Is Medium About to Implode?

Photo by nine koepfer on Unsplash

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Medium is having a bad month. Last week, it came out that buyout packages were offered to the entire ~80 person editorial staff, who were responsible for running and producing its flagship publications and also commissioning freelance writers to bolster their content.

I’ve had the pleasure of doing some work with OneZero in the past on a few different occasions, and it was a great experience. These were smart, excellent people with a knack for both writing and tech who knew what they were doing. And now, just a couple of years after a massive budget infusion, and in spite of continually-growing paid subscriber numbers…they’re being shoved towards the proverbial door.

Oh sure, the cryptic statement from Medium founder Ev Williams might not seem like it’s forcing these talented folks to seek other employment…but tellingly, it offers no clear alternative to a surprisingly-generous contract buyout.

Many professional journalists wrote investigative stories about the situation, but I think the most illuminating of the bunch is this one from Casey Newton, for The Verge:

It’s absolutely worth a read, and gives some clearer insight into the nightmare state of Medium’s algorithm (something I’ve speculated about for a while), and probes into the reasons why the company is pivoting business models for the fourth time in a half decade.

This latest shift also unfortunately comes right on the heels of Medium employees attempting to unionize, and missing the mark by a frustrating single vote. The folks at Vice think this new move is at least somewhat related to Ev Williams feeling threatened by that, and it’s hard to argue against the timing.

I can relate to the revelation that most of Medium’s traffic actually comes from outside sources like Google and Facebook. In the last five years as a Medium writer, I’ve produced over 1,000 articles on audio, headphones, tech, and games. In those years of hard work I’ve gained a dedicated audience of just 4,000 Medium followers…and hundreds of thousands of readers straight from Google.

Aside from a few dedicated followers here and on Twitter (some of whom are now great online friends), the vast majority of my traffic comes from the big search engines. For a guy running a one-man part-time writing operation on the side out of his apartment, it’s a healthy amount of traffic. And sometimes, it’s even worth money.

Sometimes it isn’t, and there’s no clear reason why. I know that online content creation is like gambling, in the sense that there are so many good creators making such an overwhelming amount of potential content that it’s impossible for everyone to be successful. But like other user-driven content platforms, Medium feels like it’s a rigged game, stacked against those that aren’t already successful in other places.

I’ve had the most success on Medium when I was working directly with OneZero. I don’t use affiliate links in my reviews as I don’t personally believe that’s a fair practice as far as journalistic ethics goes, so I rely on reader engagement and support to make a profit. That was much easier to do with the stories promoted and edited by the folks at OneZero, and for about a five month period between October 2019 and February 2020 I had a properly profitable writing business.

When the pandemic hit…my audience didn’t actually go away. People needed headsets and other tools to work from home, and I’ve reviewed a lot of those. But I watched as my monetization dwindled to record lows for no apparent reason. Thanks to a total lack of feedback from Medium about its arcane internal processes, all I could do was shrug and blame “the algorithm.”

Thank goodness I still work another job at a small local radio station. If I didn’t, I’d be hosed.

An extreme lack of care for talented creators at Medium has never been more clear than in this new push to destroy the editorial team. Ev Williams is handing out sizeable final paychecks to 80 people and pretending that it’s somehow a good thing. Will this billionaire’s whims help Medium to last to the end of the year? Or will he get bored of his computer toy again and go find something else to do, leaving the few remaining writers in the dust?

It’s extraordinarily amazing that Medium managed to get 750,000 people to pay five dollars a month for access to premium-tier written content. But I’ll never understand the mindset of “Well yes this is profitable, but not profitable enough so we have to kill it!” It happens all the time in the tech industry.

I always knew that Medium might explode suddenly, but I imagined it would be because of the financial struggles of running an online publishing business and not due solely to the whims of one eccentric man who might hate unions. That’s why I built a backup web platform in the first place.

I have a few articles planned for Medium in the coming month, and those plans aren’t changing. But going forward, I’ll be pushing out more content elsewhere. Medium used to feel like an amazing place that put writers and quality content at the center, and I first found it because its sleek writing tools allowed me to quickly create professional-looking article pages.

After these baffling decisions from the top (and associated revelations), I no longer trust that Medium will last for the long haul. It clearly isn’t the fun platform I used to think it was. Maybe I’m totally wrong and Medium will flourish with its new and slightly vague direction. But I can’t just hope that the whims of someone much more powerful and eccentric than me will align with my personal wishes for a viable platform.

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Alex Rowe

Alex Rowe

I write independent game reviews and commentary. Please support me directly if you enjoy my work: https://xander51.medium.com/membership