Why Medium is succeeding where other “platishers” failed
Ev Williams built a social media company around longform writing.
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For the past 15 years or so, dozens of media companies have tried to design the perfect platisher model. A portmanteau of the words “publisher” and “platform,” a platisher hypothetically combines the scalability afforded by user generated content with the prestige journalism produced by traditional media outlets.
I say “hypothetically” because most platisher strategies have been widely derided within the media industry, to the point where the term is often thrown around as a tongue-in-cheek pejorative. Critics argue that the more you hand over content production to the crowd, the more it undermines the integrity of your journalism. It also subjects your site to all sorts of manipulation by shady characters who will leverage your publication’s good name to push through unethical, conflict-ridden content.
But while the platisher model presents an ethical and reputational minefield, I think one company has done a reasonably good job of navigating its pitfalls: Medium. The Ev Williams-led company has wedded the traditional journalism you’d find at most magazines with the scalable content production and monetization that’s thus far only been achieved by tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And while it hasn’t attracted universal respect from the media industry, many journalists are watching its progress with some hopeful optimism.
To understand how Medium solved this model, it’s helpful to look back at past platisher models and examine why they struggled to gain respectability in the marketplace. Specifically, I want to look at the contributor programs at both HuffPost and Forbes.
While Arianna Huffington didn’t invent the platisher model (other platform-like blogs like Daily Kos and MyDD were founded earlier), she certainly brought it into the mainstream. You had to officially be invited into its contributor network, but the vetting was pretty loose, usually requiring that you merely knew someone at the site. Huffington famously got A-list celebrities to blog for free, but she also handed out accounts to random people she met while traveling. At its peak, the contributor network had 100,000 bloggers, though it’s unclear how many were blogging on a month to month basis.
That contributor network lent HuffPost a level of traffic scale not available to most blogs in the mid-2000s. At the time, mainstream media companies were only beginning to take the internet seriously, and as outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post started to struggle amid cratering print ad sales, some wondered whether HuffPost would become the first great newspaper founded in the 21st century. It was able to ride this hype and scale to a $315 million AOL acquisition in 2011.
With AOL’s resources at its disposal, HuffPost went on a hiring spree, sniping journalists from top tier outlets. In 2012, it won a Pulitzer for its reporting on wounded veterans returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There were also occasional scoops from its contributor network. Mayhill Fowler, a then 61-year-old stay-at-home mother, published two blockbuster stories during the 2008 primary season, the first when she recorded then-candidate Obama at a fundraiser claiming that conservative “cling” to their guns and religion, and the second when she recorded an unhinged rant from Bill Clinton.
But the contributor network also provided plenty of headaches for Huffington. From almost the very beginning, she was dogged by criticism that she was profiting off the back of unpaid bloggers. I always found this criticism a little unfair -- after all, nobody criticized Facebook or Twitter for not paying users for all their content -- but it provided constant fodder for whenever old media fogeys wanted to take some shots at the site. In 2010, Fowler famously quit writing for the publication after she made the case that Huffington should pay her and Huffington refused. In 2011, some contributors filed a class action lawsuit alleging they were owed part of the money paid out in the AOL acquisition. The lawsuit was later tossed out by a judge, but it was still used as a battering ram for those who liked to criticize Huffington for devaluing journalism.
What’s worse, HuffPost was never able to erect a true social graph. Really, the only way for a contributor’s article to receive traffic was if an editor featured it on the homepage, and many unpaid bloggers grew discouraged as they toiled away in obscurity. Because of this dynamic, the site’s scale was always limited, and its hockey stick traffic growth eventually plateaued as legacy media companies beefed up their online operations.
Ultimately, the contributor’s network ended up being more trouble than it was worth. In 2018, editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen, Arianna’s successor, shut down the network completely. “Open platforms that once seemed radically democratizing now threaten, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy,” Polgreen wrote in a blog post at the time. “When everyone has a megaphone, no one can be heard.”
When Forbes launched its contributor network in 2010, it was clear that it had learned from some of HuffPost’s mistakes. That same year Forbes acquired Lewis DVorkin’s startup True/Slant and installed DVorkin as Chief Product Officer. True/Slant’s model involved paying its writers a portion of ad revenue based on the traffic they generated, and he instituted a similar model when he recruited several hundred business influencers and journalists to blog for Forbes.
The contract Forbes contributors signed was pretty straightforward. If you published a certain number of articles per month, you received an upfront payment of a few hundred dollars, and then you generated additional income based on the amount of traffic your articles attracted. Though the rates varied over the years, one contributor in 2014 told me she received a half cent per unique view and five cents for repeat visitors.
The network eventually ballooned up to 1,800 writers (not all of these were under the revenue share contracts, but many were), and it pulled down some real wins, both for the company and the writers themselves. From the time it launched until 2014, it increased its monthly unique visitors by 19.5 million. Advertising revenue grew by 35% during this same time period, and then-CEO Mike Perlis later credited Dvorkin with saving the struggling magazine.
