Over its relatively short life-span, the publishing platform known as Medium has been described as the digital version of a lot of things—a magazine, a stable of magazines, a PR news-wire, a social network based around writing, and so on. In its latest incarnation, Medium says it would like people to think of it as the online version of the newspaper op-ed or opinion page.
Much of this is marketing, particularly the part that is aimed at political operatives in Washington D.C., where the site has been making a major push for respectability, according to a recent piece in Politico. But there is some merit to the idea, despite all that—and despite some of the more obvious downsides of this approach.
A sarcastic tweet from Gabe Rivera, the founder of the technology news aggregator Techmeme, put one of the main risks fairly well—namely, that pieces published by politicians and political groups on Medium won’t get nearly the kind of oversight and fact-checking that newspaper opinion pieces do.
This goes to the heart of one of the criticisms that is routinely levelled at Medium: That founder (and former Twitter CEO) Evan Williams and his team don’t really subject the posts on their site to any rigorous editorial process, unless they commission the work themselves. Apart from that, anyone is free to publish whatever they wish at Medium, and according to some, the quality suffers as a result.
As Politico describes it, the pitch to Washington insiders is that Medium offers all the benefits of the newspaper opinion page—namely, the ability to get a message out to a large number of people—without any of the messy editorial interference newspapers are known for.
Politico and others describe this as an “end run around the media,” which in a very real sense, it is. As other blogging platforms have done before it (including Blogger, which Evan Williams co-founded and sold to Google before starting Twitter) Medium gives politicians and parties the ability to take their message—as flawed as it might be—directly to the audiences they are trying to reach.
This is obviously bad if you are a newspaper or some other traditional media outlet that relies on owning a proprietary channel for public attention. But it’s not obvious whether that means it’s also bad for society as a whole, or even for political discourse in general.
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Yes, politicians can post whatever gibberish they want on Medium, as former House Speaker John Boehner and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney (among others) have already done on a number of topics. But then, newspapers have often been more than happy to print ridiculous assertions by their favorite politicians, so that’s not really anything new. In many cases, the existing op-ed page system already allows for a host of un-factchecked commentary.
On top of that, political opinion pieces on Medium will be getting fact-checked, thanks to a partnership between PolitiFact and the site that will see “annotations” or in-line comments added to those pieces where factual assertions are made.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that posts on Medium differ in one crucial way from the typical newspaper opinion piece: Namely, readers can reply to them. The process for doing this is not as easy as it could be, but each response gets attached to the original, while still being a standalone post in its own right.
In a sense, this is just blogging refined (and hosted by a central platform run by a single company, of course, which has potential flaws of its own). Much like Twitter, it’s another practical application of the phenomenon that blogging pioneer Dave Winer once referred to as “the sources going direct.”
So yes, in some ways it’s an end-run. But what it means—theoretically at least—is that there is a lot more potential for posts on Medium to be challenged directly on the platform than there is for a newspaper op-ed piece to be challenged in the same way. Two-way media have a habit of biting politicians when they least expect it, and Medium could be another example of that in action if it plays its cards right.