Just a Theory

Trans rights are human rights

Medium in the Large

I’ve been reading novels the last few months, taking advantage of our time in Europe to just veg out on epic fantasy when not working or doing family stuff. A such, I had less time to clear out my Instapaper queue or to read The New Yorker. But now I’ve finished the series and turned back to The New Yorker, downloading the latest issue to my iPad the other night and greedily reading the back story on the Clinton-Obama reconciliation. I was immediately reminded of all the reasons why The The New Yorker app sucks. It has not improved at all. This naturally got me thinking again about the future of publishing and looking around for new ideas.

Medium, the new publishing platform from Obvious Corporation (whose founders were the creative force behind Blogger and Twitter), made a bit of a splash last month with its soft launch. In his post introducing the service, Ev Williams writes:

So, we’re re-imagining publishing in an attempt to make an evolutionary leap, based on everything we’ve learned in the last 13 years and the needs of today’s world.

An evolutionary approach is perhaps for the best, given that recent attempts at revolution have not proved to be a panacea. (But then maybe there are other reasons why Newsstand has not “saved the publishing industry.”) There is little to see on Medium as yet, but the idea seems simple enough: users post to “collections” of content, which are defined by topical and visual themes. Some collections are open to contributions from anyone, while others are managed by individual users. Ev writes, “Collections give people context and structure to publish their own stories, photos, and ideas.”

Collections Agency

The collections idea sounds nice, with its emphasis on quality writing and editing. I have no inside information on Medium whatsoever, but reading the tea leaves a bit, I suspect that collections are the key idea. While traditional blogging services such as Blogger and Tumblr empower the individual writer to post whatever she wants whenever she wants, Medium’s collections aim to empower editors.

Since the publishing industry is having a hell of a time trying to make the internet look like a magazine, it’s natural that some of the folks behind online publishing would be thinking about how to bring the best qualities of periodical publishing to the internet. Two of the most important of those qualities are editorial control (not coincidentally emphasized Dustin Curtis’s Svbtle Network) and topicality. Think about it. If you’re interested in American politics, you might read National Review or The Nation. For long-form journalism and in-depth reporting, there’s The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Want vegetarian-friendly recipes? Vegegarian Times or Cooking Light. Each of these magazines present themselves as well-edited authorities on particular topics, and most have an identifiable design. My guess is that Medium’s collections attempt to emulate these qualities.

Let’s say you’re interested in writing about baseball. You get a Medium account and start publishing pieces in an open sports collection. You’re doing a good job, calling out the subtleties of the latest game that others have missed, and readers start hitting the “this is good” badge on your post and writing their own posts in response. Soon, someone who edits a respected, moderated baseball collection invites you to contribute there. You get even more exposure, because the collection’s editorial oversight ensures consistent quality. Readers pay more attention to that quality, as well as its timely delivery throughout the week or month.

After a while, you start helping out with the editing, finding other folks to to contribute and providing editorial feedback. Eventually you might create your own collection, perhaps expanding into other sports, or covering the vicissitudes of the sports apparel industry. Today you are your own Roger Angell, and tomorrow, perhaps, you’re David Remnick.

Medium provides a growth path for writers to develop their craft, to collaborate, to build editorial credibility within particular topics, and perhaps create a brand. This is more than just individual publishing, where you’re just some guy with a baseball blog. In the collaborative community of Medium, you can work with others to build something greater than any of you could on your own.

I’m just speculating here. But it might work. Think about precedents. If Twitter is what happens when IRC meets RSS, then Medium is what happens when you bring RSS to Usenet. But unlike Usenet (or Newsstand for that matter), this would not be a sea of distributed content with archipelagos of collecting meaning. It’s not federated or distributed by a protocol. No, the whole damned thing will be completely owned and controlled by Medium.

Imagine that Medium succeeds, that it displaces the magazine publishing industry with its thematic collections. It also distributes official apps for all the major platforms, gratis, so readers can follow their favorite collections from anywhere. If my admittedly wild-assed conjecture is in any way the case, I don’t think it would be too much to say that Medium aims to be the primary medium of topical publishing. The name embodies the ambition.

Medium of Exchange

Which brings me to the obvious question (pun acknowledged): What’s the business model? How will Medium make money? Perhaps, as with Twitter (and Tumblr?), the idea is to get lots of users first, and then sell those users to advertisers at some later date. Imagine you’re a collection editor, who has spent two years building up a readership and a stable of writers on Medium, keeping your collection looking sharp and clean, and then Medium decides to dump ads into your collection. Maybe they would revenue share with you. Or maybe you would pack up and go somewhere else where your editorial integrity was better respected.

Alternately, Medium could sell “professional accounts” to collection editors. This might have some appeal to the next generation of publishers, as it would be much cheaper than starting a paper magazine. But how many of these folks would there be, really? A tech startup needs to show something like a 10x return on investment, and I find it hard to believe that a $50/year (or even $500/year) professional account for a few thousand editors would bring in near enough revenue. And besides, don’t editors want to get paid for their time and effort, not pay for the privilege of contributing to Medium’s collections?

And the writers, too! To attract the best writers—the folks who know how to do research, think though a topic, and write thoughtful posts on the matter—you need cash. So, better than charging publishers would be some way to make great quality content pay. Money for the folks who develop popular and widely-read collections. Money for the writers who contribute to them. Again, advertising might work, but at the expense, perhaps, of editorial integrity. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it would be a non-starter if it didn’t happen soon. You want to get good people? Show them the money, right up front.

I have a better idea how Medium could generate revenue leading to profits while empowering its writers and editors to potentially make a living producing great content. It’s simple: bring the App Store model to publishing.

Here’s how it works. If you buy into the Medium ecosystem, agree to its terms and guidelines and play by its rules, then you, as publisher, would have an array of choices as to how to distribute your collection. You can have ads in your collections, provided by Medium’s ad network, and both you and Medium take a cut of the revenues. Alternatively, you can set a price for subscriptions to your collections, and Medium will collect payments, taking a cut. You could also decide to just distribute your collections freely, with no ads. Maybe there would be some way to create cross-promotions to your paid collections.

The point is, just as App Store developers can choose to sell their apps, release them with ads or in-app purchase options, or make them free, perhaps Medium editors could choose whether their collections include ads, require subscription payments, or are free. It’s the App Store Publishing model.

Again, this is purely speculation, but I’d love it if something like this was in the works, because I can imagine no other viable model that doesn’t sell users to advertisers and turn editors into digital sharecroppers.1 And god knows the traditional topical publishers are in deep trouble. If Medium empowers the people who edit great collections to get revenue the way they want, then everyone wins.

And if Medium does not plan to do this, well then someone should.

  1. Thanks to Duncan Davidson for this term, which perfectly encapsulates the problem in a single word. ↩︎

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