Like most of its publishers, Kelley Calkins learned of Medium’s decision to lay off staff and upend its ad business via a blog post, with no advance warning.
But unlike the rest of Medium’s publishers, Calkins was — at the moment she learned of the company’s upheaval — in the middle of migrating her site to its platform.
“The timing was just absolutely incredible,” Calkins told BuzzFeed News. “I was scrolling through Twitter and saw [Medium founder and CEO] Ev Williams’ post.” That post, which reportedly caught even some of Medium’s biggest publishing partners by surprise (neither Williams nor Medium’s official Twitter account tweeted the blog post), announced that the company was laying off 50 employees; closing down its New York and Washington, DC, offices; and changing its business strategy. In the post, Williams called the ad-supported business model on which Medium relied “a broken system.”
Calkins — a founder of the women’s publication The Establishment — and her team had been working to launch their site on Medium since July. They'd been enticed by Medium's sleek design features and the publications the company had wooed to its platform: In the spring of 2016, Medium began hosting popular third-party sites like The Ringer, ThinkProgress, and The Awl. They were dumbfounded by the company's announcement. “We read it in this kind of shock," said Calkins. "There were some expletives involved."
A person familiar with Medium's operations told BuzzFeed News that the company contacted all partner publishers the day of the announcement — including The Establishment — offering technical support, explanations about the fate of Promoted Stories, and reassurances that its memberships subscription model is still in place for publishers.
Medium has “renewed its focus” toward publishers before. The company debuted in 2012 as a sleeker blogging tool, but soon began commissioning stories from name-brand writers. Throughout 2013 and 2014, Medium added a stable of well-respected writers and acquired publications like Matter, which won a National Magazine Award for its longform work in 2016.
But while it is well-funded, Williams’ vision for Medium has been largely inconsistent and opaque, leaving employees and content creators struggling to keep up and, in some cases, keep their jobs. In 2015, for example, Williams decided to reconsider Medium’s crucial TTR (total time reading) metric — one of the main ways it paid its writers. At the time the shift was intended to recast Medium as a sort of social network for readers and writers, but writers feared it would lead to layoffs. Not long after the move, Medium pared down its in-house editorial operation significantly. It spun off Matter and ended a number of contracts with writers and publications, including the political cartoon and illustration publication The Nib, which published a cartoon this morning about Williams' announcement.
“We were dubious about going to Medium precisely because of its history of flip-flopping on its strategy,” Calkins said. “But they had a convincing pitch that they were going to bolster the publishing industry, and that commitment was meaningful to me.”
On Wednesday morning, when when it came time for The Establishment to go live on Medium, Calkins found she had trouble reaching typically responsive Medium staffers; they were being briefed on the bad news the company would soon announce. Calkins was contacted by a Medium rep later in the day, but by that time the news that the company was changing its business model was already public. And since the site’s URL was in the process of migrating, The Establishment officially launched on Medium a few hours after Williams’ blog post.
“Some of the Medium staffers who'd initially approached us and who we worked with reached out to us personally to say they felt terrible,” Calkins said. "They’d just heard and they'd lost their jobs. They were blindsided, too.”
For Calkins and The Establishment, the monetization programs that Medium shuttered had “played an essential role” in negotiations to migrate their site to the platform. “The monetization packages they offered factored in hugely in our decision to migrate,” she said. “It was very appealing that we'd have to do nothing or next to nothing to finally get some revenue — we were supposed to have some revenue today through the promoted story feature.” Theoretically, The Establishment would have started accumulating revenue as soon as it migrated to Medium's platform, but the program was cut Wednesday.
Not all publishers echoed Calkins' disappointment. Sunil Rajaraman, the CEO of The Bold Italic, which migrated last year to Medium, penned a post with the title "I Migrated My Publishing Property to Medium, and I Am Not Freaked Out." In the post, he denied that publishers were owed any advance warning on the changes. Rajaraman suggested that The Bold Italic never relied on Medium solely for revenue, calling the idea idiotic. "I guess my general lack of shock/surprise at the announcement is that I've dealt with multiple ad providers in the past," he told BuzzFeed News. "My view is that any publication that was betting its revenue future on Medium could have had the same result if they bet their publication on any single ad provider that suddenly hit a brick wall."
Calkins told BuzzFeed News that the decision to lean on Medium for advertising revenue was a calculated risk, especially given that its Promoted Stories unit was still in beta. "However, as a small publisher with limited (wo)manpower and resources, the idea that we could start producing revenue on Day 1 with limited effort on our end was incredibly enticing," she said. "We were also impressed by the high-quality sponsored content campaigns we'd seen on Medium (Sofitel's partnership with The Billfold comes to mind) and were thrilled to be able to tap into an established network of advertisers through Medium."
Perhaps most surprisingly, Calkins and her team say they've heard very little from Medium since the announcement. Williams wrote in his blog post that Medium was “shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people.” He added that it was “too soon to say exactly what this will look like.”
Calkins and The Establishment are still processing the unexpected news. They are also hoping for more transparency from Williams. But so far, they’re not getting it. “We're still in contact with a point person over there but that's just troubleshooting technical issues,” Calkins said. “We’ve heard nothing officially from the company about the future.”