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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Glenn Fleishman

Medium’s latest intriguing publishing experiment

The recent launch of a paid membership option for publications hosted at Medium, a publishing platform, has me thinking again about what it takes to sustain an independent editorial effort — like the one you’re reading right now!

As the editor and publisher of The Magazine — I can’t bring myself to say “former,” though it’s been shuttered for nearly 18 months — I have a passionate and ongoing interest in how small-scale editorial operations can be funded. This site’s fine proprietor mixes annual subscriptions, sponsorships, and podcast advertising with his own freelance work and book writing to allow him the freedom to post regularly, have Dan Moren as a regular contributor, and let some freelancers like me opine.

But it’s hard work to pull all the pieces together to publish for both mobile and desktop readers, and pull in some net revenue to boot. This is where a new initiative from web-publishing platform Medium comes in. Medium isn’t offering a solution for all woes. Hell, with its track record, it might only provide this service for a year or two, before moving on to something very different. But it’s trying something new, and its effort may convince other hosting platforms to build or enable recurring revenue without the overhead required today. (I’m looking at you, Squarespace.)

Medium is bringing enough separate pieces together seamlessly and with a high aesthetic quality that it might work to sustain some sites, or even let them grow.

What Medium Offers

Medium’s membership program, which it’s carefully not labeling a subscription, is available to its early partners. It lets a publisher set a single, recurring monthly tier, and Medium collects the money. A publisher can mark specific posts for members only. Medium will charge a 20% fee, but pass through only the processing fees for the first 500 members. So a publication charging $5 a month would pay 8% and net $2,300 a month for its first 500 members, and 20% to net $4 a member thereafter.

Coming from the Apple universe, 20% doesn’t sound that expensive, though it’s not precisely cheap. However, as I’ll explain below, Medium’s approach to publishing is fairly expansive. Apple doesn’t give you as a periodical an app, a platform, a CMS, a mailing list, or any tools with which to interact with readers; Medium does.

Anyone can be a publisher on Medium; the beta it offers is for its revenue experiments, which it freely labels as such. The membership program is just the first. It’s trying to align itself initially more closely with something like community-supported content, à la Patreon, but as an integral piece of the publishing process. It also notes that advertising and sponsored content are on the table for the future.

Medium says it’s prioritizing sites with at least a million page views a month, which is an interesting position. A million page views might only net a couple thousand dollars a month from advertising if 100% of ad views were sold. Sponsorships, in which a combination of support and branding play in as well, can be more lucrative.

But many sites with even a few million views find themselves popular without an easy way to capitalize on it. It’s too expensive to build one’s own tools; integrating payment, subscription, and a CMS using other people’s modules or platforms can also be expensive and limiting; and there probably isn’t enough money to have much, if any staff. A company spokesperson tells me that it’s already recruited all sorts of sites, and that staff size shouldn’t deter people from applying. (I should note The Magazine typically had only tens of thousands of page views a month while grossing tens of thousands of dollars, because of strong launch with paid subscriptions. I worked part-time on it and had a part-time managing editor.)

Medium also wants publications creating original content, rather than focused on aggregation, and consistently publishing new material. There are thousands of sites, if not tens of thousands, that might fit into this approach. These sites are doing everything right, but can’t necessarily connect up all the money pipes, while paying for app and site development.

The Space Between the Apps

I wrote in this space, just before halting new issues of The Magazine in November 2014, about the ecosystem that native mobile apps have outside of the framework of an app. A native app can have a variety of performance and feature advantages over a responsive-design Web site — one in which underlying formatting code and JavaScript allows it work well on whatever device or browser is in use — though it’s often a toss-up for something like a periodical. However, I argued then and continue to believe that the ecosystem is the more important piece.

For a publication on a mobile device, Apple and Google’s extras outside an app of handling payment, managing subscriptions, dealing with customer service, offering device notifications, promoting apps, letting existing customers discover new apps, and supporting offline use all combine to be vastly superior to Web-based alternatives. (You can accept payment often easily on the Web, but it’s easy for you; most customers have to punch in their credit-card information from scratch. In an app, it can as simple as a single fingerprint scan to pay.)

Marco Arment founded The Magazine under the idea most people would read it in iOS, and the hope, dashed, that Apple would continue to develop Newsstand and the App Store to better expose publications to readers and give us tools to more efficiently reach more subscribers and serve existing ones. Didn’t work out, that. Jason started Six Colors with his eyes wide open about the folly of buying into the cost of creating and updating a custom app and any lock-in that would make a publication appealing to read only on specific platforms.

Because native app ecosystem benefits don’t extend to desktop OSes, or to mobile readers outside of the platforms on which you want to deploy an app, a publisher has to ignore those readers, serve them poorly, or invest in a parallel Web app approach. These costs led The Atavist to abandon developing native apps for its publication platform last September.

Periodicals that already have an established identity, a significant readership, and operations for advertising, subscriptions, marketing, and the like, can extend themselves much more easily and readily into the app ecosystem without signing everything over, nor giving up their desktop audience. It’s just not practical for most, however.

I’ve vowed that any new publication I found will be similarly unbound, so that I’m not dependent on the business plans of another organization to allow my periodical to succeed or fail.

So why would I be hot about Medium’s new plan? Because Medium is still trying to build an effective, responsive, multi-platform publishing system — it hasn’t finished, it hasn’t won the market, and its business isn’t selling hardware. It also doesn’t ask you to sign over ownership rights, barely limits what you can do, and has a well-design export feature already built in.

