At the time, I imagined that Medium’s most likely means of financing its existence would be increasingly heavy advertising. But this year, the platform switched to a subscription model in which users pay to read the site’s best content. Well, in theory the best, although that does depend on whether the best writers choose to lock their content behind the site’s optional paywall. If Medium’s best writers opt to keep their feed open to the wider Internet, in practice the best content will still be free.
To be pedantic about it, subscribers are paying for content from writers who decide they want to be paid.
As part of the transition to a freemium system, Medium and its acolytes have repeatedly talked about online publishing being “broken”, and have cited the pay-to-read model as a fix. In this article, I’m exploring that claim.
IS, OR WAS, ONLINE PUBLISHING ACTUALLY BROKEN?
I suppose we should start with the question: was/is online publishing actually broken in the first place? The allegation from Medium is that standard online publishing has such a dependency on advertising for financial support, that it’s become driven by click-baiting and content quantity rather than content quality.
But that’s a very broad generalisation. Advertising ranges in the nature of its implementation, from subtle to downright crass. And the content it supports varies enormously in quality. You can’t compare a brilliantly researched piece of insight financially supported only by two affiliate text links, with a splog from someone who writes twelve ‘articles’ per day and puts the actual content in the sidebar so they can fill the main column with Flash ads.
Few serious authors, ad-supported or not, are stupid enough to think that ten valueless posts are going to outperform one hotly-sought epic. The notion that content must have value prevails more widely among authors today than ever before. Even former content thieves are now realising that filling a site with scraped babble no longer constitutes “a business”, and are turning to writers for original material. I’m not saying they’re offering much in the way of payment, but they do at least realise that one good, original work is worth more than a thousand pieces of random, secondhand crap.
And when it comes to ad support, is inserting an affiliate link into an article any more intrusive than inserting a regular hyperlink? Is it any more intrusive than anchoring a signup prompt to the bottom of the page window, as Medium does with casual visitors? Medium might only be advertising its own facilities, but let’s not be brainwashed into thinking it’s now an ad-free site.
THE REAL ISSUE WITH ONLINE PUBLISHING
I think we’re pretty safe in assuming that money-mad cyberpreneurs are not suddenly going to stop publishing dire top tens which place every mindless list item on a separate, ad-strewn page. Neither, one suspects, will news sites cease breaking up five-sentence press releases into ten smaller sentences and posting them eight words to a paragraph, with each line repeated three times in the course of the uselessly devoid syndication.
Clearly, people read this rubbish, and they read it because it’s very commonly right at the top of Google’s search results. So the real issue is how the wider public are finding content, and how, within that means of access, content is prioritised. It makes no difference how many publishers are delivering brilliant material if the most popular means of access prioritises trash.
One could suggest that web search is broken, and certainly, the 1990s method of using backlinks as a measure of quality is horrendously outdated. We all know what’s going on. Marketers publish abject bilge and then badger a huge volume of legitimate webmasters for backlinks, by email – often using manipulative tactics to succeed.
Google’s search results are corrupt, and they won’t cease being corrupt until these outdated and easy-to-game indicators of quality are replaced. As we approach 2018, listicles whose ‘step-through’ process is just one weight-loss ad short of torture should not be heading the world’s default search results. Neither should a syndicated press release, written in nine minutes flat by a PR manager, occupy four of the top ten SERP placings.
But the fact is that this is still happening. And Medium’s solution of locking its best content behind a paywall, on a platform which is not effectively sold to the wider public, is not going to change that. If anything, it’s going to make it worse.
WRITING FOR WRITERS
Medium is a site for writers. Writers who may consume content as well as publish it, admittedly, but the platform is not really a go-to resource for your average, non-writing, content consumer. I’ve seen Medium’s concept of paywalling content pitched in the context of a magazine or book. Those who want great content pay for it, just as they would when subscribing to print matter on the high street.
