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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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