What Even Is Medium Anyway?

What Even Is Medium Anyway?
Photo:Eric Risberg (AP)

On Tuesday, Medium CEO Ev Williams announced to the entire staff of Medium that the company would be pivoting away from journalism and “giving a voluntary exit option to employees who would like to take a different path.” In other words, they’re not firing people (yet), but it sure would be nice if all of the Medium editorial staff just voluntarily quit!!

In an email sent to staff, which Williams published on Medium on Tuesday evening, he explains that the company is moving away from the magazine-like publications that it has been developing over the past two years and instead switching to a model of identifying individual writers to provide with “deals, support, editing, and feedback.” (Because that’s working so well for Substack?) It’s not yet clear exactly what will happen to the members of the Medium editorial staff who choose not to take the voluntary buyouts, though they were told their jobs would most likely change. Williams also announced that Siobhan O’Connor, Medium’s vice president for editorial since 2018, would be leaving the company.

When explaining the pivot, Williams wrote:

“I think a significant factor is that the role of publications — in the world, not just on Medium — has decreased in the modern era. I don’t mean the role of professional editorial, but the idea of an imprimatur that establishes credibility or trust. Trust is more important than ever and well-established editorial brands still have meaning. But today, credibility and affinity are primarily built by people — individual voices — rather than brands.”

What a broad assertion from the leader of a tech company that can’t even stick with an editorial strategy for more than two years!!

Now, this isn’t the first time that Medium has completely pivoted its editorial mission—in fact, this isn’t even the first time that Medium has dismantled all of its publications. (The last time was in 2018.) In recent years, Medium has intentionally built out its online magazines—which include the tech and science publication OneZero, the Black women-focused Zora, the men of color-focused Level, and six other publications—by hiring a robust team of journalists…. only to once again rip the rug out from under their feet. But the timing of this pivot is certainly suspect, as this news comes less than a month after all Medium employees attempted to unionize and lost by only one vote.

Although the journalists working at Medium’s publications were not behind the initial union drive, many of them have been vocal in their support for unionization. Vice reports that four current Medium employees said that the company and Williams were actively discouraging employees from unionizing in the lead-up to the vote, going as far as to hire union-busting firm Kauff McGuire & Margolis.

“He mentioned in the all hands and the coffee chat that the VCs he talked to would not fund us if we unionized,” one current Medium employee told Vice. “This is awfully close to a ‘threat,’ which you can’t do, but just toes the line because he’s not saying ‘we’ll lose funding,’ he’s saying ‘I talked to someone who said we’ll lose funding.’”

Another current Medium employee said that they believed the company’s massive and sudden pivot was retaliatory in response to the attempts to form a union. “Editorial was the department that supported the union most vocally and visibly … this is coming basically a month after a failed union drive preceded by pretty blatant union-busting tactics by management.”

In the Tuesday night email, Medium’s billionaire CEO Ev Williams wrote:

“Whether this strategy works or not, here’s what I know is certain: There will be more change in the future. I don’t want to shy away from this reality, as I consider embracing change one of our biggest strengths.”

Fascinating how Williams’ version of “embracing change” always seems to involve dozens of journalists losing their jobs.

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