In our final episode of the season, we hear from Medium’s VP of Content Scott Lamb. Scott leads the content and creator relations teams at the platform, so we talked about Medium’s famous pivots, the importance of putting creators at the core, competing with Substack, and Ev Williams’ departure.

In the news round-up, Chris, Peter and Esther debate whether MEL magazine was closed (for the second time in a year) without being given enough of a chance, or whether it was always an awkward fit in Recurrent Ventures’ portfolio. In the news in brief, we look at a good Medium post-mortem from Simon Owens, and bring in some good news with the Guardian Media Group recording its strongest financial result in 14 years. Esther scrabbles for a contribution after a week off and settles for the news that there’s been a 300% increase in boob size on comic book cover art in the last few decades.

The Media Voices Podcast is taking a break over the summer. We’ll be back in September, but in the meantime we’ll be continuing our written analysis each week, and our daily newsletter bringing you the top four media stories of the day.

Here are some highlights:

Medium’s recent shift in focus to centre creators

When I joined the company, a couple of years ago, we were focused at that point on building a number of in-house magazines. We had an editorial strategy that was really focused on building our own editorial brands and creating a lot of original content that was owned by Medium. But we’ve shifted focus over the last year to come back to what we call ‘core Medium’, which is really more about being a platform that allows other people to write.

So for the content team, what that means is, we support authors and writers on Medium. We have a publication called Creators Hub that gives people writing tips, we have a newsletter for all of our creators about how to use Medium effectively and highlight great writing on the platform that people can emulate and learn from other writers.

Really our goal is, we think about content at Medium as not really separate from the product. We are primarily a technology company. But what most people experience on Medium is the work, the stuff that they’re writing. So our goal is to just try and continually improve that, help the writers who are on Medium get better at what they do, make it easier for them to succeed, and to go out into the world and try and find more people to come on and use the platform.

How they decide what to highlight

It’s a continually evolving process. One of the things that’s been really tough over the years is whenever you get into curation, you are relying on tastes like editorial taste, and a human’s judgment at some point. And I think that can be both good and bad. It allows us to not fall into the trap of just having a platform that’s driven entirely by the things that are getting the highest click through rates, or whatever metrics the algorithm looks at for success. That’s really important.

We don’t want to be just another click-driven or metric-driven platform. But it’s also limiting. We can’t see everything. And even if we did see everything, I might enjoy a story that you think is not so worthy of highlighting.

We’ve evolved a couple of different approaches to this over the years. The one that we’re most interested in right now, one of the key signals that we look for when we’re evaluating someone’s piece of writing for is it worthy of getting highlighted or getting some extra attention, is about the author. Are they an expert? Do they have a point of view on on what they’re saying and knowledge to share?

The core of what Medium is about – at least ideally for us – is subject matter experts. People who have a actually have knowledge on the topic that they’re writing about to share, and not so much opinion-based stuff.

On Ev Williams’ departure

It’s bittersweet in the sense that I’ve been at the company almost three years, I’ve been working directly for Ev since the fall of last year. And  for me, and I think a lot of people at the company, definitely coming to work for him was part of the draw. He’s a really thoughtful, interesting, and I think really important figure in the development of the web between Blogger and Twitter. As a leader and a product visionary, I think it’s been really exciting to work for him.

At the same time, I’m really excited about Tony Stubblebine, the new CEO who’s coming in. He and I have worked pretty closely together just about the entire time that I’ve been at Medium. Tony’s coming in with a lot of first-hand knowledge of the platform. He probably knows more about Medium than anyone outside the company.

He’s proven his investment in the platform, his dedication to the platform, but he also is coming into the CEO role with, he deeply understands where the issues are from the perspective of a writer or a publisher on Medium. He has a very clear focus on wanting to solve those, and knowing that our growth is going to be very bound up in getting those solutions right, and getting them fairly quickly.

