No wonder VCs just threw $57 million into Medium -- it's basically this generation's version of PR Newswire

Medium CEO Evan WilliamsKevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm TechMedium CEO, Twitter co-founder and board member Evan Williams

Medium, the blogging platform founded by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams, raised $US57 million from venture capitalists today.

Its big promise is a new media network. Medium is not about clicks, it’s about quality, the company preaches.

“With this round we aim to make Medium the dominant pipeline for connecting quality content and conversation,” Andy Doyle wrote. “We don’t focus on pageviews, unique visitors, or click metrics. We don’t litter the platform with ads that are low quality, high clutter.”

That part is true. There are no ugly ads that flash advertising before crashing your browser.

Instead, everyone from San Francisco’s local supervisors to the White House are publishing articles, essays, and press releases, surrounded by the same swathes of white and clean fonts. The bylines are tucked away on the top left corner.

Companies may call this “content.” A lot of it looks like advertising.

And let’s face it: Medium has become a dumping ground for a different generation’s press releases.

Hiding #Branding in plain sight

In May, the Medium publication Backchannel sent out an inconspicuous tweet with a link to a story: “Google’s robot driver got into 11 minor accidents over 6 years, but was responsible for none.”

I clicked on the link and found myself in a six minute read on the view from the front seat of the Google self-driving car project. It wasn’t until I got to the end of the story that I found out that the orange egg named Chris Urmson that appeared at the top of the page was the director of Google’s self-driving car program.

MediumMediumWhat the top of a Medium story looks like.
MediumMediumThen what appears at the bottom.

I had spent six minutes reading a company’s press release, disguised as an essay. Or maybe it was a Medium version of a guest post. I just know that I read the Google version of events before I read the Associated Press article.

The new generation of press release means Google can get away with placing that story. Intel can sponsor a comic on the history of the microprocessor, and I’ll read it too.

This article on the future of work doesn’t get a sponsored label, yet it advertises the author’s conference right in the middle of it. This one, written by UpWork, is listed as “presented by UpWork,” which at least acknowledges it’s not the same as other kinds of content. Maybe it depends on whether it’s written by a person or a PR team (let’s imagine that Google PR didn’t read over Urmson’s piece before publication).

Brands aren’t the only ones in the game. There’s a new generation of people who disguise press releases as personal essays.

There’s a whole website dedicated to collecting startup post-mortems, which are a practically an industry prerequisite for all startups that fail. As a journalist, I’ve been directed to a startup’s Medium post on the subject more than I’ve been directed to talk to the CEO. Why? Because that’s a crafted model of the story a startup wants to tell. And since it’s got that person’s name on top, we should treat it just like direct quotes from an interview, right?


Of course it’s worth $US400 million

If Medium can succeed at turning these cleverly disguised press releases into a profit stream, it’s obvious why it would be worth $US400 million.

Brands pay. One-off bloggers and founders of dead startups do not. Williams will need to figure out monetisation so Medium doesn’t end up in the same situation as Twitter.

Medium certainly isn’t oblivious to the blurring of lines between content and advertising either. In its post about funding, Medium acknowledges it’s a place for advertisers to look for engagement.

“Distribution happens primarily through networks that optimise clickthrough over quality, forcing creators to learn content and marketing parlor tricks instead of allowing them to focus on creating fresh perspectives. This has left a large and influential audience underserved,” Doyle wrote. “It has forced advertisers to look elsewhere for deeper engagement. And it has frustrated individual writers and organised media brands alike.”

Venture capitalists may be excited about a social network that makes everyone an influencer, but that’s certainly where they’re not going to get their money returned.

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