Like any company, as Medium matures it ultimately has to find a sustainable revenue source. Follow the revenue and you’ll find the future. For now, Medium’s most promising route to revenue has been its newly added “Publications” series. These work like digital magazines around certain focused topics. Like collections used to work, they can be started by companies, organizations, individuals. They are then updated regularly with content from authors allowed to write for the publication. Reform is a publication sponsored by BMW. This was Medium’s first attempt at monitizing their platform and it looks like they have been doubling down on publications ever since.
Content from publications dominates the content found on the home news feed and each category feed. Whether that is from an internal algorithm push to promote publication’s content or it’s just the result of content from publications being well written and well received — is hard to tell. But ultimately it leaves Medium’s content at a crossroads of two competing sources, open community content and exclusive publications content. You can see Medium isn’t even sure how to handle merging these two currently as their publications page isn’t discoverable from the home page. Even if you find this publications page, it is just a nondescript search box void of even some suggestions or a popular list. The only way to find publications at this point are to happen upon an article which was published through one, notice the article was published on a publication and click through to it. It’s clear Medium is still deciding how to mold together these two sources.
Moving towards publications make sense from a revenue standpoint and even as a value standpoint as publications will have more quality control. But as publications become more popular, they will continue to dominate community space. Community members not writing for publications are going to be continually pushed into a smaller and smaller box of displayed content. It will be next to impossible (as it pretty much already is) for a community member without an audience to get their content discovered. Only writers posting through publications or writers with large audiences they had accrued pre-changes will be able to get their content above the fold and found by readers.
This isn’t the only battle shaping the future of Medium. As publications continue to grow, more pressure will be put on the issue of paid writers vs free writers. Yes, Medium is paying writers, some of them at least. These select few now mainly head the content being submitted through Medium’s publications as the quality bar there has to be high if they are going to sell companies on the idea of sponsoring them. This paid vs. free issue will create a divide between authors.
If the quality bar has to be high to be able to post on Publications, how can you argue one writer being compensated for their work on that publication and another writer doing so for free? Because Medium is beautiful and fun to write on? Or the general cut your teeth now, earn an income later promise? Both writers had to pass the same quality bar.
Again, I believe this is another factor that will erode away the community contributors as it does on every other publishing platform when some writers are getting paid and others aren’t. Even the free contributors that have made their way onto writing for publications will dwindle as they find the quality bar continue to rise and their value gained remaining stagnant.
Let me try and explain visually the effect the current incentive structure will have on Medium.
Now I’m assuming a lot here. Sponsored publications is just Medium’s first attempt at revenue. Evan Hansen, a senior member of Medium’s team, noted “We’re in exploratory moment,” “It’s not about the money, it’s about the experiment”. This is still early days for their revenue model. A startup can and will go through many iterations before finding the right fit.
With this piece I’m looking at what Medium might look like if sponsored publications continue to be the revenue model. The answer being, magazines for the web written by talented (mostly paid) journalists. Magazines are still relatively popular for both their aesthetically pleasing reading experience and a focus on industry defining content. Newspapers have had a much harder time due to their focus on timely content which the web does a much better job at providing. But just like newspapers, magazines have had to make the switch to online publishing in order to stay relative.
Look at that chart and realize you are looking at a 97 billion dollar industry making its transition to online publishing. Medium has done what many others haven’t been able to which is replicate magazine’s aesthetically pleasing reading experience and design onto the web. This is something magazines are struggling to accomplish. And given their lack of a background in tech, it’s something they will likely continue to struggle with. This coupled with Medium’s focus on industry defining long form content and their new flagship product “Publications”, leaves Medium seemingly aimed at being to magazines what the Huffington Post is to newspapers.