Just over two years into an effort to create a subscription-based bundle of publications committed to high-quality original journalism — and in the immediate aftermath of a bruising labor battle that had seen its workers fall one vote short of forming a union — Williams offered buyouts to all of its roughly 75 editorial employees.
In his blog post, Williams said he “can see more focused, high-affinity publications working well as part of the Medium bundle.” But staffers I spoke with at Medium’s existing publications largely do not expect them to survive, at least in their current form. A skeleton crew of editors will likely be kept on to promote user-generated posts to the relevant sites; what once had been publications are now likely better thought of as topic pages.
Meanwhile, the company will continue to rely on Google and Facebook traffic to generate hits it can convert into paid subscribers. The acquisition of the e-book publisher, Glose, is intended to create a bigger library of “evergreen” content on Medium that will drive more traffic to the site via search engines. Like Blogger and Twitter before it, Medium will bet on unpaid labor and algorithms.
All of which might be fine to the dozens of journalists about to lose their jobs, if Williams would publicly claim some responsibility for his part in the chaos — ”this crazy ride,” as he called it yesterday. Instead, he points to changes in the industry and shrugs. The media business — what can you do?
But of the employees who remain, few are buying it.
“He keeps talking like this company founded in 2012 is a brand new startup finding its way,” one told me. “At a certain point you’re not nimble and iterating. You’re just floundering and failing to follow through and execute.”
Medium has been a mess for years, this latest pivot is just one more piece.