What Medium hasn’t figured out yet

The trickiest thing about being a creator on Medium right now – and I’ve worked with a lot of work with a lot of creators in different stages of their careers, people who are trying to get started on Medium, people who are very well established and have been writing on the platform for years – and the thing that has been trickiest is understanding how to be successful in the sense of getting audience repeatedly over time. And that’s the thing I think we really have to fix.

There’s something that’s slightly broken about the feedback loop on Medium. From previous experience, other platforms, usually the dynamics, even if they are difficult, are fairly clear. At BuzzFeed, we spent a lot of time focused on Facebook and figuring out how to get people to share things on Facebook. And as that platform developed, the dynamics of how to do that became clearer and clearer. Now in retrospect, unfortunately, those dynamics have been weaponized in a really terrible way.

On Medium, it’s harder to understand how to have the building blocks you need to put in place to grow over time. We can help people grow as writers and help their their work improve. We can give them the tools they need to understand search and how to use that effectively on Medium or to help grow their followership. But because the way that the platform works currently, that doesn’t always result in their audience having some incremental staple and predictable growth. And that’s the thing I think we need to provide for folks. Because otherwise you get into this loop where you’re writing and you’re not seeing your audience grow. And that is such a big part of this line of work.

Top story:

Recurrent Ventures has laid off the entire staff of MEL magazine, a year after acquiring it.

  • Around 15 people were laid off on Friday including Editor in Chief Josh Schollmeyer. It’s the first time Recurrent has shuttered an editorial operation.
  • It’s the second time it’s been shut in two years – Dollar Shave Club launched it as a marketing arm but closed it in March 2021, but Schollmeyer was able to take the brand and look for a buyer. Recurrent bought them in July 2021.
  • At the time Recurrent CEO Lance Johnson said: ““MEL is a loved brand with a devoted audience and one of the most interesting sites on the internet. We can’t wait to bring MEL back to those who have missed it, and introduce it to new readers who are looking for a unique and bold take on men’s issues.”
  • Recurrent Ventures leadership said that they were responsible for the layoffs, having made incorrect assumptions about their ability to monetize Mel Magazine.
  • When Recurrent Ventures acquired Mel Magazine last July, the company told the editorial staff they would be given between 18 and 24 months to turn a profit
  • “We have also made the difficult decision to pivot our editorial and acquisition focuses away from the lifestyle vertical which includes our key lifestyle brand, MEL. We love MEL and are very aware that the team has been through a lot over the last few years…. However, we’ve spent more than a year implementing and strategizing a variety of different monetization channels that haven’t gained traction. At this stage, we’ve invested more into the business than we committed to because we wanted this to succeed.”

News in brief:

  • There’s an excellent relevant post – on Substack, I should add – from Simon Owens this week, who takes a look at what happened with Medium. The blogging platform, despite being the biggest disruptor in media for a while, never delivered upon its promise. While the site itself isn’t dead, its founder Ev Williams did just announce he’s stepping down as CEO. It’s hard to deliver upon a promise as big as ‘reimagining the creator economy’, much less in a way that would benefit journalists. Owens does a good post-mortem on what happened – so hopefully the next disruptor won’t make the same mistakes.
  • Guardian Media Group recorded its strongest financial results in 14 years – annual revenues were up 13% to £255.8 million. Online readers now contribute more money than readers of its UK print newspapers – with digital ads and other revenues added more than two-thirds of the Group’s total income comes from online operations. The Guardian has maintained its independence through subsidies from the Scott Trust, an investment fund set up to secure the future of the paper. These results show that, for the first time in years, rather than drawing down on the fund the newspaper group produced a cash surplus of £6.7 million.
  • There’s been a 300% increase in boob size on comic book cover art, apparently. Busts now consume more than triple the cover space and show twice the amount of cleavage compared to comics from the mid 20th century. Percentage of cover and percentage of cleavage peaked in the 2010’s, but it looks like pressure to normalise the look of female characters is starting to come into play as both metrics have begun to recede.

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