The Internet’s last decade and a half of development as a forum for short, zippy, and often snarky writing has taken place in large part on platforms built by Ev Williams. A farm boy from Clarks, Neb., Williams, 41, dropped out of the University of Nebraska and worked his way west to California, first as a copywriter and then, once he’d taught himself enough, as a freelance coder. He founded the pioneering blogging network Blogger in the late 1990s, giving anyone with a stray thought a way to express it to the vast audiences flocking online. He sold that company for an undisclosed amount to Google (GOOG) in 2003 before going on to co-create Twitter, which initiated the era of disembodied 140-character snippets.
Now Williams, who left Twitter three years ago yet remains on its board, is trying to push the Web the other way. Medium, his year-old startup, seeks to create a home for something all too rare online: well-reasoned articles that can generate meaningful compensation for their authors. (In most cases so far, though, that doesn’t include pay.) “We are trying to make it as easy as possible for people who have thoughtful things to say to get those ideas and stories out there, and to tie it into a network where it has more than a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the audience it deserves,” he says.
The company, backed by Williams and fellow Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, who declined to say how much they’ve invested, has 40 engineers and editors in San Francisco and a small office in New York. Employees describe a culture of rapid experimentation: Unlike on most blogs, readers can attach comments to specific paragraphs; the team’s also working on ways to let multiple writers collaborate on an article through the site’s interface à la Google Docs, Williams says. Medium’s audience remains small. A ComScore spokeswoman says the site doesn’t register on her company’s traffic scale.
On Medium’s spartan, mostly white home page, stories are grouped not by authors, but in collections with broad themes like “This Happened to Me,” memoirs of brushes with danger, and “Better Humans,” ideas for self-improvement. The site has been relatively choosy when inviting writers to contribute. On a recent day, its home page featured a personal account by a former Google employee of the awkwardness of leaving the company, a concise analysis of why chewing gum improves cognitive ability, and a 10,000-word story, “The Mercenary,” about an ex-Vietnam veteran investigating a gold theft in the Peruvian Andes. Despite the general lack of pay, writers commend Medium’s ease of use and the level of interaction with readers it provides. “For me, it’s a great opportunity,” says longtime war correspondent David Axe, who uses the site to post eyewitness accounts and photos from Afghanistan. Medium “is a great, solid, easy-to-use platform that deliberately limits style choices in the interest of simplicity,” he says.
Medium doesn’t always choose well. On Aug. 14, Peter Shih, a San Francisco entrepreneur, posted to the site the kind of thoughtless, list-based Internet fare that Williams says he created Medium to counter. Shih’s caustic piece, titled “10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition,” was widely panned for the author’s disgust with the city’s homeless and a misogynistic undertone in his comments about the local dating scene. (Shih withdrew the story and apologized.) Far from expressing embarrassment, Williams says the article filled Medium with intelligent responses from offended readers. “We do not expect every piece of content published on Medium (or even every piece that gets attention) to be thoughtful,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That is incongruent with being open and democratic, which is core to our philosophy.”
In part, Williams says, his two years atop Twitter led him to take another stab at stitching together that kind of longer dialogue. He says he’s disenchanted with the economics that lead news sites to chase reader eyeballs with little consideration for editorial quality. “The state of tech blogs is atrocious. It’s utter crap,” he says. “They create a culture that is superficial and fetishizing and rewarding the wrong things and reinforcing values that are self-destructive and unsustainable.” Williams adds that he’s “pessimistic about the state of media, and that’s why I want to work on this problem. The economics of media are pushing things in a bad direction, but at the same time there’s more great stuff [being written] than ever before.”
Medium isn’t developing a conventional ads-for-page-views model—Williams says he can’t imagine a banner ad on the site. To change the dynamic of online writing, however, the company has to figure out a way to make money and pay its writers. (Matter, a similarly minded science and technology journalism site that Medium acquired earlier this year, charges readers 99¢ per month and pays contributors.) Evan Hansen, a former Wired editor who joined Medium as a senior editor last spring, says the startup is exploring approaches that include reader subscriptions and ad sponsors for specific article collections, a model similar to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Animal Planet.
There’s plenty of uncertainty about whether the company will offer publishing tools for writers or employ journalists (or both). One of Medium’s more ambitious ideas is to create a marketplace for editorial services, such as fact-checking, copy editing, and photo editing, through which authors or Medium can pay pros to do those jobs on individual stories. Online media consultant Jeff Jarvis says it’s hardly unusual for a startup to experiment its way to a business model. “They didn’t know what Twitter was going to be at first, either,” he says.
Williams recognizes that he faces something of an uphill challenge with Medium. Snarky tweets and gossipy blogs are popular for a reason: They give busy readers a quick, dopamine-style kick and a break from their day jobs. (Gossip site Gawker pulled in about 7.3 million unique readers in July, according to ComScore.) By contrast, Williams says the statistic his team watches most closely is the average time per day its readers spend on the site, which he says is increasing; he declined to provide numbers. “We don’t pretend that we can make people eat their vegetables when there’s potato chips on the table,” he says. “But we want to provide an alternative for those who want some diversity in their diet.”