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Ev Williams on Ad-Driven Media

January 20, 2017

Medium laid off about 50 employees, mostly in the ad revenue group. Ev Williams, the CEO, published a blog post about it that explained that their ad-driven revenue model—the same model that drives most media sites on the web—is broken and unsustainable to run a business.

Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.

I’m sure there are people out there looking to solve this problem, but until anything better comes along, publishers are going to keep failing on the business side if all they’re going to hope for is ad revenue to sustain it. Add to this scenario the users—a small, but nevertheless significant enough group—who installed ad blockers on their desktops and laptops, and then finally on their phones, too, and the environment looks hopeless.

In a world with only—or mostly—programmatic ads, the winners are the click-baiters and sensationalists, and we as consumers suffer for it. Better publishers must move to a subscription model, with ads making up a smaller part of the revenue, just like sports teams rely on season ticket sales to provide a stable revenue base.

I worked on a team that ran a high-traffic blog, of which the revenue model was based solely on programmatic ads. It was depressing at times watching the revenue team squeeze every penny of revenue from those ads like blood from a stone, while the user experience suffered and the daily visitor numbers stagnated or shrunk.

One positive thought is that when subscriptions become more accepted by mass audiences, it'll be the better publications that will earn those dollars and the others will become online tabloids battling our ad-blockers.

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