With its new music magazine, Medium still doesn't know if it's a platform or publication. And that's OK.
When discussing the newest crop of media startups, journalists often bring up the dichotomy of "platform vs publication."
Sites like Twitter are primarily thought of as platforms. While Twitter's overlords will occasionally remove content if it violates copyright or good taste, the social network generally doesn't operate with any central editorial vision or control -- anyone can and will post whatever they want, save for a few exceptions. On the opposite end of the spectrum are sites like Pando, where writers pitch stories that are approved and edited before posting like in a traditional news room.
But Medium, like Buzzfeed, is somewhere in between. Anybody can write an article on Medium without going through any traditional editorial gatekeepers. At the same time, the site pays some contributors. It also recently launched Matter, a publication that puts out magazine-style articles edited and vetted by Medium staffers. This conflicted identity between being a publication or a platform has gotten Medium in hot water in the past, like when writer Michele Catalano detailed a highly-invasive visit from authorities after they Googled "pressure cookers" and "backpacks." The story blew up, creating a traffic field day for Medium. The only problem? Catalano left out some crucial details about things her husband had been Googling at work which makes the story much less sensational.
When asked if Medium was editorially responsible for the post, it replied, "We are a platform. Any changes to an article are up to the author."
Now Medium has taken yet another step that makes it harder than ever for it to say it's "just a platform." Re/Code reports that the site is launching a music publication edited by Jonathan Shecter, cofounder of the legendary hip-hop magazine, "The Source." (The genesis of this partnership apparently came when Shecter met Medium CEO Ev Williams at one of the "Wynn casinos’ high-end dance clubs").
Some have bristled at Medium's (and Buzzfeed's) desire to have it both ways, encouraging a bunch of free, unvetted user-generated content while also chasing after the prestige of more editorially-sound publications. But that might not be such a bad model for producing quality journalism, and paying for it.
Music journalism, in particular, is in some need of saving, having strayed a long way from its "Almost Famous" glory days in the 70s. As Ted Gioia put it, writing at the Daily Beast, "Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting." Indeed, many readers are much more interested in reading about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian's wedding than they are about reading all the brilliant ways West simultaneously embraces and subverts hip-hop conventions on his most recent album, "Yeezus."
My beef against modern music journalism goes even further. Sadly, much of it has devolved into posting SoundCloud links with the headline, "Check out the new awesome track from <insert artist here>." Which is fine, except I often wonder whether these writers really think that new track is awesome, or if they just put that in the headline to convince me to click. How often do you see the headline, "Check out the mediocre, predictable new song from Ke$ha?"
If Medium can find a way to pay the best music writers of today and yesterday (legendary rock critic Robert Christgau is said to be joining the staff), then that's a win for journalism. Of course, even Williams isn't quite sure how Medium, which has raised $25 million in venture capital, is going to make money on its own. But despite what Williams in his utopian zeal may say, racking up lots of visitors and pageviews will likely have to be part of that equation, even if the site is supported through selling ebooks or through revenue-sharing with media organizations, as opposed to ads. And a good way to bring those visitors and views to Medium is by letting anybody post -- a "platform play" to drive huge growth like what Twitter and Facebook have done.
The key then, if Medium wants to have its cake and eat it too, will be messaging. While the Matter sub-blog is clearly marked as a Medium-vetted editorial product (as I'm sure the music vertical will be), I think the site could do a better job of differentiating content produced by paid contributors with editorial oversight, and run-of-the-mill user generated content. Moreover, if Medium is going to promote certain stories like Catalano's on the front page or on social media, it should be sure that the reporting and analysis is sound, first.
As critics sit around and nitpick over whether Buzzfeed is a tech firm or a media company, or if Medium is a platform of a publication, at some point they'll have to admit there are going to be some monstrously successful companies that have one foot squarely in each category. And as long as readers aren't fooled, and working journalists get paid, maybe that's not such a bad model for journalism after all.
[Image credit: Public domain]