Matter co-founder Jim Giles on being acquired by Medium, and future of longform journalism
News broke this morning that Medium, a writing platform startup founded by Evan Williams, has acquired Matter, a subscription-based longform journalism publication that specializes in science and technology stories. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Matter, a six-month-old startup that was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $140,000, will retain its own brand and business model. Contrary to Medium’s free and open approach, Matter charges subscribers 99 cents a month. For now, it also publishes one 5,000-word story per month, although it plans to upgrade to a weekly schedule over time.
In the wake of the acquisition news, Matter co-founder Jim Giles told me from his new perch in Medium’s San Francisco office what exactly the deal means to the publication, and what it says about the future of longform journalism.
PandoDaily: How hard did you have to think before agreeing to join Medium?
Jim Giles: Very hard. Not because it isn’t a fantastic move, just because it was so unexpected for us. We didn’t even really know that Medium existed when we started Matter. We didn’t imagine that a project like this would come along and be interested in having Matter become part of it. We were very much thinking about being independent for the foreseeable future. So the offer was a surprise, and we just had to think really hard about whether it was the right thing for the kind of journalism we want to produce. But actually, after spending a lot of time thinking about it, it really became clear it was. That’s partly a values thing that’s come out of our discussions with Ev over the last year or so. Medium is set up – although it’s a much bigger and more ambitious project than Matter – at heart it has very similar goals. We both want to find a way of publishing and supporting really great writing and making that look really beautiful.Then there’s the practicalities, which also made a lot of sense. We’re a new publication. We have nicely growing subscribers but it’s still really tough for any new startup, and coming over to Medium means we can do a whole bunch of experiments that we probably would have struggled to do if we remained independent. We can start playing around with tweaks to our business model. We definitely have no plans to change it, but there’s lots of different ways that you can tweak the idea of selling individual articles.
Can you give me some examples?
We just took our first article [“Do No Harm”], which was published in November, and brought it out from behind the paywall and put it up on Medium, and then we commissioned a bunch of commentaries on the piece itself. Medium’s really nicely suited to that because all the articles are arranged in collections. So you’ve got this one piece that anchors the collection [“Amputees & Wannabes”], which is our original longform piece, and then you’ve got a bunch of follow-ups, in this case mainly from scientists talking about issues in the piece.
That’s really interesting for two reasons. It’s a really nice way of continuing a discussion around a piece that’s rarely possible if people are just writing to the editor and you’re publishing a letter, which is usually dissociated from the piece itself, or you’ve got people weighing in in the comments, which is hardly a great venue for smart discussion. Some of the scientists said that they liked our piece but they thought we had missed part of the picture... That to me is exactly the way that journalism should be treated. Often we get forced into this defensive position – we’ll publish something and then people go, ‘Hey, you’re wrong!’ and we have to defend what we’ve written. It’s actually much better to put it out there and say, ‘If you think we’re wrong, then tell us why. Let’s have a discussion about it.’ Medium is great for that.
From a business model point of view it’s interesting as well, because we are a paywall publication, so the question is, is it worth taking some of that content out from behind the paywall, using it to increase visibility, and seeing if that encourages people to sign up?
How might you achieve that balance, given Medium’s totally free, totally open approach?
In the short term, our key business is going to remain centered on Matter website, and we’ll be using Medium as a tool to do some experiments. Also it’s a great publishing platform, so we will have a presence and will publish additional material there rather than using Tumblr, for example. But we’re not going to put a ton of articles for free on Medium... We’re going to be careful about that balance.
That [“Amputees & Wannabes” collection] is the first of several experiments we have planned for the next few months. It’s the most straightforward one. The other ones will be more interesting, and doing them from within Medium, which has a team of amazing designers and developers, makes that process many times easier for us. So that was a key thing we realized: If we try to grow the business from within Medium, it’s just a much more secure place to do it.
You also said in your FAQ about the acquisition that you are planning to make some changes to your website. What are they going to be?
They’re not going to be huge changes to how the site will look, but one of the issues that we’re going to tackle is sharing. We do a really bad job at the moment of allowing readers to share our articles. That’s partly because of the paywall. That’s a fundamental difficulty: how do you enable sharing on a paywalled piece? That’s probably the experiment I’m most excited about. There are ways in which you can do it. Paul Carr [and his publication NSFW], for example, they do these temporary links, these links that expire after 48 hours. I thought it wouldn’t work for us, but we are thinking about similar things and will be rolling them out in the next few months.
What does this acquisition say to you about the future of longform journalism?
Aside from this acquisition, there’s just so many encouraging signs for longform at the moment. There’s so many new services that are tapping into the demand, which has always been there right from the beginning of the Internet. People wanted to read long pieces on the Internet, it’s just that it wasn’t a terribly nice experience. That experience is just getting better and better, partly because people are realizing the importance of good typography, partly because of HTML5, more importantly because of the emergence of tablets. Even reading on the phone has become a much nicer experience. The technology is allowing that demand to be satisfied.