Mitt Romney announced he was not running for president in 2016 on Medium. The White House posted the entirety of President Obama's budget on Medium. And now Medium, a website two Twitter co-founders—Biz Stone and Ev Williams—started in 2012, is coming for the rest of D.C.
What is Medium? The simplest explanation is it's an online publication platform. The backbone of the site, and its main selling point, is its beautiful and simple design. With big, cushy fonts, text fields uncluttered by advertisements, and large-format-photo options, it's a sandbox for anyone (even us) to create Web content that rivals the best designed sites.
Medium's pitch to politicians and political groups will be simple: It's for thoughts that can't fit into a 140-character tweet and are meant to be read more deeply than a Facebook post. Kate Lee, a Medium senior editor (formerly director of content), says the company is looking to expand in D.C., and is currently hiring a staff member to do outreach here. "There are a lot of places out there that are forums for op-eds, but it's not easy necessarily to place one," Lee says. "I think [Medium is] a place where you can choose to publish and make your own news."
The site is genre busting on the social Web: a mashup of the social-sharing aspects of Twitter, with the build-it-yourself ethos of Wordpress, but with a reverence for long-form writing, like The New Yorker. That anyone can publish on Medium makes it more difficult to describe the story types a user might find on a site. Roughly, there are four categories.
1) Medium employs editors to fill content for its in-house magazines: Re:Form (about design), Matter (longform journalism), and Cue Point (on music). 2) Medium lets users post content into their own streams or create new themed collections. Many who post are professional journalists or writers. 3) Posts from established publications (such as The Daily Dot). 4) Posts from interest groups and politicians.
It's up to the reader to distinguish between what's journalism and what's communications—and all the shades in between. "We don't make those judgments for the reader," Lee says. "The reader is smart and can figure out what they are reading."
That's a response that echoes defenses of native advertising on news websites. For the unfamiliar, native advertising is an article or piece of content on a news website that was paid for by a sponsor. Here's an example. It's standard practice to clearly label these pieces as sponsored. The benefit for advertisers is that these ads are more engaging than static banner ads, and perhaps being published on a news site lends them some of that site's credibility. (Note: National Journal sells native advertisements.)
For politicians, posting on Medium is like posting native advertising content, but without the price tag.
"We think part of the appeal of being here—if you're a politician or a business leader, and you have something to say—that you could show up next to a piece of journalism or a first-person piece about a woman coder about her experience," Lee says.
Journalists tend to balk at such fuzzy lines between editorial and public relations. We like clear distinctions. But Lee says it's not correct to think of Medium itself as a publication—think of it more as a platform. Just how it isn't odd for a politician's tweet to show up next to one from The New York Times in a Twitter feed, it isn't odd for a politician's op-ed to show up next to a reported story on Medium.
Right now, very few political offices—outside of the White House—are using Medium. Early adopters include Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and David Price of North Carolina—all Democrats.
"A lot of journalists are on Twitter, on Medium, and they go there for compelling information from serious writers and serious thinkers;if you've got one more voice out there, it helps your message get spread amongst other influencers on the Web," says John Meza, O'Rourke's communications director. "People are looking for a curated experience."
For O'Rourke, Meza says, Medium fills a communications gap. For one thing, it's free. His office couldn't build out such a sophisticated blogging feature without some capital. O'Rourke's offices are just starting out on Medium—with just 304 followers—but Meza says he feels it has a high potential for growth. Another part of the appeal is the suite of analytics that Medium supplies to users. Offices can refine political messages by seeing what actually got read—and not just clicked on and ignored.
"Anytime you can get a sense of the folks who are reading it, or how long they are reading it, or what they are thinking about it, it's an advantage in terms of trying to understand the audience," John Rizzo, Casey's communication director, says of Medium's engagement metrics. "That's something you don't have access to—generally speaking—in a Senate office."
Political communications are changing quickly. Just a few years ago, Twitter was foreign on Capitol Hill. Now, it's taken for granted that every member of Congress has an account. As the White House continues to experiment with targeting audiences via interviews on YouTube, or on Funny or Die's "Between Two Ferns," the rank and file will also want to find new communication outlets. As the White House has shown, it's increasingly easy to circumvent the traditional press in order to articulate an idea. Politicians are becoming publications.
This post has been updated to clarify Kate Lee's position at Medium. CORRECTION: This post originally misidentified Sen. Casey's communication director.