Scott Lamb: My media life
Scott Lamb is Medium’s Vice President of Publisher Growth and Strategy, responsible for the growth and expansion of Medium’s platform-based publications. His first job, after graduating with a journalism degree in 2005 from NYU, saw him translating and editing work from the German version of Spiegel for its English-language website, before launching a podcast for Salon. He’d spend more than a decade at Buzzfeed, as Managing Editor, Editorial Director, and International VP (with brief forays into YouTube Nation/DreamWorks Animation en route) having helped it to grow traffic from a few hundred thousand to over 100 million monthly unique visitors.
I was obsessed with Time Magazine as a kid. My family didn’t get a lot of other magazines. Maybe that was the only one available, as we lived in Tokyo when I was quite young, so it felt like a lifeline to what was happening in the US. I was also very into watching Japanese cartoons, just for the spectacle and trying to piece together what was going on.
Salon was a great early media job. I’d come to New York to go to journalism school and graduated right as the internet started to crash into traditional media. We had all been gunning for magazine jobs, at Condé Nast or Hearst. But by the time we graduated, things were starting to change pretty rapidly. I ended up never working for any print magazine; from Salon on, all digital. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really lucky to get that first step into the industry with a digital publication.
BuzzFeed was magical, weird and cool. We were in this little office in Chinatown – you could see people playing Mahjong in an adjoining room. It had the spirit of [co-founder and CEO] Jonah Peretti, so it was funny and irreverent, and felt like this experiment he wanted to test out. Could we capture the rising conversation around any topic online in a given day?
A turning point came when Conan O’Brien started making jokes about BuzzFeed lists in his monologues. That was the moment that we were like, “Oh, we’ve entered the culture at a pretty deep level if Conan’s writing team is not only making fun of us, but also knows that their audience is going to get the joke because they know what a BuzzFeed list is.” We felt like we’d arrived.
The blue-black versus gold dress phenomenon is still totally shocking to me. I was in Indonesia the day it was published. I was in a mall l in Jakarta and everyone was talking about it on their phones. Buzzfeed didn’t come up with that image, we weren’t the first place that posted it. But we were, at that point, really well primed to distribute something in a way like that, that it could just instantly go viral totally globally.
I learned three things from working for BuzzFeed: move quickly, don’t be a jerk (and don’t tolerate others being one), and a creative culture requires mutual trust and diversity. Those are also good lessons for life.
The funniest and most creative ideas at Buzzfeed never came out of brainstorms or meetings. They came while walking to get a coffee or riffing about something someone had seen the night before. I miss that serendipity, the creative chaos of being around smart, interesting people and catching a conversation, and it taking your brain someplace. I think that’s basically impossible to recreate in a forum where you’re all talking over screens.
I was responsible for opening 10 international editions of Buzzfeed over a couple of years. It felt really meaningful to launch something from scratch and to be able to go to countries I’d never been to before and bring on board great writers and editors. Chief amongst those was launching BuzzFeed Japan. It was so nice to be able to go back to Tokyo, for me personally. The offices were very close to where I had grown up, so I got to revisit my old stomping ground.
Medium has been a huge change from BuzzFeed. In content, and in philosophy. BuzzFeed, at its core, was about creating content that people would share primarily via social networks. We got very lucky that Facebook became this massive dominant feature of people’s digital life and we were creating content specifically for people to share with one another on it.
The primary goal for Medium however is about creating value for our members and creating quality work. The through-line for Medium is mostly about things that make you better at life, at your job, at a particular interest that you have. There’s usually a learning component to Medium’s work.
There’s been a huge spike in growth for writers on Medium, both platform and paid. People are at home, with time on their hands. They’re like, “Oh, maybe I’ll –“ This is our working theory, anyway, that they’ll give writing a try. We tend to see a big spike at the beginning of the year. I think there’s like a New Year’s resolution of, “I’m going to start writing more.” We see that reflected, which I think is very cool.
I think a lot of the same opportunities that we were seeing before coronavirus, we still see now. People want good, high-quality information from people they can trust. I think $5 a month is a very good deal for what you get on Medium. We’re offering a lot for that, and it’s becoming a much more normal part, of course, of consuming digital content. I’m excited to see the rise of people subscribing to newsletters, of paying for websites, subscribing to places like Medium. It’s definitely good for our business and a healthy and good thing for the industry.
Learn how Scott Lamb’s personal career journey gives him unique insight into trends driving digital platforms and media at the FIPP World Media Congress 2020, taking place online from 2-30 September. See the agenda here. See the ticket options here.
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