Medium Tells Journalists to Feel Free to Quit After Busting Union DriveMarch 24, 2021
On Tuesday night, billionaire Medium CEO and Twitter co-founder Ev Williams sent an email to the entire Medium staff announcing that the company would like employees charged with doing journalism to feel free to quit and that the company would in fact be shifting away from professional journalism altogether.
"We are making some changes to our editorial strategy and leadership and giving a voluntary exit option to employees who would like to take a different path," Williams wrote.
The move comes less than one month after all Medium employees—including the editorial unit—attempted to unionize and lost by one vote. Employees at the company say that journalists who work at Medium’s nine publications were not the initial driving force behind the union, but were some of the most vocal supporters of it. The news media industry (including VICE) is highly unionized; the tech industry is not.
Four current Medium employees told Motherboard that in the leadup to the vote, Medium and Williams himself discouraged the company from unionizing. Medium hired the unionbusting firm Kauff McGuire & Margolis in the leadup to the February union vote. Williams also held “coffee chats” with small groups of workers, where four current employees told Motherboard that Williams said that it would be difficult to raise money from venture capitalists if the union won the vote.
“He mentioned in the all hands and the coffee chat that the VCs he talked to would not fund us if we unionized,” one current employee said. “This is awfully close to a ‘threat,’ which you can’t do, but just toes the line because he’s not saying ‘we’ll lose funding,’ he’s saying ‘I talked to someone who said we’ll lose funding.’”
Following an inquiry from Motherboard, Williams posted a copy of the email on the platform.
The core point of the email is that Williams—the owner of nine publications including OneZero, Elemental, and Zora—no longer believes in the concept of publications.
“I think a significant factor is that the role of publications—in the world, not just on Medium—has decreased in the modern era. I don’t mean the role of professional editorial, but the idea of an imprimatur that establishes credibility or trust,” Williams wrote. “Trust is more important than ever and well-established editorial brands still have meaning. But today, credibility and affinity are primarily built by people—individual voices—rather than brands.”
In his email, Williams announced that the company's editorial strategy would be shifting away from a focus on publications, seeking to support some "more focused, high-affinity publications" as part of focusing on "supporting independent voices on our platform." Over the last several years, Medium, formerly a blogging platform, has invested heavily in hiring career journalists—writers, editors, and audience development experts—to create professional publications with specific editorial missions. Those publications have published high-impact work over the years: An investigation by tech publication OneZero into a surveillance tech executive’s attendance at KKK meetings led to his firing, for example.
The move feels in some ways to emulate parts of the individual-based strategy that Substack has championed in the past few months, offering to showcase individual writers and provide them with deals and some support. For now, that means "identifying writers" and offering them "deals, support, editing, and feedback."
"What's worked less well is where we've followed the traditional editorial playbook—specifically commissioning stories from professional writers into publications with broad mandates,” Williams writes in the email. “When I say 'worked less well,' I don't mean the work itself, but the equation of cost, audience, and return on investment. I also mean in aggregate."
Williams also announced that Siobhan O’Connor, Vice President of Editorial at Medium, would be leaving the company.
"Our goal was never to replicate the traditional publishing model because we saw the challenges the industry was going through,” Williams wrote when trying to explain away the massive overhaul. “Rather, we believed we could find a new model that would allow professional writers and editors to do their best work."
Williams also offered a severance package. The "voluntary separation program (VSP)” as Williams is calling it, will allow writers to “choose to leave the company and receive a lump sum payment of five month's salary to give a buffer to find their next job. (We will also cover six months of health benefits.)."
A current Medium employee said they believe that the move was retaliation for unionizing: “Editorial was the department that supported the union most vocally and visibly … this is coming basically a month after a failed union drive preceded by pretty blatant union busting tactics by management.”
Current Medium employees sent Motherboard an image of Williams that was displayed at a 2020 all hands that featured an illustration of Williams originally from The Atlantic that had been edited: “Q: Media mogul or tech titan?” it said.
This is, it should be noted, the second time Williams has destroyed all of Medium’s publications.