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.