Just a Theory

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Posts about Publishing

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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An open letter to the printed press

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend who works for a moderately-sized regional newspaper. We were talking about distribution. The guys upstairs, he told me, feel very comfortable, complacent even, with their position. They’re not worried about their future because, as they say, “Hey, we’re not the New York Times, we’re not going to have those kind of distribution problems, because we cover regional news, and there’s still a need for good regional coverage.” I guess they think that people in their region don’t read local news on the internet or their mobile devices?

This is so incredibly wrong-headed it boggles the mind. This complacency will kill a perfectly good regional news source, all because the folks in charge are so blinkered that they cannot see that distribution is about to undergo a disruption not seen since…hell, I don’t know when.

I am a great believer in quality. There will always be a place for good writing, good editing, and solid reportage. We need organizations to employ journalists to investigate goings-on and report on them. There needs to be fact-checking, copy editing, compelling photography and illustration, and most of all, people who are willing to dig, to dig up the truth and tell stories that inform us, challenge us, and yes, entertain us.

Now, tell me, where in this characterization do you see any mention of forests of paper, barrels of inks, and warehouses of printing presses?

The printed press has struggled with the change to internet distribution over the last 15 years with very good reason: It’s difficult to make money. It didn’t help that so many of them gave away their content. But that change is nothing compared to the revolution that is the tablet computer, and especially the new iPad. This is a device you can take anywhere, and unlike your phone, is a pleasure to read. It’s as easy to take with you as a newspaper or magazine, but offers so much more. It’s here to stay. And it’s going to kill the printing press.1

Some disagree. An iPad does not offer the same pleasures as a newspaper: the texture of the pages, the scanability of the front page, the smell of the ink and the smudges it leaves on your fingers. No, there is nothing like a Sunday Times, a bagel, and a cup of coffee to laze away the morning. And when you’re done with the paper, the way it’s strewn about, the poorly refolded pages and crumpled edges of the most interesting sections offer satisfying remains of the experience. And then you recycle it.

Try that with your iPad. Don’t want to get cream cheese on it, or spill your coffee. Its scent does not bring back the memory of lazy Sundays, it doesn’t smudge your fingers, it doesn’t get crumpled or leave behind any of the detritus indicating a satisfying read. Just a smudged up screen, which won’t be nostalgic to anyone.

At the same time, you can’t perform a full text search of your newspaper. You can’t go back and read the article from last week because the recycling has been picked up. You can’t zoom in to a newspaper photo to look at things in greater detail. You can’t make text larger to relieve your aging eyes, or dig deeper to find out the story behind the photograph on the front page.

Look here, periodicals companies. This is important. It’s time realized that you are not in the printing business. You are in either the content business or the advertising business. You either sell your content to consumers in ways that are easy or enjoyable for them to access, or get your ads in front of as many eyeballs as possible (or both). The way to do that is not to run printing presses. Nor is it to squeeze the disadvantages of the printed page on devices. The way to do it is to provide the best experience possible. Decide what methods of distribution you want to use—print, web, tablet—and take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of each to make things people want.

So yeah, keep printing, for now, to satisfy the aging population that needs it. Make the experience the best you can within the constraints of the printed page. But don’t force those same constraints into another distribution channel. You don’t try to make the printed page look and feel like a scrolling screen, do you? Nor should you make the iPad experience feel like the printed page. No, I can’t smell the ink in your iPad app, but if you took proper advantage of the device, tried to work within the confines of its limitations while exploiting is unique strengths, you could provide a compelling, unique experience.

Because if you don’t, someone else will. The iPad in particular represents a gaping opportunity for disruption of your business, mainly because you fail to recognize that you are in the content business, not the distribution business. And upstart companies will start delivering well researched, edited, and fact-checked stories in a compelling format, with new approaches to interaction and engagement, in a way that people want. And they will be extremely successful. And profitable.

  1. Okay, not kill it, exactly, but turn printing into a niche business, suitable for coffee table books, wedding invitations and book arts. ↩︎

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