Last week the tech press was abuzz with Medium's surprise move to lay off a third of its employees as the organization begins the process of redefining its business model to one that is more in line with the original concept behind the publishing platform. Evan Williams, the founder of Medium, had this to say in his blog post announcing the move:
We set out to build a better publishing platform — one that allowed anyone to offer their stories and ideas to the world and that helped the great ones rise to the top. In 2016, we made big investments in teams and technology aimed at attracting and migrating commercial publishers to Medium. And in order to get these publishers paid, we built out and started selling our first ad products. This strategy worked in terms of driving growth, as well as improving the volume and consistency of great content. Some of the web’s best publishers are now on Medium, and we’re happy to work with them every day. We also saw interest from many big brands and promising results from several content marketing campaigns on the platform.
However, in building out this model, we realized we didn’t yet have the right solution to the big question of driving payment for quality content. We had started scaling up the teams to sell and support products that were, at best, incremental improvements on the ad-driven publishing model, not the transformative model we were aiming for.
To continue on this trajectory put us at risk — even if we were successful, business-wise — of becoming an extension of a broken system.
So an ad-driven model isn't what they're looking for and the short burst of attention an author receives is nice, but not nice enough. Sounds fair. The next question really comes down to alternatives and the viability of them. I've thought a lot about how publishing platforms could really encourage greater readership and attract amazing writers, but have yet to conjure up anything better than a magazine-type model that has both free and "premium" articles with an App.Net style voting mechanism sent out every month where subscribers can rate how much they enjoyed certain authors. From here, a percentage of the subscriptions would be distributed among the authors and that might encourage people to share really interesting content on a given platform.
Systems like this would likely be gamed almost as soon as they're released as people try to collect as much of the monthly distribution as possible, which would lead to authors who don't game the system feeling left out. This is certainly how I've felt with a number of past blogging sites where you essentially wrote about a given subject and — if enough people read your article — you'd get a few cents per month. The people who earned a decent amount on such sites were writing hundreds of articles a week in order to maintain a basic income … this isn't something that encourages much more than Gizmodo-style summaries.
Another option — and one that I've considered building into 10Centuries — is giving authors the tools they need to have their own subscriptions on the platform. Doing this would allow the authors to potentially earn their worth by building their own readership. All the platform would be responsible for is making sure people can get the content and processing the fees. A nominal charge could be taken from the subscriptions, and people would likely find this option easier than setting up their own WordPress site, installing the various plugins that are needed, and fiddling with issues whenever a software update breaks something. Depending on what sort of value add services a publishing platform wanted to provide, it would be wholly possible to offer mobile apps that readers could download in order to avoid dealing with RSS feeds or visiting a website in a browser, and usage stats could be fed directly back to the authors.
I can think of at least a dozen creative people who would likely jump at the chance to have such a thing, but is it something that people would actually want to use?
This is what has held me back with a number of features on 10Centuries. I think of something that would be useful for someone — or several someones — I know. I examine the feasibility of building the features into the platform and see it's not particularly difficult. And then I come to my senses saying something like:
Wait a minute. If this is such a good idea, why hasn't it been done before? Maybe it has been done and people simply didn't want it. Perhaps it's better to focus on other parts of the system before doing this other one.
Which is crazy … but is generally how I've stopped myself from going in new directions.
Medium is an interesting platform, and they have a lot of smart people working on making the system better for everyone. Whatever direction they decide to take their business model, I wish them the best of luck. Ad-supported systems are not the only way to earn a decent return with online businesses, and it's great to see a company try something different. Hopefully they will find something that works for both the creators and the readers that rely on the platform.