Rarely Medium, It’s Still in the Oven

Medium has changed how it presents itself since it started up in 2012. It has elements of a blog-hosting service and has, at times, experimented with funding editorial operations — including paying The Magazine to post fresh content and some of our features — and running publications in-house. (Some were shut down, like The Nib a year ago, although it’s found a new home; a few are still running, like Steven Levy’s Backchannel, although it may follow shortly. Medium also spun off Matter as a fully funded independent operation.)

I’ve wondered aloud many, many times about exactly what species of fish or fowl or neither it is, and I admit poking fun at its founder, Evan Williams, as he’s attempted to control the narrative and state that Medium hasn’t changed (at least fundamentally) from the start.

But I do appreciate that Medium experiments. It’s so hard to find sites and platforms that are outward facing that take any risks, especially on their own time, and Williams has invested his own money and raised tens of millions more to figure out what works in this, uh, medium. I’d be less snarky if they were more frank about finding their way, as the journey is interesting and, without being publicly held, they have less of a facade they need to maintain.

This latest chapter opened with Medium announcing several well-known Web-native publications were migrating from their own infrastructure to Medium. Medium is, at its heart, a CMS, but one so delightful that I can regularly forget it’s a CMS at all. It doesn’t thwart me most of the time, the way most periodicals’ CMSes do. (I’ve had access to post my stories directly into a dozen or more CMSes, and they’re mostly terrible. This is probably because of how complicated they have to be and how many different hands direct their evolution into monsters. The ones I currently use are definitely less bad than ones in the past, however.)

The full list at launch included The Awl, Pacific Standard, Electric Literature, Franklin Leonard’s The Black List, Femsplain, FilmSchoolRejects, The Bold Italic, Monday Note, NewCo Shift, The Banana Boat (by The Infatuation), MEL, Above Average, and The Kicker. Apple aficionados should recognize Monday Note, a publication co-written by former Apple executive, Jean-Louis Gassée. Medium also announced that Bill Simmons, the founder of Grantland at ESPN, would launch The Ringer, his new publication, on Medium.

Medium has one of the best environments I’ve ever used for writing and formatting posts on the Web, including embedding other media and references, and its typographic refinement and attention to detail in presentation is exquisite. Writers don’t need to be trained for the most part. It doesn’t offer much in the way of customization: Every page on Medium, some branding aside, looks like every other. It’s a bit like Apple in that way! Removing choice may enforce uniformity, but it also means that every aspect of the experience can be tuned.

Having this constantly improving, perfected experience that’s responsively designed also removes the cost of design, maintenance, and management. You can just write and post. Medium also doesn’t let people just comment away. People can respond in what are effectively separate Medium posts (although that can be disabled by publishers), and they can leave moderated comments that only appear to others if the author or publication approves them.

Medium has mobile apps which aren’t currently built around loading a publication’s subsite. I imagine that will change, although I suspect Medium won’t shift to offering memberships through these apps because of the percentage Apple and Google take. Rather, the apps will more likely show ads and native content and the like, and honor memberships created at Medium.com. However, because Medium has apps, members of a publication will be able to get native push notifications, a big deal in keeping people engaged as you publish. (Medium also supports sending email newsletters to readers.)

On the back end, not having to work with a wonky CMS, and, more importantly, not having to pay to build one from scratch, work within the limits of a commercial one, nor have to hire a developer to custom a commercial ones is a huge savings of mental energy, planning time, and cash. I’ve written CMSes, some still in use, and worked on projects to customize them. It’s not the fun part of publishing. (Medium can import WordPress sites, and it has a remarkable single-story-at-a-time import tool, too.)

Medium’s CMS also has the advantage of publishing to other article formats, including Instant Articles on Facebook and Google’s open-source Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP). Both efforts are designed to make articles appear to load without a delay by being supremely optimized for mobile devices. People have varying opinions about being locked into finding readers in Facebook, but the general approach is absolutely worthwhile.

A Hope, But the Last Best One, Yet

Medium’s experiments have swept in a number of publications that have, often openly, faced all the challenges I note above. If The Magazine were still in operation, I would have thought strongly about joining The Awl et al., because so many of my cost centers would have been covered. I’d have been able to abandon paying programmers, and focused on the editorial and marketing sides.

I switched to an app-based publishing platform late in my publication’s history, which let me shed some of the coding cost, but it was much more heavily weighted to the native app side, and hadn’t developed a generic blog-like posting platform like Medium’s to offer a network effect. Medium has many millions of page views that teach it about reader behavior, and also let it offer up articles from its corpus — including from partnered publications — to readers of other pieces. It’s the place where politicians post and marketers spew, where publications like the New York Times oddly spar with Amazon.com, and where attention can be tapped.

It’s absolutely clear the revenue side is an experiment, and Medium labels it as such all over. There’s no guarantee it will work for its early partners or pan out in the long run. But it’s the only publishing option that combines so many things in one place without any over-the-top cost or commitment on the part of a periodical.

This article might seem to be aimed at publishers, but it’s really an examination of the limits many smaller sites you read have, and what they’re facing, which in turn helps you see what the future might bring. Many sites have been hanging on by their fingernails for some time, and without some huge reduction in expense or an increase in and diversification of revenue, they’ll be gone. Medium isn’t a savior, but it’s trying.

Glenn Fleishman writes regularly about technology at Macworld, Fast Company, and elsewhere, and is a regular panelist on The Incomparable. He tweets way, way too much @glennf.

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