Evan Williams: On billionaire-backed journalism, Shanley Kane, and the problem with vanity ad metrics

WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Cofounder of Medium and Twitter Evan Williams speaks at the WIRED Business Conference: Think Bigger at Museum of Jewish Heritage on May 7, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for WIRED)
Photograph by Brad Barket — Getty Images for Wired

Many people use the newish blogging site Medium each day, but almost as many of them are confused about what, exactly, it’s supposed to be. It is a publishing tool—a very pretty one at that, with lots of clever bells and whistles. It’s also a publisher that pays professional editors and writers to commit various acts of journalism. (The company has launched or acquired six different sub-publications: Matter, Cuepoint, Backchannel, Re:form, Vantage, and The Nib.)

Medium was co-founded by Evan Williams, better known as a co-founder of Twitter, in 2012. (His Medium co-founder, Biz Stone, was also a Twitter co-founder.) The San Francisco company has raised $25 million in venture capital and hired 75 employees. Medium’s namesake website is slick, and feels like a fancy plaything for web-savvy tech and media types—the early adopters. The company has been plagued by the question of whether it is a platform or publisher. (Some coined a new term to explain Medium: It is a platisher.)

Williams wants to set the record straight: Medium is a publishing platform. He suspects that its plentiful professional content “may have set the bar too high” for the user-generated content he hopes will appear on Medium. Over time, Williams believes Medium will become a destination for both casual and serious content.

Medium is what Blogger, the publishing platform Williams helped create and sell to Google (GOOG) in 2003, could have been had social media existed. (For the record, Blogger’s Blogspot.com remains the 17th-most trafficked Web domain in the world. Williams attributes the continued popularity to “a very, very long tail—and Google search traffic.”)

Williams has applied the lessons he learned at Twitter (TWTR) about networks and interconnectedness to Medium’s strategy. Though it is still nowhere near mainstream adoption—nor doing much by way of monetization—Medium appears to bring a fresh approach to publishing. It’s something the media industry cannot afford to ignore.

In a recent interview with Fortune, a small part of which was published last week, Williams discussed Medium’s vision and why he doesn’t mind that it isn’t yet mainstream. He also addresses the heated debate over Silicon Valley’s role in journalism as well as that tricky platform-publisher identity crisis.

One final note: I’ve added some low-tech footnotes to our conversation. Citations appear in brackets in the text and at length at the bottom of the page. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: There has been a lot of animosity on the Internet lately toward people who have made a lot of money in Silicon Valley and decided to invest it, sometimes controversially, in journalism. You have Chris Hughes at The New Republic [*1] and Pierre Omidyar with First Look Media [*2]. You’re one of those guys, so I’m curious how you view that.

Evan Williams: I think I’m glad I didn’t buy one! Although Pierre didn’t buy one. I think it’s tricky for sure to build a company with both of these cultures and DNAs. The biggest difference might be that we are very clearly balanced toward being a technology company. Of seventy-five people [on staff], the majority of them are building Medium the product.

We’re trying to do something different. All 15 of the editorial people we have in-house really get what we’re trying to do and we’ve filtered for that. I’m super grateful for the people we’ve been able to hire. Steven Levy [*3] could have went anywhere. He came to us because he liked the vision and what we’re trying to do. It wasn’t us going to him and saying, “We’re going to pay you lots of money to do something you’ve always done.” It was him, saying, “I want to do something different, I want to be part of an adventure, and I want to help figure this out.” A lot of them come from the traditional world and they signed up because they see things need to change and think, “Let’s figure it out together.” You feel that spirit at Medium.

One thing people from the editorial side get nervous about is that, when things go sideways from an editorial point of view, a Silicon Valley person might not know how to handle it, or wouldn’t handle it the same way that, say, an old school editor would.

I feel like my background is designed perfectly to handle these things. We’ve had some controversy—not a lot—but we’ve had some. Matter published a story about Shanley Kane [*4], who is a pretty controversial character in Silicon Valley, and it caused a lot of angst. Way before the story was published, she started complaining about it and we were like, “What do we do?” We have a lot of female engineers and we pride ourselves on diversity in our engineering team. We want to create a great place to work for them and they were getting flack from people in their community, and so that was a new sort of problem that we created—that the editorial created—for the engineering side. And people were like, “Oh we shouldn’t be publishing that” and we were like, “We should publish whatever we think is worth publishing.”

The reason I think I’m prepared for this is, with Blogger and Twitter, I spent a decade basically enabling people to publish whatever they want as long as it wasn’t stolen or violating any laws. People on my team were very involved in defining content policy at Google and then at Twitter. We’ve always been on the pretty extreme end of freedom of speech. We value that a lot. It would be a pretty extreme case to get in and say, “Oh, okay, you can’t publish that.”

But would you protect somebody if they published something libelous? Are you responsible for that, as a company that has contracts with writers, or is it the sole responsibility of the person who wrote it?

[Williams defers to Sarah Agudo, Medium’s head of legal, who was also in attendance.]

Sarah Agudo: We protect people who we hire. We have a pretty clear Section 230 on user-generated content. [*5] We’re not liable for any of that protection, but for writers that we hire, we’re responsible.

So you’re hiring all these editors now [*6], who are creating channels and paying writers. But you’re primarily a technology platform. What is your vision?

Williams: The vision is to create the best publishing platform there is—a place where the whole is greater than all of the parts. Our core thesis is by connecting things more closely together, both stories and ideas, and readers and writers, that more value can be gained by everyone.

We wanted to create a place where great stories and ideas thrive, that was really a platform that enabled anyone to publish whatever they wanted, and that would be as streamlined as much as possible and they’d get the feedback that they were looking for.

If you think of the software world, if you’re Microsoft or Apple, you want people to develop software for your platform, but that doesn’t mean you don’t [develop software] yourself.