And how did this work out for the writers? Dvorkin revealed in a 2014 post that “60 [contributors] made as much or more in 2013 than the $45,250 a year the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the nationwide average for a professional reporter or correspondent. Five or so have built big enough loyal audiences … to top $100,000. Many dozens more make between $10,000 and $25,000.”
But people quickly began to notice the contributor network was eroding Forbes’s journalistic brand. Most of the writers weren’t journalists, after all, and they were paid based on an advertising ecosystem that rewarded clickbait. “Forbes has blurred the lines more than any other mainstream publisher between journalistic content and marketing/PR,” wrote The Columbia Journalism Review in 2014. “Flacky garbage written by marketing executives and consultants is barely distinguishable at first glance from reported stories written by staff writers.”
Even journalism prof Jeff Jarvis, who’s typically bullish on citizen journalism models, panned the network. “Now, when I see a link to Forbes on Twitter, I don’t know whether it is going to take me to (1) the good work of a Forbes journalists, (2) the good work of a Forbes contributor, (3) the bad work of one of many Forbes contributors, or (4) the paid and wordy shilling of a Forbes advertiser,” he wrote on BuzzMachine.
Forbes basically ran up against the problem every platisher eventually faces: as the number of content creators expands, quality control gets more difficult. With 1,500+ writers, it’s impossible to police for things like conflicts of interest. Working in the PR and marketing world, I’m aware of at least a few cases in which executives with Forbes blogs interviewed their own clients or client prospects. In 2016, a PR executive posted a redacted screen capture of a Forbes writer soliciting payment in exchange for coverage. Sometimes, Forbes was forced to pull down contributor posts, as it did in 2014 when a columnist claimed that drunk women were the gravest threat to fraternities.
Eventually Forbes began to rein in its contributor network. In 2018, it announced that it would begin paying 100% of its writers but that it would periodically cut 10% of its network based on poor performance. This year it lowered both its upfront monthly payment to contributors and its audience based payouts. Visiting the site today makes for an unpleasant user experience, in that it has some of the most abusive ad tech in the industry. Upon landing on an article, you’re immediately hit with a pop down ad that covers most of the screen. Once that’s done, you’re then forced to watch a silent auto-play video for several seconds. I guess when you’re paying your writers based on traffic, you need to eek out every ounce of revenue possible for each unique view.
To be clear, I’m not declaring Forbes’s contributor model a complete failure; it expanded its audience and paid its writers, after all. It reached profitability, which is more than can be said about many legacy publishers. But I think a lot of media executives look at the Forbes brand today and aren’t in a hurry to emulate its platisher strategy.
How Medium improved on the platisher model
Which brings me to Medium. I won’t bore you by recounting how its platform evolved since its founding, but will instead just focus on it as it is today. According to recent figures released by CEO Ev Williams, millions of logged in users visit Medium each month and several hundred thousand of them pay $5 a month to access “premium” content. Non-subscribers are allowed to access three premium articles a month before being hit with the paywall.
Medium has hired away editors from legacy media companies, and they commission feature pieces and columns from freelance journalists, paying them agreed-upon rates. It also syndicates pieces from publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times. In that sense, Medium resembles your standard traditional publisher.
But it also operates a partnership program that virtually any Medium user can opt into. Participating writers get paid based on a Spotify-like system that measures reading and engagement from paying subscribers. You’re also rewarded if someone reads your piece and soon afterward converts into a paying subscriber.
So how did Medium improve upon the platisher model? Well, for one, it created a true platform, one that doesn’t require a special invite to join. More importantly, it’s built a social graph with real network effects. Users can follow each other’s accounts and share articles to their followers. They don’t have to wait around and hope a Medium editor promotes their pieces to the front page. They’re rewarded for a consistent publishing schedule that will increase their content exposure over time. This allows Medium to scale in ways that Forbes and HuffPost never could.
But what about the brand erosion problems faced by other platishers? Well, for one, I think it helps that Medium launched as a platform and there was no pre-existing journalism brand to tarnish. Users approach its posts with the same level of skepticism they’d apply to a YouTube video or tweet. What’s more, Medium allows for the creation of publications that bestow their own imprimatur of quality on an article. When I land on Medium’s tech publication OneZero, for instance, I expect a higher level of writing than I would from a random Medium user because I know a professional editor commissioned and reviewed the piece.
But I think there’s more to it than that. Medium has installed incentives that reward higher quality content. In its early days, the platform had pursued a native advertising model, but in 2017 Ev Williams announced he was shutting down the company’s ad operations and pivoting to paid subscriptions. The paid partnership program that later debuted specifically predicates payment on the amount of engagement one receives from paying members. Publishing a clickbaity article that goes viral on Facebook or Twitter will generate very little remunerative value. Writers are incentivized to create content that converts users into paying, loyal subscribers.
Does that mean the system can’t be gamed? Of course not. And as with any major social platform, Medium’s admins have to continually police content for abuse and misinformation, especially in the age of Covid. It was forced to remove a post in March, for instance, that downplayed the deadliness of the pandemic.
But I do think Medium has come closer than virtually any other company in achieving the equilibrium between running both a publishing and platform operation. It’s proved that a platisher model can work, and I think its strategy should be studied by any publisher that wants to incorporate more user generated content into its offerings.
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