The “Good Intentions Paving Company” may be a wonderful song written by Joanna Newsom, but it could also be considered Ev Williams’s entire public relations strategy. The tech billionaire behind such big hits as Blogger and Twitter has nothing but good intentions whenever he talks about Medium–an almost six-year-old publishing technology company that has raised $132 million and that Williams still talks about as if it’s a pet project in stealth mode.
Case in point: The New York Times has published a new interview with Williams, where he talked about . . . well . . . his good intentions. Williams wants to save the internet, you see. There’s a “very particular problem that was caused by the economic model of publishing on the internet,” he told the Times‘s Kevin Roose. “That’s the problem I’m trying to fix.”
What Williams is saying is that the market dynamics of digital publishing–which has been dictated for decades by the ebbs and flows of advertising dollars–has broken the industry. If eyeballs and attention are all that matter, then quality is thrown out the window. Williams is not wrong, but it’s also no longer enough simply to state these platitudes to the press and let the claps roll in.
We should look at Williams’s track record for understanding his notion that he wants to fix the internet. While I don’t doubt that he’s earnest in his hope that there can be a new, more sustainable model for online content consumption, his business decisions have produced messy results. Medium, during one of its earlier iterations, wasn’t just a blogging platform but also a publisher of sorts. It hired many editors and writers to work for the site–many of whom created very popular destinations. But then one day Williams decided that this wasn’t what he wanted for the company, so Medium unceremoniously laid off dozens of talented editors and writers and canceled multiple blogs. This is a move that has lived in infamy for many media professionals who were involved.
But that isn’t the only time that Williams, in his pursuit of being the self-appointed savior of online publishing, has left the very people he’s trying to save high and dry. In the following Medium reorganization, Williams decided to bring on popular blogs to be hosted on his company’s platform. They would migrate all of their content to Medium’s CMS–and they would all have a very similar, homogenous Medium look and feel. The pitch to these blogs, which included Bill Simmons’s The Ringer, the magazine Pacific Standard, and Think Progress, was that the company would offer both advertising and other revenue opportunities to keep the sites afloat.
That’s not exactly what happened. Instead, a few months into this grand experiment, Williams announced that Medium was doing away with advertising almost completely. He laid off most of that staff and said his company would seek out more sustainable options for online publishing.
Those blogs that migrated to Medium were left in the lurch. They could either go back to the platforms they were once on, or try to survive ad-free using a yet-to-be-described business model. Many took the former choice, others tried to stay. And this led to some casualties–namely, the beloved blog The Awl.
The Same Old Story
Since then, Williams has continued to wax philosophic about his intention to save the industry. Last year, I sat down with him for an interview, and he described his then latest plans, which were very similar to what was expressed in the Times. He had been recruiting writers and editors (once again) to build a new, new, new Medium, which relies on subscription revenue and other non-advertising dollars. The hope is to build a platform where people pay for content, engage with it, and the writers get compensated based on a calculus of that engagement.
It all sounds terribly familiar, as Williams tells a story that media professionals so want to hear: The last few years have been hard for us. Google and Facebook have increasingly dominated digital ad spending, and their whims have controlled which sites get eyeballs and which do not. Strategies have shifted and entire sites have died as a consequence.
But it’s not enough to simply listen to Williams and nod appreciatively. We should also look at his past moves to illustrate his future vision. It’s especially important that we keep this track record in mind when we’re asking him about future fixes. The sad truth is that his numerous pivots and business detours have done more to hurt the online publishing industry–and, most importantly, the people who keep it afloat–despite his grand words.
When I talked with Williams, he seemed sincere in his pursuit, more so than many others in the tech industry. At the same time, his past travails are a cautionary tale–one that more people should remember.