We are making some changes to our editorial strategy and leadership and giving a voluntary exit option to employees who would like to take a different path. Details on these changes were announced to the editorial team this afternoon. This email is to share this news more widely and give some context.
First, the context:
Though Medium has been an open platform since day one, we’ve had an editorial team almost as long. The original thesis was that we wanted to establish that Medium was both open and high quality. We wanted to set the bar high. We were successful in doing that, and, since then, the editorial part of our company has gone through many iterations as we’ve strived to find the right way to integrate it. In 2014–16, we published great original content but we didn’t have the right business model to support it.
In 2018, we saw promising signs. Our subscriber base was growing quickly, and it was supporting increasing amounts of platform and professional content. I brought on Siobhan O’Connor to organize and uplevel the then-tiny editorial team. The work they did found an eager audience on the platform, which now had a business model to support it.
This led to our decision in 2019 to double down on this strategy and ramp up our editorial efforts. We decided to do that in the context of our own publications. We launched our first one, OneZero, just over two years ago. The speed at which we ramped up from there was ambitious — launching seven magazine-style pubs within nine months, with a team of about 80 by year’s end. The work this team did, and the speed with which they did it, was impressive and groundbreaking. They defined new brands, developed their voices from scratch, commissioned, fact-checked, illustrated, and edited thousands of stories, broke news, and won awards.
I was very happy to have this team in place when COVID hit a year ago. Because of Siobhan’s background in health journalism and our science-backed health publication, Elemental, we had the staff in place to not only report but to curate the platform during this critical time. That was just one of the examples we’ve seen of how professional editors in combination with an open platform can equal more than the sum of the parts. Another was when anti-Black racism became the national focus last summer. I was proud that we had already been investing in Black voices, specifically with Zora and Level. Though hard to quantify, it seems likely that many individuals chose Medium to share their thoughts on those issues because we had been carving out a space for those communities.
Our goal was never to replicate the traditional publishing model because we saw the challenges the industry was going through. Rather, we believed we could find a new model that would allow professional writers and editors to do their best work. One of our key innovations is what we now call Amplify, our program through which we offer editorial polish and a spotlight for writers who come in through the platform. This has worked really well.
What’s worked less well is where we’ve followed the traditional editorial playbook — specifically, commissioning stories from professional writers into publications with broad mandates. When I say “worked less well,” I don’t mean the work itself, but the equation of cost, audience, and return on investment. I also mean in aggregate. We have published many stellar stories that found a wide audience and more than paid for themselves. But our hit rate has been low, and we’re not near where we need to be to make it work economically.
To be clear, we had no illusion these publications were going to pay for themselves in the short term. The bet was that we could develop these brands, and they would develop loyal audiences that would grow the overall Medium subscriber base. What’s happened, though, is the Medium subscriber base has continued to grow, while our publication’s audiences haven’t. There are many potential reasons for this, which we could debate.
I think a significant factor is that the role of publications — in the world, not just on Medium — has decreased in the modern era. I don’t mean the role of professional editorial, but the idea of an imprimatur that establishes credibility or trust. Trust is more important than ever and well-established editorial brands still have meaning. But today, credibility and affinity are primarily built by people — individual voices — rather than brands. In fact, that describes the vast majority of what people read on Medium and is in line with our Relational strategy.
To adapt to these learnings, in 2020, we started doing two things: a) Lowering the commission budgets of our O&O pubs, to make them more sustainable. b) Redirecting editorial resources to finding and supporting independent writers, who were publishing on Medium outside of our pubs. What we learned from our intense internal conversations over the last few weeks is that this left a lot of uncertainty and doubt amongst the team. This is understandable. And today’s announcements are our attempt to clear that up.
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I strongly believe that the editorial talent we have assembled here is a strategic asset that is in line with our business and strategy. For the foreseeable future, we will focus that talent on supporting independent voices on our platform. This means identifying writers — both already on Medium and not — and offering them deals, support, editing, and feedback to help them tell great stories and find their audience.
What about our pubs? Honestly, I think it will take a lot more experimentation to figure out what their role is on the platform. And we need to experiment more efficiently than we have been to date. I can see more focused, high-affinity publications working well as part of the Medium bundle. And I can also see the editorial team being great at conceiving and executing those types of publications. The most important thing is that we need to iterate quickly and optimize for what’s working.
Whether this strategy works or not, here’s what I know is certain: There will be more change in the future. I don’t want to shy away from this reality, as I consider embracing change one of our biggest strengths. If not for our willingness to make hard changes, we’d still be chasing ad dollars as our main business model — if we were still in business at all. Instead, we have a large and growing subscriber base, which will continue to fund great content and help fulfill our mission.
I know uncertainty and change are difficult — especially if you’re not calling the shots. I want to commend everyone on this team for jumping into the unknown when you joined. And helping us collectively learn and make adjustments along the way.
I also want to give an option to those who would rather get off this crazy ride. To that end, we’re offering to everyone in editorial a voluntary separation program (VSP). What this means is that they can choose to leave the company and receive a lump sum payment of five month’s salary to give a buffer to find their next job. (We will also cover six months of health benefits.) Again, this is voluntary and applies to everyone in the editorial organization. (We originally asked for a decision from everyone by 3/29, but based on feedback, we are extending that to 4/2, so we can have more time to address questions. Vince will send an email to those eligible with more details.)
Lastly, to head up this next phase, there will also be a change in leadership.
Four years ago, I approached Siobhan to take a chance with me at Medium to build something new, exciting and hard, with no guarantees for success. I was incredibly honored when she said yes. Since then she has built a world-class editorial team and has made Medium a better place every day with her presence, impact, and integrity. She has decided this time of transition is her time to move on. Together, we’re confident in the new direction and that we have the right people in place to lead the department for the next chapter. Siobhan’s last day is being finalized as she works to set up the editorial team for success.
Jermaine Hall and Scott Lamb will lead the content organization, reporting to Karene [Tropen], who will take the new role of SVP Marketing & Content. I have high confidence that Karene, Jermaine, and Scott will bring forward new ideas and take advantage of the large opportunities ahead.
If you have any questions or would like to further discuss the VSP — or anything mentioned above — please do not hesitate to reach out to your manager or the People team.