Nearly three months after laying off a third of its staff and publicly admitting that its previous ad-based revenue model was broken, Medium has introduced a new $5 per month subscription program. The internet speculated freely about Medium’s next move after CEO Ev Williams said the company would be taking “a different, bolder approach” to the problem of driving payment for quality content.
It turns out the “bolder approach” he referenced is a subscription-based model, one that skeptics are already eager to tear apart as many media organizations have struggled to find success with paywalls. Early subscribers will receive access to curated content, a new reading experience, ad-free browsing, and an offline reading list. Medium will be using the subscription revenue to pay writers for content, some of which will be restricted to members only.
“We will be routing 100% of the revenue from founding members (those who sign up in the first few months) to writers and independent publishers who have important work to do,” Williams said. “Those who have hard-won expertise, do exhaustive research, and think deeply. Those who make us all smarter. Those who maximize our understanding of the world but don’t necessarily maximize clicks — and, therefore, are at a disadvantage amongst the highly optimized algorithm chum being slung by the truckload by low-cost content purveyors.”
Medium’s new curated content stream will surface the most worthwhile articles from its network, which grew from 1.9 million posts in 2015 to 7.5 million in 2016 posts. Williams identified the types of content members can expect with their subscriptions in a followup post viewable only to subscribers:
- Politics. What’s happening behind the headlines. How to think about it. What to do about it.
- Work. Lessons in business, startups, leadership, management, and money.
- Self. Smart takes on how to be your best you — happier, healthier, more productive.
- Future. Where the world is going — technology, trends, what it all means.
For those who have long regarded Medium as the home of hot takes, open letters, and scintillating rants, the new curated content will feature pieces from those who Williams describes as “doing important work.” The list above indicates the platform will be promoting a hefty does of spoon-fed thought and self-improvement topics. In order to make money from the people who have it to spend, the blogging silo must focus on helping those with too much information and not enough time to figure out “how to think about” important issues.
Medium is currently soliciting writers via email, according to one recipient, Adam Hodgkin. This move marks a change in the company where it is essentially becoming a publisher in addition to an aggregator, commissioning content that will deliver that trademark Medium flavor.
Authors should be aware that articles published behind Medium’s paywall will lose their potential to go viral. In addition to trading site and content ownership for convenience, those who agree to write for Medium’s members will be limiting the potential reach their content may have had if it was published in the open.
“Media is broken,” Williams said. “And we need to fix it. I’m super passionate about this. Though we’ve changed our approach recently, this has been Medium’s mission from day one. We saw the feedback loops for publishing content to be a major problem, and we set out to build a new model. We’ve come a long way since — establishing ourselves as the platform for thoughtfulness, depth, and insight from independent thinkers. But the greater challenge — changing the incentives that drive our consumption of media online — has become even more pressing. It’s time to double-down.”
If there’s something new about this economic model, we have yet to see it. Spotify, Netflix, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other businesses have successfully implemented the subscription model. Using it to fund the type of content that Medium aims to highlight may not be feasible, however, as consumers tend to gravitate towards free content and news that is read and shared in the open.
If Medium’s only option for exiting the attention economy is to further lock down users’ content inside its proprietary silo, the remedy is worse than the disease. Instead of seeing ads on articles available to everyone, subscribers now pay to read content that is selected by and owned by Medium, a company that still needs to find a way to keep the lights on once all the VC money is gone.
Medium tried the ad-driven publishing model without success and then declared that it was a broken system. Was the model broken because it didn’t bring Medium enough money to keep paddling on? Or is it fundamentally broken because it “incentivizes the wrong behaviors,” as Williams put it? His newfound idealism behind the push to leave the domain of “ad buyers and social media echo chambers” appears to be a mask for the lack of a concrete monetization strategy.
Williams’ closing appeal says everything: “Join us early, and help us figure it out.” Medium is still experimenting on publishers to find a way to stay afloat.