Medium Is Becoming a Major Platform, for Better or WorseBy Noah Waldman June 8th, 2016
On June 1, Grantland came back—sort of. Seven months after ESPN shut Grantland down for good, The Ringer, Bill Simmons’s new publication, went live. The stories were the same creative, indulgent fare you’d find on Grantland, but the look was very different. It was more of a blog than a website. In other words, it was Medium.
The Ringer isn’t the only name-brand media operation to turn to Medium. In April, Medium announced agreements with other publishers including The Awl, Pacific Standard, FemSplain, and FilmSchoolRejects. All of these owned sites moved their archives and started publishing directly on the platform.
It’s clear how Medium benefits from this migration: tons of cheap, quality content. But what’s in it for the publishers who give up their own websites to hop on the platform?
Medium’s own copy parrots the benefits of platforms in general, highlighting how it can “eliminate the need for any investment in tech, provide access to a growing network oriented towards meaningful engagement, and deliver constant, always-on innovation from a world-class product development team … all for free.”
The minimalist presentation, simple backend, and suite of sharing functions make Medium a pretty handsome platform. Publishers only have to worry about creating content; Medium takes care of just about everything else.
When it comes to building an audience, that relationship between publisher and platform is what makes Medium truly interesting. When pushing a blog post on a platform, your potential audience is the size of that platform. Medium curates content, which means any publisher has a chance of being featured on the front page of the entire platform rather than the front page of just a single owned site. While not always the case, it’s generally accepted that a larger audience makes a publisher more valuable. Since Medium relies on native advertising and sponsorships—Miller Lite, for example, sponsors The Ringer—instead of banner ads, audience size is a major selling point.
Partnering with sites like The Ringer, The Awl, and Pacific Standard also gives Medium another advantage: prestige. These publications bring along a highbrow reputation that gives Medium legitimacy. As a publisher on Medium, you can join the ranks of some of the highest regarded publishers on the web, as well as individuals like President Barack Obama, Joshua Topolsky, and Chris Altchek.
But with all these benefits come trade-offs. Most notably, the publishers that join Medium sacrifice their visual identity. Besides avatars and any other custom inline material, every post on Medium looks essentially the same—same font, same borders, same details about estimated reading time. The spartan aesthetic will definitely appeal to some. But there’s a difference. When you went on Grantland, it was clear you were reading Grantland. When you go on The Ringer, you’re reading Medium.
That difference extends beyond just design. Medium reserves the right to delete any content on its platform for any reason, meaning that the editor-in-chief no longer has final say what goes live. And even though Medium promises that the actual creators still own all of the content, that doesn’t stop the platform from changing itself in the future that publishers might find unpalatable, just as Google, Facebook, and Twitter regularly tinker with algorithms and features. There’s built-in dependency.
As the saying goes, don’t build your house on someone else’s land, because then you have to pay rent. The two largest platforms, Google and Facebook, already make 85 cents of every new ad dollar spent online, largely on content other people make for those platforms. If Medium aspires to be blogging’s answer to Facebook, will the publishers be able to keep Medium “rent-controlled” so they can make a profit? Or will people start finding content on Medium’s feed instead of actively seeking out specific sites?
Much of this is still hypothetical. Medium is still in the stage of trying to attract more publishers to grow its network, so, for now, it seems to be a benevolent dictator. But like any advancement since the discovery of fire, Medium has the potential to become a resource that helps its partners thrive, or burn down all their homes along the way.