Medium, the blogging service co-founded by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams, has been many things during its relatively short lifetime. At one point it was going to be a stable of magazines, then it started emphasizing its social features, and more recently it has shown signs of wanting to be mostly an outlet for other publishers.
The service appears to be doubling down on that last bet. It announced on Tuesday that it has added features for media companies that want to host and distribute articles through Medium, including the ability to post advertorials along with support for paywalls and subscriptions.
Williams telegraphed these upcoming changes in a recent interview with Ad Age magazine, in which he talked about a deal that Medium struck with The Ringer, the new media venture from former Grantland creator Bill Simmons. The Ringer's content will be hosted on Medium instead of its own dedicated website.
"That’s really the next phase for Medium—to empower professional publishers—and The Ringer is part of that effort," Williams said. "And the reason that we were able to get that deal is, basically, they saw that we were sort of the next generation beyond building or managing an out-of-the-box CMS," the system media companies use to create and publish their material online. "They got all of the advantages of that, plus a network that they could tap into."
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Now Medium will be providing that same service for a number of other small media ventures including The Awl, The Monday Note from French media analyst Frederic Filloux, and Pacific Standard. The site described in a blog post how publishers would get the ability to customize the look of their pages, add sponsored content, and offer memberships, and other payment plans to their audiences.
"Right now on the web, publishers are forced to spend time and money maintaining their aging content management systems," the site says. "Expensive redesigns inevitably fail to keep up with the rapid pace of technological innovation. On Medium, publishers have full control over their content and spend exactly zero time, money, or effort on tech and hosting, instead focusing their resources on producing great content."
In addition to the design changes and features for making money, Medium is also taking another interesting step—it is making it easy for publishers to adapt their content so that it works with Facebook's Instant Articles and Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages standard. Both of these are designed to make web pages load more quickly on mobile devices.
In effect, Medium wants to be a publishing platform much like Facebook does, in the sense that it controls the distribution of the publisher's content, which theoretically makes the two competitors. But at the same time, it is offering publishers the ability to use Medium to make their editorial output more appealing to Facebook and Google.
Medium offers a suite of services "that makes sense for where we are right now," said Awl publisher Michael Macher in a statement on the site. "This extra network effect is extremely positive. Being on Medium makes the process more efficient."
With its new features, Medium's main target appears to be blog-hosting or content-management providers like WordPress, whose open-source software powers more than 20% of the web, including sites like Fortune and TechCrunch (Fortune is partnering with Medium for a trial project, as is Money magazine, both of which are owned by Time Inc.).
Medium's sales pitch is that it will take over all of the messy hosting and content-management duties that publishers typically must spend a lot of time and money on. Plus, it will make it easy for them to make money through advertising, charge their readers subscription fees, and push their content to Facebook and Google—and it will boost the reach of their content because it has a network of existing users.
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Medium "will allow us to reach more people, faster," said Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson in a post about the move. "And the responsive site — void of clunky advertising networks — ensures readers will get the best experience, no matter where they’re coming from."
Given that Medium doesn't really provide any numbers about the size of its user base, the last part of this deal is difficult to value. But the other parts are going to make sense to a number of smaller publishers, since it takes costs off the table for them and could result in additional revenue (how much remains to be seen).
As with Facebook's Instant Articles, however, Medium's offer to publishers brings up many of the same risks: Number one being that your fate—and the discoverability of your content, and any relationship you have with your readers around that content—is essentially in the hands of a third-party provider. Are the benefits worth it, or is it a Faustian bargain that publishers will ultimately come to regret?