CELEBRITY COLLAPSE PART 2: GAWKER, MEDIUM and RECODE on one side: VOX, BUZZFEED AND VICE on the OTHER…

On Wednesday, I wrote a piece about how CELEBRITY wasn’t guaranteeing success to ONLINE JOURNALISM nor STREAMING MUSIC.

In addition to the two companies I highlighted there (RECODE and TIDAL), there’s another VICITM of overpaying for NAMES and CONTENT that’s now being forced to change it’s raison d’être: The much HYPED PLATISHER (PUBLISHER AND PLATFORM, more on that lexical disaster later): MEDIUM.

On May 20th, Ev Williams, former Twitter CEO, and now a partner at MEDIUM, penned an occasionally meandering missive about how MEDIUM was “not a publisher, but a platform:” It’s a longish piece (with some nifty graphics), but let me try and sum it all up for my faithful Collapsers with a direct quote from Williams:

“That’s why I say Medium is not a publishing tool. It’s a network. A network of ideas that build off each other. And people. And GIFs (yeah, we have those, too — not our specialty, though, to be clear).”

Now, I must admit I’m new at this Blogging game (as I wrote previously here and here), and I understand that it takes a LONG TIME to find a site’s voice, identity, etc…so believe me, I have a lot of sympathy for a business — like MEDIUM per se — that is experiencing growing pains or an identity crisis as it evolves.

However, the growing pains at MEDIUM have been there ALMOST SINCE its inception, and this is just the latest in a LONG LINE. And each and every one of it’s MUTATIONS has fascinated me.

However, Williams’s letter from May 20th, really, really FASCINATES me BECAUSE: It literally FLIES IN THE FACE OF THE COMPANY’S WHOLE PHILOSOPHY, and I’m not so sure this is a GROWING PAIN, but an outright NECESSITY for future survival, both in terms of economics and RELEVANCE. Here’s a prime example of what I mean by literally changing MEDIUM’S WHOLE REASON FOR EXISTENCE…

In an April 2015 interview with WIRED, WILLIAMS was ecstatic about the potential creative/economic/cultural windfalls of being a PLATISHER (here’s another fast link on that term) But apparently, now MEDIUM, is strictly a —

PLAT.

Now I’ve devoured lots and lots of takes on this decision, and I find there’s one aspect journalists (and these are GOOD JOURNALISTS) don’t seem to be touching on:

The TIMING of WILLIAMS’S ANNOUNCEMENT. It came on May 20th.

On May 26th, RECODE was bought by VOX.

MEDIUM and RECODE (NOTE: RECODE was never a PLATISHER, but…) share TWO things in COMMON:

They both have a markedly overwhelming appeal to tech people (in the case of RECODE, it was a literal TECH PUBLICATION), but even MORE importantly:

They are/were two employers of top-drawer, highly-regarded and FREQUENTLY EXPENSIVE WRITING TALENT that has never reached a WIDE ENOUGH AUDIENCE. RECODE not being a PLATFORM had to give itself over to VOX to try and build a sustainable audience off VOX’S PLATFORM. MEDIUM at least has the PLATFORM aspect to survive and not risk absorption into a larger entity, because if MEDIUM wasn’t a PLATFORM — It would be RECODE.

Hence, part of why it’s becoming a PLAT.

But if that wasn’t a big enough reason to become a PLAT, there’s more…

We have the chaos over at GAWKER, whose staff just decided to UNIONIZE with the WGAE (Writers Guild of America East).

RECODE (ironically enough) penned an article in 2014, that declared the RISE OF THE PLATISHERS (and in all fairness it didn’t know it if it was a SUSTAINABLE MODEL), but it highlighted FOUR PLATISHERS that could/are doing BIG THINGS: MEDIUM, GAWKER, BUZZFEED, AND VOX. And guess which of those MEDIUM was starting to resemble?

Mr. Williams is a SAVVY, SAVVY man (that whole CEO of TWITTER thing), and you can’t tell me that he didn’t read the writing on the wall. That RECODE (highest quality, expensive, sometimes long form journalism) and GAWKER (a fellow PLATISHER about the get wailed with a UNIONIZING writing force), plus a SEVERE TRAFFIC PLATEAU ISSUE (that MEDIUM also shares), didn’t have something to do with becoming a straight up PLAT.

