An ambiguous Medium

An essay about an inappropriate love affair tears open the problems with the two-tiered platform

Last week, Medium editor Arikia Millikan published a coming-of-age essay chronicling a stilted affair she’d had with a married (and much older) journalist, whom she’d met while an intern in college. Though the affair was barely consummated, the tumultuous interaction left her emotionally beleaguered and professionally jaded. Millikan is a technology writer (at Medium she founded and runs the female-centric science and technology blog Lady Bits) so the story hits in the wake of another harassment scandal in the science community: the string of women who came out about being harassed by then-Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic, leading to his resignation. One part open blogging platform, one part elite digital magazine, Medium is a difficult publication to interpret. But Millikan’s story was analyzed by journalists and debated on Twitter as yet another example of how a predator-friendly industry can consume young women.

There’s a confounding second act. Gawker decided to attempt to verify the anonymous identity of Millikan’s older suitor using a string of details from the piece, finally settling upon Dexter Filkins, a New Yorker staff writer with a biography that fit clues in her essay. Gawker editors contacted Millikan, who refused to confirm and further told the site it would be impossible to suss out an identity from the piece. “I changed the details so that nobody could figure out who he was,” she told them. Gawker didn’t take well to the idea that Millikan had altered her story, writing about the interaction in a post yesterday titled “Making Shit Up About Suicidal Journalists.”

It’s common practice for journalists to alter details to conceal identities in particularly sensitive stories. It’s also a practice that has a system of checks and balances to prevent journalists from “playing fast and loose,” as Gawker has written about Medium in the past. The precaution involves an editor, who knows the identity of the anonymous source, the details altered and who can play an impartial third party when allegations of misconduct (such as the Gawker story) arise. Evan Williams and Biz Stone have stocked Medium’s masthead with high profile talent and announced that the site’s paid contributors will be held to stringent standards of integrity. (Gawker received confirmation from Medium that, as a paid contributor, Millikan’s piece met “accepted journalistic standards.”)

But Medium’s business model makes it confusing to know what posts operate under these ‘accepted journalistic standards’ and what posts don’t. The site operates on a two-tiered system. Some professionals are highly paid to produce polished works of journalism—like this Maryn McKenna piece about antibiotics, or Sloan Crosley’s essay about the modern bris, for which the site reportedly paid $15,000. The editorial content serves to attract a larger pool of unpaid users, who use Medium like a Wordpress site with a better interface. These users are important to the site’s profitability; they generate cheap content, pageviews, and a wide array of occasionally excellent content.

It’s not a unique plan; Tumblr briefly had an editorial team, before they were laid off last April. But Medium’s stunning landing-pages, and “collection” pages, make it difficult to tell which pieces of content have been solicited, vetted, and edited by Medium’s lauded editorial team and which have simply been uploaded to the site. Millikan’s essay was received by the world as a piece of journalism that had received such editorial treatment—and since she’s a paid contributor to the site, it likely did. (Millikan is out of town on business and hasn’t yet responded to requests for comment; we’ll update with more information as we get it.) But until Medium clarifies which pieces contain the full weight of their editorial judgement and which pieces are just hosted on the site, they’re leaving room for a whole lot of confusion and gossip.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,