Three-hit won­der: A co-founder of Twit­ter is bet­ting he can rev­o­lu­tionise dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing once again

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A co-founder of Twit­ter is bet­ting he can rev­o­lu­tionise dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing once again

FEW feel as con­flicted about the in­ter­net’s de­scent into glib, 140-char­ac­ter tweets as Evan Wil­liams. As a co-founder of Twit­ter, he has prof­ited hand­somely from the so­cial-me­dia firm’s rise and re­mains its largest share­holder. Yet now his main project is to en­sure that se­ri­ous-minded, long-form prose will off­set the tor­rent of tweets, often penned by twits.

Mr. Wil­liams's lat­est ven­ture, Medium, which launched in 2012, is a clean, el­e­gant-look­ing des­ti­na­tion for es­says, open letters and “big think” pieces. It is try­ing to be­come the cen­tral hub for writ­ing by the pub­lic at large, as YouTube is for am­a­teur videos. Jour­nal­ists, business ex­ec­u­tives and heads of state, in­clud­ing Barack Obama, have all pub­lished on Medium. When Ama­zon dis­agreed with a New York Times ar­ti­cle on the e-com­merce gi­ant's ap­par­ently bru­tal work cul­ture, a se­nior ex­ec­u­tive from the firm wrote a long re­tort on Medium. Small pa­pers and dig­i­tal-me­dia firms, such as the Pa­cific Stan­dard and The Ringer, are us­ing it to pub­lish con­tent.

As in Hol­ly­wood, it is eas­ier to sell a se­quel in Sil­i­con

Val­ley. In 1999 Mr. Wil­liams co-founded Blog­ger. The startup helped pop­u­larise the concept of blog­ging and the word it­self by mak­ing it sim­ple for peo­ple to post their mus­ings with­out need­ing to code. Af­ter Google bought the com­pany in 2003, Mr. Wil­liams worked on a pod­cast­ing firm called Odeo that ended up launch­ing a text-mes­sag­ing ser­vice, which be­came Twit­ter. “Any­one who has changed the world twice, I would bet on a third time,” says Jeff Jarvis, a pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at City Univer­sity of New York.

Some ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists have done so: they have joined Mr. Wil­liams in fi­nanc­ing Medium to the tune of $130m, valu­ing it at around $600m. In­vestors hope that Medium will be able to ri­val Face­book as a place for per­sonal com­men­tary and news dis­cov­ery. “The world needs a hedge to Face­book,” says Kevin Thau of Spark Cap­i­tal, a ven­ture-cap­i­tal firm that has in­vested in Medium. (That view will have been boosted by a re­cent con­tro­versy over the so­cial-me­dia firm's cen­sor­ing in Nor­way of an iconic pho­to­graph of a naked girl in a na­palm at­tack dur­ing the Vietnam war.)

The site cer­tainly is not Face­book: Medium's sleek, min­i­mal­ist look is heavy on blank space and has raised the bar for read­ing on the web. Users like its fea­tures, such as the es­ti­mated time an ar­ti­cle will take to read, and one that shows which pas­sages were high­lighted fre­quently in an ar­ti­cle, though Mr. Wil­liams him­self has some crit­i­cisms. “We were a lit­tle too pre­cious about the de­sign, en­gi­neer­ing and who could write on the plat­form,” he says, ad­mit­ting that he prob­a­bly rolled out new fea­tures too cau­tiously early on.

Medium has only just be­gun ex­per­i­ment­ing with how it will make money. One op­tion is to take a cut of the sub­scrip­tion fees charged by pub­lish­ers on its plat­form. So far it is work­ing mainly with small firms, but even­tu­ally some big­ger news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines could sign on. Medium also has plans to make money by means of spon­sored ad­ver­tise­ments, where com­pa­nies pay to pro­mote posts they have writ­ten.

Yet to build a large ad­ver­tis­ing business, it will need many more read­ers. With 30m monthly users and a rep­u­ta­tion cul­ti­vated mainly among coastal, tech-savvy elites, Medium is a long way from the scale of a Twit­ter, which has more than ten times as many users, let alone a Face­book, which has 1.7 bil­lion.

For John Bat­telle of NewCo, a dig­i­tal pub­lisher that posts ar­ti­cles on Medium, the big ques­tion is whether the site's fo­cus on length­ier prose leaves it vul­ner­a­ble to short at­ten­tion spans. Else­where on­line, sto­ries are in­creas­ingly told with im­ages, emo­jis and videos. Mr. Wil­liams re­mains op­ti­mistic. Hav­ing trained peo­ple to ex­press them­selves in short, snappy quips, he be­lieves they still have a “hunger for sub­stance”. This may be true, but whether it makes for a thriv­ing business is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ques­tion. Plenty of news­pa­per and mag­a­zine bosses can tes­tify to that.

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