Long and short of it: Medium’s no haven for long-form journalism

Why does The New York Times think Medium is trying to save long-form journalism?

Matt Richtel had a tough assignment in this week’s Sunday Business section, profiling a site that defies definition. In August, Alexis C. Madrigal of The Atlantic explored the mystery of Medium, which was founded in 2012 by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams.

I suppose, in light of the Twitter IPO this week, it made certain narrative sense for the Times’ Richtel to contrast Williams’s new venture with his last one. But Williams doesn’t give him much help in that effort, or in any, sticking mostly to vague goals like, “I want to give rationality a fighting chance.” Williams’ coyness (incoherence?) makes for a fascinating, frustrating read but not one that backs up the headline, “A Founder of Twitter Goes Long.”

Williams in the story mostly harps on cutting through the noise of the Web to arrive at serious journalism, a worthy goal but one that Medium’s algorithm and model don’t seem particularly well-designed to achieve. Richtel expresses skepticism on this front, but insists on returning to this notion — unexpressed by Williams himself in the story — that Medium is hung-up on longform.

Now that the Times is on it, I decided to spend some time exploring Medium more deeply than I had before, and found that most of its essays — the ones it promotes most heavily, anyway — are really rather short.

Medium estimates how long it will take to read a piece on its site. Its 10 top posts from last month averaged just 4.8 minutes of reading time. Of the 25 “most recommended today” stories on its homepage Sunday night, 17 were reads of 5 minutes or less, and just five exceeded 15 minutes. That makes sense: With so many contributors writing for free, and with so little editorial oversight from Medium itself, why would anyone choose Medium as a home for long, time-consuming writing?

By contrast, Longreads — which the Times mentions as part of a long-form “mini-movement” that includes Medium — tends to point readers toward pieces much meatier than the average Medium essay. Longreads, which recently partnered with The Atlantic, allows readers on its website to search by article length, with the least lengthy option being under 15 minutes (under 3,750 words). It defines longform as “anything over 1,500 words.” Longform.org, too, has a minimum word count — 2,000 — that’s more than double the 500-700 word pieces that seem to dominate Medium.

The long and short of it: Medium’s a lot of things — a home for good writing and a home for bad writing — but a haven for long-form journalism in particular? By almost any definition of long form, besides “hundreds of characters longer than a tweet,” there’s no reason to think so.

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  • Evan Hansen

    One of the reasons some people associate Medium with long form may be that, while we’re not exclusively about long form, we have been investing significantly in long form, specifically Matter (http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/210575/medium-buys-science-journalism-site-matter/) and EPIC Magazine (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/12/business/media/magazine-writing-on-the-web-for-film.html)

    If you want to sample Medium’s long form content, browse our Medium Long collection, which curates meatier posts, and can be found here: https://medium.com/medium-long

    There are several days worth of reading here, including a few 40+ minute reads.

  • PaulCantor

    Yeah, it certainly wasn’t the best story. It read like most of the other stories that have been written about Medium. I think that Medium itself is trying to figure out exactly what it will be vs. what it purports to be.

    These platforms seem to cycle through a few different phases and be used for a variety of different things. For example, how you and I might use Twitter might be totally different than someone else.

    Right now the narrative about Medium is about words and story length, because that seems to be what it’s putting out front, mostly. I think that Ev Williams is kind of wishy-washy and vague because he, like many tech people, are making it up as they go along.

  • Sam Kirkland

    Hi Paul: Thanks for sharing. I agree with your appraisal of what Medium’s trying to be, even though the goal of captivating, thoughtful content (who doesn’t have this goal?) doesn’t mean much if you can’t explain how your model in particular will achieve it. That’s why I was perplexed by The New York Times story’s focus on Medium as a platform for long-form writing.

  • PaulCantor

    Been writing on medium for a month or so. https://medium.com/@PaulCantor

    My typical audience is nobody in particular. These are pretty much random thoughts I choose to jot down there, or in an instance or two, ideas I’ve pitched to other publishers who weren’t interested. Some have gone “viral,” and received thousands upon thousands of views. Others have barely been viewed at all.

    The time of the read doesn’t seem to matter so much as the idea itself. Bottom line, is it something people want to read? Does it hook them? Is it a captivating subject?

    That said, the audience for long form anything— fiction, non-fiction, whatever— is much smaller than media critics realize, and one could probably find some data somewhere to support that it’s never been particularly large.

    People who have 15-20 minutes or more to kill during the day on some random long form subject are either in institutions that support that sort of consumption (like a college), or are of the privileged class who have time and money to blow. In America, that’s an increasingly really small group of people.

    All in all, though, if something takes 5 minutes to read, that’s already much longer than the average piece of content on the Internet or in a newspaper. And I think it’s not a question of Medium looking to “save” long form writing, rather, just a place online for people to share ideas, thoughts, writing, whatever that are quicker than a blog entry with a video and 4 sentences describing it. There are few platforms allowing you to do that and delivering any kind of audience right now.