BUZZFEED and VOX have gone all in on VIDEO, VIRAL, and BRANDED ADVERTISING CONTENT, because a successful in-house video operation lessens the pressures of being a straight-up DIGITAL MEDIA OUTLET (emphasis on JOURNALISM). A true VIDEO EMPIRE (think VICE) necessitates the kinds of multi-million dollar investments (BUZZFEED raised $50 million from VC TITANS ANDREESSEN/HOROWITZ), that takes the pressure off the PUBLISHING SIDE of things, by opening the floodgates of an explosive new revenue stream.

MEDIUM has none of this going for it.

Now, a little extra backstory on MEDIUM may be appropriate at this point, before I go any further:

The company launched in 2012, as just about the prettiest BLOG you’d ever seen — the aesthetics of the site have always been sleek — and the philosophy seemed ACTUALLY CLEAR at that point:

To provide a NETWORK ENABLED REACH for LONG FORM WRITERS and BLOGGERS forced into obscurity, or to write SHORT BITS, to try and keep pace and relevancy against FACEBOOK and TWITTER. So basically MEDIUM was going to be a SOCIAL NETWORK for BLOGGERS to try and resuscitate the form in the face of ACTUAL SOCIAL NETWORKS. And it was from the creator of BLOGGER. Sounds great… …

Then in a somewhat CONFLICTING VISION, MEDIUM —

Decided to bring in the STAR WATTAGE and shell-out for the type of editorial content that comes with highly compensated writers. Plus, it hired Kate Lee, a noted literary agent, former Wired.com editor-in-chief Evan Hansen, took on the science publication MATTER, and it poached Steven Levy from WIRED to start its own tech site called BACKCHANNEL. Additionally, Medium created it’s own “modern version of Dorothy Parker’s Algonquin Round Table” by bringing in some of the Web’s most distinctive (and once again not cheap) voices to write for “THE MESSAGE”. Not to mention David Axe’s WAR IS BORING collection. So in short — MEDIUM assembled quite the stable of unique voices.

But it was supposed to be a BLOGGING NETWORK. Right?

But moving on, what effect did absorbing all this expensive CONTENT AND NAMES have:

Consistently flattening traffic. It never broke out of its NICHE. Well first off, it never defined the NICHE because Medium wasn’t supposed to have one. But what did the NICHE turn out to be: The same demographic as the people who listen to “SERIAL” and “NPR”. “Serial” being a popular podcast broadcast on NPR.

And what is NPR: A certified private nonprofit.

i just don’t think one can build a sustainable PLATISHER MODEL when you’re pulling flat traffic from a dedicated crowd of NPR LISTENERS. On top of competing with other sites for the same NICHE, which is a TINY and unprofitable one, that leads to ABSORPTION in most cases.

In all fairness though, through it all, it’s not as if WILLIAMS didn’t go down SWINGING on the PLATISHER MODEL. He gave it his all.

To try and satiate his writers who were unhappy with the PAY-PER-CLICK MODEL, WILLIAMS developed a new way of gauging metrics called TOTAL TIME READINNG (TTR), a far more expansive method for measuring USER ENGAGEMENT, and which Williams claimed was a blind side to the ADVERTISING BUSINESS, which focused almost solely on CLICKS. He shouted his TTR from the rooftops; he tried to convince ADVERTISERS to get down with the TTR, and to prove its efficacy…

MEDIUM created RE:FORM, a BRANDED NARRATIVE PARTNERSHIP with BMW.

And in the GREAT REORG MEDIUM announced on MAY 20th, RE:FORM got the boot, largely because no one wanted the SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITY, after BMW’s six-month trial was up.

MEDIUM also partnered with MARRIOTT to launch a NATIVE ADVERTISING and BRANDING OPPORTUNITY called “GONE”.

Five stories would be MARRIOTT WRITTEN and FOCUSED and the other 55 would be SPONSORED by BMW. Metrics on that experiment are not available…

So after attempting WRITTEN (PLATISHER) STYLE attempts to bring in NATIVE SPONSORED ADVERTISING…

MEDIUM then decided to go into VIDEO with the AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES “FOREWORD”. Which interviewed BJ NOVAK, JASON SEGAL, and has hopes for LENA DUNHAM and TONI MORRISON, if it SURVIVES. It’s certainly off to a slow start. Plus, MEDIUM has no NATIVE VIDEO PLAYER to support the show, and is counting on YouTube. But “FOREWORD” has the best shot at SURVIVAL, because PODCASTS and VIDEO get you HIGHER AD RATES than STANDARD DISPLAY.

