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The newsletter platform Substack is having a banner month. Not only was it featured prominently in a New York Times column, but several high profile writers have announced they’re departing their cushy media jobs to monetize their audience directly on the platform.
The New York Post reported that NYT food columnist Alison Roman is taking her talents to Substack. And then BuzzFeed senior tech writer Alex Kantrowitz announced on Twitter that he too was decamping to the platform. They’ll have lots of good company. Journos with large online followings ranging from Jonah Goldberg to Matt Taibbi to Judd Legum have made nice homes for themselves on Substack over the last year.
While reading about the latest Substack announcements, it occurred to me, not for the first time, that you never hear about a high profile writer deciding to leave their job so they can publish their work to Medium. It’s not that well-known writers don’t ever publish to Medium, it’s just usually only after Medium has solicited their work and likely agreed to pay them some predetermined amount. For instance, several months ago it hired the feminist writer Jessica Valenti to write a regular column for the platform. I’m guessing the arrangement between the two parties in that case was similar to any contract signed between The New York Times and its columnists.
But you don’t hear about writers with already-existing followings joining Medium’s partnership program, which pays writers based on the amount of engagement their articles receive. Why not? After all, some of the top writers on Medium make as much as $20,000 in a single month. Surely a seasoned journalist wouldn’t turn down the chance to make that kind of money?
I think the reason Medium isn’t attracting this type of writer has to do with how its payment structure works. Content creators are subjected to an opaque algorithm that allots money based on the number of users who read your articles. But you don’t get paid for just any readers. Only paying subscribers who read your work count toward your future earnings. Oh, and whether your readers “clap” for your article plays a role, but you’re strongly discouraged from asking for claps within the body of your article.
So let’s say you’re a New York Times reporter with 200,000 Twitter followers and you’re looking to strike off on your own. If you publish to Medium, you’re not going to get credit for when you send over readers who aren’t paying subscribers. If any of your readers do convert into paying subscribers, then you have to share that wealth you just created for the platform with every other writer on it, or at least the ones who are also read by your followers. How much you get paid will vary from month to month depending on how well your content performs with this very narrow subset of Medium users.
Now consider Substack’s value proposition. Every time you convert one of your readers into a paying subscriber, you get to keep 90% of the revenue. You get the subscriber’s email address and own 100% of the relationship with your readership. In fact, if you want to leave Substack, you can bring your email list with you. Medium, on the other hand, strongly discourages writers in their guidelines from even promoting their email newsletter signup pages within their articles. If you include too many self-promotional links, then Medium’s curators may not choose to feature you on the front page.
Because of this dynamic, Medium is a lot more attractive to writers who don’t have already-existing followings, because they can create an account and start generating revenue on the first day. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Medium doesn’t get the same benefit as Substack in terms of attracting brand talent, at least not without paying a hefty upfront fee in advance.
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