Investors and advisors in Medium who I’ve spoken with say one thing has consistently surprised them about the company: That famed founder Evan Williams is not “religious” about anything. Typically when someone has two successes under their belt– albeit Blogger far smaller of a win that Twitter– they think they know it all. And let’s be honest: Williams doesn’t really need anyone else’s money to build whatever he wants. Add to that the fact that Blogger sold early and he was ousted as CEO of Twitter and you could imagine him having something to prove.
But everyone who has been involved with the company tells me that Williams’ heels couldn’t be less dug in. He wants Medium to work– whatever Medium turns out to be. He recognizes when one vision isn’t working and shifts accordingly.
That couldn’t be farther from the demeanor of another man who built a multi billion platform and started a media company: Pierre Omidyar. It seems little at First Look Media has worked according to Omidyar’s grand plan — at least so far. The Intercept, which was supposed to be a great bastion of investigative journalism, still looks more like a sporadically published WordPress blog staffed by Gawker cast offs. Meanwhile, Omidyar’s own role at First Look changes, sometimes hourly, between hands-on editor and arm’s-length investor.
But while all evidence points to a ship adrift at sea, Omidyar has only dug in more when it comes to publicly explaining his strategy for his $ 250m media startup, defensively rebutting critiques on Twitter while refusing to submit to interviews that might clarify his actual strategy.
Today, as I was reading a remarkable piece of journalism on Medium’s recently relaunched “Matter” vertical, it occurred to me that Evan Williams has quietly pulled off what Omidyar and Greenwald only (loudly) promised. He has built a technology platform providing useful tools for writers — even innovating in things like in-line comments and design– while building and funding an increasingly stellar long-form news team around the acquired brand Matter.
The pivot around Matter is emblematic of what investors say about Williams’ approach with Medium. Matter was originally a crowdfunded science magazine– and a headscratcher of an acquisition. Now the founding team is (apparently) gone, so is the mission to focus on science. In its place, something fascinating is emerging.
Last week, I clicked on my first Matter piece: A global survey about “Eye Fucking.” We discussed it on PandoLIVE last week, and I noted that it wasn’t terribly well written or quite as insightful as I’d hoped but it was original, thought provoking and well designed.
Today, though, a bombshell of a piece arrived in my inbox. Written by Sarah A. Topol, “If we run and they kill us, so be it. But we have to run now” is an exclusive, in-depth profile of the Nigerian school girls who escaped Boko Haram. I say without any hyperbole that it’s one of the best pieces of international reporting that I’ve ever read. Up there in style, power, and reporting with Philip Gourevitch’s “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.”
Williams deserves serious kudos for assembling a team that’s able to produce work like this. I hope more is coming. I’ve long had doubts about Medium– or anyone’s– ability to run a platform and real, groundbreaking editorial. If this is where Medium is going, I’m happy to be proven wrong.