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Medium Announces Its Subscription Plan at $5 Per Month

After four and a half years of floundering around, trying to find a viable business model, Medium has finally chosen one – only it is from the 19th century, not the 21st.

On Wednesday Medium announced its subscription service, which (when it finally launches) will cost $5 a month and give readers access to … something.

The service is in limited beta at the moment, but when it is more widely available subscribers will get access to:

  • exclusive content,
  • beta access to reading features,
  • an offline reading mode.

That really doesn’t look like much; readers already have offline reading modes in apps like Pocket and Instapaper – which coincidentally offer a better reading experience anyway. So Medium isn’t offering much of value – just "exclusive stories from top writers":

As a founding member, your contributions will be used to directly pay writers and publishers. That means new content that wouldn’t otherwise be on Medium—or wouldn’t exist at all. You’ll have access to exclusive stories from leading experts, including your favorite Medium writers, on topics that matter not just today, but tomorrow too.

Basically, Medium is making the same offer as countless other publishers in the past two centuries; pay us for our unique content. (To be fair, a lot of news publishers couldn’t even make that claim; their content was closer to filler than unique.)

Nevertheless, I am in favor of paying for content where it is worthwhile; this is why I have been a paying member of Medium since January 1970.

There was something wrong with their date system, yes.

Snark aside, here’s what I really think:

Finally, the hype bubble has burst.

When it launched in 2012, Medium was pitched as a new and unique solution to the problem of poor content on the web, but it was pretty clear by 2014/2015 that Medium had little to offer that couldn’t be found on just about any other platform.

  • Sparse page layout? WordPress had those as optional themes years ago.
  • Instant audience through a recommendation engine? Again, WordPress – and social media.
  • A simple user interface for writing? Okay, this is nice if you like minimalism, but why bother going to a site’s admin pages to write when Open Live Writer offers an MSWord-like interface (the app works with most blogging platforms, too)?

Nevertheless, the hype persisted in the media coverage of Medium until early this year when Medium laid off a third of its staff and announced that it would be seeking a new solution to its finance problem.

That new solution is quite old, and even in its current web-only incarnation is already being used by a number of other sites, including Pando Daily, Financial Times, The Bookseller, and the NY Times.

And unfortunately, the hype isn’t dead yet; Medium founder Ev Williams still believes it. Here’s what he wrote back in January:

We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention. We believe there are millions of thinking people who want to deepen their understanding of the world and are dissatisfied with what they get from traditional news and their social feeds. We believe that a better system?—?one that serves people?—?is possible. In fact, it’s imperative.

Lofty ideals are great and all, but this is the same guy who pursued these same ideals for five years without stumbling across a business model.

It is past time for an injection of reality. Someone who knows how to turn a profit needs to take over before Medium runs out of money.

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Chris Meadows March 22, 2017 um 8:46 pm

"If you build it, they will come."

Sinking dot-coms since the dot-com bubble burst!

Mackay Bell March 22, 2017 um 9:01 pm

Seems like this is just going to hasten its death since it will rapidly become clear if it can’t get enough subscriptions to function as a viable business. (Since ads clearly failed, and hype didn’t lead to a buyout by a bigger company, there are no other alternatives to keep it alive. They might try t-shirts.) If six months from now they have few subscriptions, I think it’s over.

Two more problems I see. How much does it pay it’s writers? Do they get paid based on how many reads they get? What percentage of the money goes directly to writers? (70%? Or does it all got to the overhead and writers only get a little taste?) If they can’t support the idea that most of the money is going to the writers, why should people support a lot of overhead jobs when writers can easily set up their own sites of content and have a Patreon account. Patreon is actually working pretty well for people who create content that people really like. (Like sexy drawings of Zombie girls.)

And if they do pay writers pretty well, based on reads, how do they not fall into the "I WANT CHEEZ BURGER" problem that people seem to mostly like cats and zombies? Are the writers who are fun an entertaining not going to get more money than the ones who write about "important" stuff? And, once a writer has established themselves as someone people will pay to read, what’s to stop them from using Medium to raise their profile and then dumping them for their own platform? Are they going to sign writers to long term contracts? Provide health coverage and other perks? Are writers going to be the stars? How are the tech support people going to be with that?

The other problem is, once it’s clear that some writers are getting paid, it seems like others will stop contributing for free. Yes, there will be writers that contribute for "exposure," but once there is obviously a two tiered system of paid writers and free contributors, I think they’ll lose a lot of the free contributors that were open to testing it while they figured out a business model. (Some of whom maybe hoped they’d get in on the ground floor and get paid off from an advertising model.)

The whole notion of creating “more important” content to fight internet fluff was always flawed with out of touch snobbery. But if it was going to work, they really needed to focus on hiring a few star writers, pay them well and make them the focus, and then come out of the gate with great content people (might) pay for. Seems like this switch toward that is too little too late. They would probably be better off shutting down and starting over.

We’ll see.

Peter Winkler March 23, 2017 um 12:18 pm

"Are they going to sign writers to long term contracts? Provide health coverage and other perks?"

Except for newspapers and, in the past, magazines like Time and Newsweek, writers who contribute to online or print periodicals are freelancers who are paid by the word, not employees.

I suspect Medium might try a payment model similar to click farms, where the writer is promised a cut of the revenue generated by click throughs on ads or the number of views a piece generates. That’s a deceptive non-starter for writers, who don’t make any money that way.

Steve Zissou March 23, 2017 um 12:57 pm

I’m not so sure on it being advertising based compensation… I kind of imagine that Medium may very well do something like Kindle Unlimited compensation wise for it’s subscription service.

Mackay Bell March 24, 2017 um 4:39 pm

That would seem to be the best way to reward "serious" pieces. But then they would have to offer a better deal than Kindle Unlimited to be competitive (since Kindle Unlimited requires exclusivity).

Paul Biba’s eBook, eLibrary, eMuseum and ePublishing news compilation for week ending Saturday, March 25 | The Digital Reader March 26, 2017 um 3:05 pm

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