Medium Pivots Business Model Again

Resulting in layoffs and leadership changes

Medium is to publishing what MoviePass was to movie theatre subscriptions – a good idea in theory that could not survive multiple shifts to its business model. Ev Williams, the billionaire founder of publishing platform Medium, shared the latest news on his blog last week, noting that the company was making changes to its editorial strategy and leadership – again.

The latest business model pivot will leave dozens of journalists without jobs, as many as 75 or so. Williams hopes to lessen the blow by offering the entire editorial staff a voluntary separation program (VSP). Staff members who choose to leave the company will receive a lump sum payment of five month’s salary plus six months of health benefits. They have until April 2 to make their decision.

In addition, Siobhan O’Connor, who joined Medium as the head of editorial in 2018, will be leaving the organization as the company pivots to a new business model. Her last day has not yet been determined. In her absence, Jermaine Hall and Scott Lamb will lead the content organization. They will report to Karene Tropen, senior vice president of marketing and content.

According to The Verge, Medium started 2021 with more than 700,000 paid subscriptions, which would bring in approximately $35 million in revenue for the year.

What’s next?

Ev Williams shared the following about the company’s plans for the future.

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“As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I strongly believe that the editorial talent we have assembled here is a strategic asset that is in line with our business and strategy. For the foreseeable future, we will focus that talent on supporting independent voices on our platform. This means identifying writers — both already on Medium and not — and offering them deals, support, editing, and feedback to help them tell great stories and find their audience,” Williams said.

As far as publications, or megamagazines, Williams said he believes more testing and experimentation is needed to figure out how they fit with the platform’s objectives.

“The most important thing is that we need to iterate quickly and optimize for what’s working,” Williams said. “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. If not for our willingness to make hard changes, we’d still be chasing ad dollars as our main business model — if we were still in business at all. Instead, we have a large and growing subscriber base, which will continue to fund great content and help fulfill our mission.”

Medium’s revolving business model

Launched by Williams about nine years ago, Medium’s business model changes are too numerous to count. Here are a few of the more notable changes we’ve previously covered.

April 7, 2016: Medium adds suite of monetization tools for publishers. Williams announced Medium would offer revenue opportunities to select publishers, including a monthly subscription option. Other monetization options included advertising through promoted stories, sponsored content through native advertising and member-supported publishing (subscriptions).

February 9, 2017: Medium to launch consumer subscription product soon. Williams announced the company would launch a consumer subscription product during the second quarter of 2017. The news came one month after the founder and CEO announced he would close Medium’s New York and Washington, D.C. offices, eliminate the platforms native advertising model (launched less than a year earlier), and cut 50 jobs.

October 18, 2017: Medium expands partner program to all publishers and content creators. Previously available on an invitation-only basis, Medium opened up its Partner Program to all publishers and content creators. Through the program, publishers, writers and content creators register with Medium for free and receive the ability to lock stories behind an “open paywall.” Subscribers pay $5 a month to access paywalled content, after getting the first three articles for free.

May 15, 2018: Medium cancels paid membership program for two dozen publishers. Despite Williams’ declaration that Medium was seeing accelerated growth month-over-month and had more than 50,000 writers publisher on Medium every week, the company canceled a paid membership program that supported publishers like the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

March 1, 2019: Medium to launch four new digital subscription-based magazines. In a new experiment, Medium decided two years ago to launch magazines that cover science and technology, business, health and general interest. The goal was to transform Medium from a platform into a “megamagazine.”

Insider Take

If you are seeing a pattern here, you are not alone. While it seems that Ev Williams truly wants to fix the journalism model, his regular shift from one business model to the next has hurt his company’s reputation, his editorial team, and their opportunities for a successful, sustainable business model. This is reminiscent of MoviePass, who had a visionary idea and a smart leadership team, but didn’t have the follow-through to implement any one of their multiple business model experiments. In the end, MoviePass didn’t make it, and we fear that Medium is headed down the same path.