• 01.05.17

Medium proves how hard it is to reinvent media in tech’s image

Following news yesterday that Medium will lay off a third of its staff in yet another gargantuan pivot, serious questions abound about what this company wants to be and at what cost. “It’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet,” Ev Williams writes, and so he resolved to do away with its advertising staff and fix the entire problem. But in its pursuit to figure out a new business model, tethered businesses stand to pay a price.

The move follows a somewhat predictable track for Medium. Since its inception, the company has planted itself fully in the media business. It began as a blogging platform, then became a full-on content creator, and then scaled back to more of a CMS-like approach. All of these iterations involve the business of writing. At the same time, Medium wanted to remain a tech company and keep that scrappy startup ethos no matter how big and tentacle-laden it became. Tech companies change quickly with the times, throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. Facebook’s famous mantra was “Move fast and break things.”

But breaking things has consequences, and what lay in Medium’s dust are the remnants of non-tech partnerships and other companies that relied on it. One of startup’s biggest pivots in 2015 was when it decided to not be a content creator and instead just foster external partnerships. On paper that made sense—the company shuttered a bunch of its sites, which would ultimately save heaps of money. The problem is that it had spent the previous year building up those projects, hiring dozens of editors, writers, and designers to create a brand. Ultimately, decided Medium, the experiment just didn’t work out, and partnered businesses suffered.

Now Medium is pivoting again with a potentially similar outcome. What we know for sure is that 50 employees are being axed. What we don’t know is what will happen to the publications partnered with it. They are not tech companies swaying from business model to business model, but media outlets that rely on Medium to both power their digital publications and create a way for revenue to flow. Until now, that meant relying on the very ads Medium now says it no longer wants to sell. Politico reports that all of the publications were caught off guard by yesterday’s news. Indeed, one website was slated to launch on Medium today and had no idea this pivot was on the horizon.

We can only assume they are regrouping and figuring out what’s next. In their eyes, the future and livelihood of their business is in peril. But it seems for Medium, this is just business as usual.