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As is the case with so many of its fellow digital-media startups, Medium — the publishing platform founded by former Twitter CEO and former Blogger founder Evan Williams — isn’t just trying to reinvent the way we write or distribute content, it’s also trying to reinvent the way that it gets paid for. In a recent post on the site, Medium editor Evan Hansen admits that the company doesn’t really have it all figured out just yet, but has come to the conclusion that a pay-per-click model is probably not the best approach to compensating writers.
In many ways, Hansen’s post provides a rare glimpse of the inner workings at Medium. It’s been known for some time that the company occasionally commissions work from high-profile writers like former Reuters blogger Felix Salmon — although no one has been quite sure what sort of rates the site was paying for those pieces — and there were also rumors in the media sphere that some authors were being compensated based on the traffic their posts got.
In his post, Hansen says that while the pay-per-click model did not (as some critics might have expected) result in a flood of low-quality short posts, it caused some high-quality writing to be overlooked. So the site is now looking at compensation based on the total amount of time a reader spends with a piece, a metric that the company came up with to try and put a number on true reader “engagement.”
“It’s arguable whether the fault here is in how people were paid, how attention gets divvied up online, the proclivities of the Medium audience at this moment in time, or a question of editorial judgment. It’s probably a mix of all four, and other more subtle things to boot. Regardless, from our perspective it was not the best outcome and we have since made adjustments.”
Ladybits collection quits Medium
It’s not clear whether Hansen’s post was a direct response to the controversy created by some comments from one of the site’s contributing editors, but it seems like a pretty good bet: in the post last week, Arikia Millikan — the editor of one of the site’s “collections,” a female-focused section known as Ladybits — wrote about how she was shutting down the collection and would be moving her work elsewhere, in part because of the way that Medium has approached payments:
“It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case.”
Millikan wasn’t the only one to raise this issue: In a post last week, former Wired writer Erin Biba talked about how frustrated she is when she tries to get work from new-media entities like Medium and is paid a fraction of what she believes she is worth. Although Biba’s post got a lot of positive comments from other writers, it also got some criticism from some (including me) who argued that the new-media landscape has changed, and market value is no longer determined by a small group of writers and the editors they pitch to.
This process has been working itself out in public for years, and periodically flares up: last year, a similar debate was sparked by Nate Thayer, who complained about being asked to repurpose one of his feature stories for The Atlantic for nothing (his original post about it has been removed, but there are more details here). As I and others tried to explain at the time, the fact that some people are willing to write for little to no compensation is just something writers have to take as a given. The marketplace is effectively unlimited, and so is supply.
Is it a magazine or a platform, or both?
For me at least, Millikan’s post also highlights some of the tension between Medium’s dual nature as a platform where anyone can publish and a more traditional magazine-style offering, where editors act as gatekeepers who ultimately control what gets published and when. She describes in her post a number of conflicts between what the site seemed to want and what she felt was her role as an editor of a specific collection, with editorial control over a group of contributors.
“We were reminded that this was all an experiment, and if we would just put in more work something would probably go viral to make up for the stuff that didn’t. But if I wanted to produce things that were likely to go viral, I would have applied for a job at BuzzFeed. I started to consider the incompatibilities between the publishing company I was building at LadyBits, and the runaway platform Medium was evolving into.”
I’ve written in the past about this conflict (as have others such as Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic) and about how this new hybrid of platform and publisher — which some refer to using a portmanteau term that I would rather not endorse — encapsulates the tension at the heart of digital media: namely, between allowing anyone to say or write whatever they wish, with little or no editorial control, and the old-fashioned gatekeeper approach of using an editorial staff to curate and maintain a certain standard of quality.
Evan Williams has spoken in interviews about how he sees Medium as a kind of digital magazine, but one that doesn’t just have a staff of writers or a small group of freelancers. Instead, he seems to see it as a site that gets content from a wide range of different contributors — some posting for free with no supervision, some being commissioned and some who are part of a collection like Ladybits.
And the experiment continues
What Medium does with all of that, Williams suggests, is use the power of algorithms and some human editorial oversight to select certain pieces of content to highlight, whether on the site or through email recommendations. The Medium founder has admitted that this approach means “crap will be published” on the platform, but argues that it will also produce some posts that are worthwhile that would otherwise never have been discovered using traditional editorial methods.
Some critics who prefer the magazine approach will argue that it is better, since it results in higher-quality output, and that the risk with an approach like Medium’s is that it turns into something like Forbes — a site where the quality of the contributed content is so low that it arguably damages the brand.
For my part, I agree with Williams that while the Medium approach has its flaws, the potential for discovering new voices amid the flotsam and jetsam makes it worth it in the long run. Whether the site will be successful in reinventing how the writers of that content get compensated is a much bigger question, but at least it is trying.