We wanted to get great content on the platform so it would start the flywheel turning and legitimize it as a place to write and model what Medium was for, rather than just throwing open the doors and just hoping that good stuff shows up. Communities on the Internet have as much to do with what the early users do as what the core functionality allows. We didn’t want to just leave it up to whatever happened.

You wanted to set an example.

We wanted to set an example. We set a high bar, because we had a lot of professional content and maybe we set too high a bar. Because even though Medium is supposed to be the easiest place to publish, there is a bit of an intimidation factor that we hear because we maybe set too high a bar.

But I think that will change over time and we’ll have a much wider variety of stuff. The spectrum that I think about a lot is casual to serious, so even the same person could do something that’s very casual, like I’ll throw a thought out there, or I’ll spend a week on something and have it edited and do research. Medium is meant to be all those things.

There are six Medium-owned publications on the platform now. Will you keep paying contributors and starting new publications?

We’ll keep expanding, but not at the rate that the platform as a whole expands. We may pay for a piece, but it generates a whole conversation. It’s not just people consuming or commenting, it’s people reacting in a bigger way. We want to figure out what is the model for professional content. Not everything is going to happen organically. Original reporting doesn’t really happen with user-generated content, and a lot of these pieces have high production values and fact-checking and illustrations. We want that stuff and we think there is a business in that stuff.

If we can figure out how to build these publications on the platform, we think there are a lot of efficiencies, versus building them on the Web standalone somewhere, or God forbid trying to create your own app. Then we won’t be the only ones creating them on Medium.

Are you close to fulfilling your vision for Medium?

Until we have a critical mass of good stuff, no one’s going to browse Medium or use our app. In the last few months, we feel like we’ve hit a new threshold and can work on discovery more.

What’s the threshold?

It’s not a quantitative one, it’s just a feeling that there’s tons of good stuff on there and we could do a better job of exposing that to people and drive discovery.

We know most people aren’t going to sit down and write thoughtful articles, and that’s fine. We don’t aim to have most people writing on Medium, but we’d also want people to do more than consume, ideally. At minimum, that could be recommending the story. The authors get the feedback. It could be writing notes.

How many people are logging in and interacting now?

It’s definitely a small minority compared to the people who are reading things. We want to drastically increase that.

Does Medium have anything close to mainstream recognition? Is that important to you?

No, it’s so early for Medium. Tens of millions of people have come by Medium and not realized they’re on Medium.

There are other people that are aware of Medium and know what it is. As you would expect, it’s the media world and technology world, which doesn’t bother me that much. I’d rather create a great place for those people who are thinking and creating things that are affecting everybody else than try to go super wide. That’s why we’re not focusing on creating the most viral content possible. Eventually we want a wide audience, but we want depth as much as we have breadth.

Right now you’ve cornered the market for “my startup failed” post-mortem essays.

One market at a time!

Twitter wasn’t that much different for a long time. It was an obsession of the tech and media world long before it was mainstream.

The first couple of years at Twitter, people talked about it so much that we never shared any numbers because it was like [in a stage whisper], “Don’t tell anyone, it’s small.” And then it really caught up and surpassed expectations for awhile and we still had some skeptics in Silicon Valley saying, “Well, no one uses Twitter except for Silicon Valley.” And by that time we knew there were millions of people in Japan and lots of people in the Midwest, and that’s how these networks grow. By definition they’re concentrated, and you just add more concentrated networks ideally, rather than try to boil the ocean.

So, can you share any stats about pageviews, or users, or unique visitors?

The numbers we pay the most attention to goes back to the question of depth versus breadth. [*7] This isn’t an excuse for having low active user numbers [*8], but the main thing we measure is time spent on stories. I think it’s the best proxy for value. It’s not a perfect proxy, but in a world of infinite media to consume, if someone is actually spending time reading something, that’s pretty meaningful, so we aim to optimize for that.

I would rather have fewer people stop by and read something for five minutes that makes them think than a million people stop by for five seconds because of a catchy headline.

The optimistic part of the message is that advertisers get this too. Brand advertising has never worked on the Internet anyways, because banner ads don’t work. So whatever the form factor is, people have to be actually engaged in something for it to be meaningful.

So do you want to make money on Medium some day?

Medium is a for-profit entity. Definitely we will make money. We’ve done some stuff that we’ve gotten paid for. One of our publications, Re:form—it’s based on design—is actually sponsored by BMW. We sold it based on time spent on the articles. It’s not a traditional advertising metric.

How much does a minute of advertising on Medium cost?

I don’t know. We’re experimenting. The way I think about this in contrast to Twitter is that we want the user-generated content, but we also want the professional content. Professional content needs paid for. The sooner we get money flowing through the system and allow other people to make money, that drives more professional content. That’s not necessarily our business model for the whole thing, but it is useful now to drive more good stuff.


[*1] Hughes’ personnel changes have led to a messy staff exodus.

[*2] The founder of eBay has experienced public turmoil at First Look, a journalism startup he launched with $250 million of his own funding.

[*3] Levy, a high-profile technology writer, left Wired to join Medium.

[*4] By Elizabeth Spiers, published in July. Prior to publishing, Bobbie Johnson, an employee of Medium and the story’s editor, posted an explanation of Kane’s objections to the story, noting that Medium would publish the story nonetheless.

[*5] Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act allows that content platforms are not liable for user-generated content that appears on their platforms.

[*6] In 2012, Medium hired Kate Lee, a literary agent at ICM.

[*7] Williams also commented on the topic of “depth versus breadth” in the context of Instagram surpassing Twitter in terms of monthly active users. That story appears here.

[*8] Past reports have cited as many as nine million monthly unique visitors.

Connected is an interview series with leaders of innovative organizations. Conversations are condensed and edited.

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