But that’s a considerable stretch of reality. Print publishers go out and sell. They don’t promote their platforms to writers, who then have to go and ping the general public for attention. They place their brand directly in front of the general public. Print publications take the onus of “growing an audience” off the creatives, and let them get on with creating. The audience is attracted and built by the publishing brand, and the writer’s work is delivered directly to that audience. The writer’s role is to write. The end.
The system Medium uses is more like a sort of publishing pyramid scheme. Since the platform is not taking individual writers’ material to a brandwide crowd, the onus falls on the creatives to grow their own audience. If they don’t do that, they don’t make money. We’re still in the territory of writers being valued more highly as publicity labourers than as writers. That’s not really fixing publishing.
There’s a fundamental problem with online businesses perpetually holding out an upturned hat to creative communities, with the ultimatum that they either consume their own work in an insular backwater or take on an unpaid role as a publicist. When I’ve written for print publications, I’ve never been told to go and “grow an audience”. Should that be part of a writer’s role?
To an extent, Medium niftily dodges the accusation of asking writers for money, because it’s charging people to read rather than to write. But who, realistically, is it charging to read? Is there actually anyone who pays Medium, and is NOT part of the site’s writing community? I’m sure there are some people, but where is Medium connecting with non-writers at a depth where it can sell them upgrades?
True, when you visit a Medium post from Google you get a sign-up prompt. And once you sign up you get a more subtle upgrade prompt. But seriously, where is the motivation for a casual visitor from Google to start paying Medium? Look at the testimonials on the upgrade page (above). All three of them are written by people who publish on Medium, and two of them focus on the ethics and support factor of signing up. In other words, they’re speaking to writers, who actually care about stuff like that. The third comes from Chris Messina, and seems only to be there on the basis that he invented the hashtag, which is in any case false. I would not expect the motivations cited in these testimonials to appeal to, or even register with, an online consumer who does not write. They entirely ignore the content, for a start. The dynamics are nothing like those of a magazine.
Let it be clear; this is not a separate consumer market paying writers. This is writers paying to support their own community. Again.
WOULD DEVELOPING BETTER ADVERTISING METHODS MAKE MORE SENSE?
Advertising may not be pretty, but it does allow content to exist outside of a restrictive paywall or membership, and at least gives that content a chance of reaching the wider world. It should be remembered that just because a piece of content is ad-supported, it does not automatically lose its value. I run ads on other blogs, and on commercial sites my articles are used to attract potential clients or customers, who are then subtly led to points of sale. But people still link to that content, unprompted, indicating that they see it as valuable.
I agree that sites which black out their content after four seconds in an attempt to subscribe visitors to an email list are the absolute pits of publishing. The same goes for pages with aggressive scripts which redirect any whitespace mouse clicker to an online bingo site. Or worse. But not all advertising is like this. Some of it is subtle and unintrusive, and a lot more could be done if greater attention were paid to bringing online advertising up to date.
Maybe, rather than declaring the whole of online publishing broken, it would make more sense to declare online advertising broken and start by fixing that.
HAS MEDIUM FIXED BROKEN PUBLISHING?
I don’t agree that Medium’s current system fixes broken publishing, or that publishing itself was universally broken. What’s broken, is the system most people trust as a means of accessing content (i.e. web search), and even that is not sufficiently broken for the public to perceive it as a serious problem. Whatever Medium does, it won’t stop the overwhelming majority of cyber surfers being fed on tortuous listicles and news stories with marginally less intellectual appeal than a nursery rhyme.
My sense is that Medium was desperate for a means of making money, and after realising that badly implemented advertising would not wash, it began shaking the collecting tin at its own creatives. I have to admit that I’m biased against the kind of content that Medium favours. I hate business. I regard LinkedIn quite literally as The Devil. If I see a writer who looks like they could use LinkedIn for more than fifteen seconds without typing “Fuck you!” into the Feedback box, I’m going to meet their content with a weary groan. And A LOT of what I see on Medium sets my professional-and-slick-but-basically-dull alarm bleeping at full volume. But even without that bias, I do believe Medium has turned publishing into something more akin to a pyramid scheme than a creative utopia.