Making and updating a website from scratch is an annoying hassle. You have to figure out hosting, and servers, and layout, and fonts, and all that garbage; you have to make sure you can handle traffic and are secure against hackers. All of which help explain why a number of small but well-respected websites — including the Awl, the Hairpin, Pacific Standard, and the Black List — have elected to abandon their backends and move to Medium, the publishing platform founded by Twitter founder Ev Williams.
Medium has, in the past, been unable to clearly define whether it was a platform, like Twitter or YouTube, or a publisher (it won an award from the American Society of Magazine Editors earlier this year), or both. The news, announced with great fanfare on Medium today, is a signal that the three-year-old company (thinks it) has figured out what it wants to be. It’s spun off its flagship in-house publication, Matter, into a separate initiative, and announced a curation program of its own to highlight third-party work. Now, it’s focused on bringing in marquee publishers to build their own content on top of its technology. In addition to the sites mentioned above, work from Time Inc., Fortune, and Atlantic Media will start to appear on Medium and the yet-to-launch Bill Simmons site The Ringer will do so as well.
In other words, Medium has now placed its bets firmly on the “platform” side of its bipolar business. It makes sense. Of the many reasons given for the decline of the media establishment, one of the most compelling has been the technological blind spot of many publishing companies, which operate at a slower pace than the portals and social networks that dictate how much traffic they receive. Part of the reason that BuzzFeed — to name the most prominent example — ate everyone else’s lunch so quickly is due to their substantial in-house tech department. Many others outsource development of new features to contractors. Medium wants to be everyone’s tech department (and, eventually, their ad department as well). In return for bearing the brunt of that work, Medium gets a bunch of publications to publish good stuff on their platform.
And for a small website in particular, the pitch is good: Medium takes the hassle out of the technical aspects of running a website — things like developing content management systems (there is no such thing as a good CMS); optimizing for mobile (faster load speeds, responsive design); and importing content into other optimization platforms (Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP) — and provides revenue options, including sponsored posts and subscriptions. As its copy says, “Say goodbye to paying for hosting, scrutinizing plugins, or hiring tech and design consultants.”
But it’s also hard not to wonder what it means that so many prominent small blogs are leaving self-maintained backends for a new life on a larger, VC-funded platform at once. For one, there’s the ever-present concern about hosting your content on another company’s website: What happens if it runs afoul of your partner’s standards, however they may be defined? And, maybe more sentimentally, what’s happening to the idea of small-scale, sustainable, independent web publishing?
The dream of the internet, with its low overhead and near-infinite user base, is that a smart publication can find a large audience whose attention and traffic can sustain it. But it’s increasingly clear that the demands of the web economy are squeezing out the already-small middle class of independent content creators — even those with audiences in the hundreds of thousands. If Medium can help small and self-sustaining publishers like the Awl and Pacific Standard be better, for longer, that’s something to celebrate. But it also feels like the latest in a series of increasingly clear signals that the display-ad model, relying as it does on irritating and cheap programmatic ad networks, and competition with much larger publications (not to mention social networks), is not a sustainable business model even for the smart and popular.