But here’s the problem (and it isn’t actually A PROBLEM), but it is if you’re a PLATISHER trying to go after AD DOLLARS to prove your viability (and I assume MEDIUM at some point would LIKE TO BE PROFITABLE):

One of the first people to love the “FOREWORD” IDEA was LENA DUNHAM. And LENA DUNHAM is MEDIUM’S CORE AUDIENCE already. And LENA DUNHAM is a CULTURAL FORCE that no one actually WATCHES OR READS. Much like RECODE or MEDIUM itself: She has an incredibly large NICHE that has had difficulty MONETIZING ITSELF.

But let’s ask ourselves Collapsers, when was the ONE and ONLY TIME, LENA DUNHAM made PEOPLE MONEY: HER BOOK. Why? Because it had the FULL-FORCE of an ADVERTISING TEAM at a PUBLISHER BEHIND IT. They paid $3.5 million for it, and they were going to make SURE everyone knew it EXISTED.

But LENA DUNHAM doesn’t sell ADVERTISING BUCKS, she needs ADVERTISING BUCKS poured into her to prove she’s a WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT. Then the KICKER HAPPENED…

On MARCH 19TH 2015, MEDIUM created an iOS APP that allowed you to write POSTS from your iPhone or iPad. It also bent the rules for allowing SHORTER and SHORTER CONTENT. That was the WRITING ON THE WALL RIGHT THERE… It was essentially a hands-up on LONGFORM and SPONSORED WRITTEN NARRATIVE ADVERTISING. A mea culpa on TTR. And an acknowledgment that ADVERTISING is a MOBILE BUSINESS focused on BULK BUYS, and CLICKS. And it’s going to stay that way…

Then directly after the iOS APP, came the May 20th MISSIVE.

MEDIUM wants to be a platform with HIGHER LEVELS of USER EXCHANGE. It wants to go all in ON CONVERSATION AND ENGAGEMENT (no more TTR) to boost MEMBERSHIP. The “PLATFORM” is going to rejigger content to include SHORTER PIECES, likely more CONTROVERSIAL PIECES that inspire DEBATE within the PLATFORM ITSELF, maybe even a few BUZZFEED style LIST-ICLES and QUIZZES. WHY?

Let’s summarize one more time Collapsers: It literally makes no FINANCIAL SENSE to build any PLATFORM, on the LURE OF BIG NAMES and building up a POSSE OF TALENT anymore. If you want to build the BEST BLOGGING PLATFORM EVER that’s a great PURSUIT, but then don’t gunk up the mission by blowing your whole purse on EXPENSIVE NAMES and EDITORS, be a sleek BLOG. And don’t DUMP all the money into the POSSE OF TALENT, without having a MOBILE PLAN in place, to help PAY FOR IT.

Because to quote the RECODE PLATISHER PIECE:

“…But the bigger reason is the rapidly changing landscape of media distribution and revenue. The combination of mobile’s small screens and programmatic ad buying has made it clear that successful consumer properties need to have enormous amounts of traffic, and ad units that are essentially content.”

NAME-BRANDED JOURNALISM wasn’t bringing people to MEDIUM, and it’s TTR approach wasn’t making ADVERTISERS happy either. It was TOO HARD TO MEASURE.

So in the future, I’d expect MEDIUM to start looking more and more like VOX and BUZZFEED, and a lot less like GAWKER and RECODE.

But at the end of the day, maybe this is A GOOD THING: MEDIUM was never supposed to be a place for celebrity-branded journalism (hell even Barack Obama, MItt Romney, and Leonardo DiCaprio posted on it, that’s a true shark-jump right there). It actually was supposed to be AN ENGAGED NETWORK in the first place. Maybe the road to RECODE and GAWKER righted the ship. One can hope. But what A MUTATION PROCESS it’s gone through to get back to the BEGINNING, with just a little more BUZZFEED thrown in…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s