Medium now lets anyone publish behind its paywall

Anthony Ha

Medium is expanding its subscription efforts today by allowing any author or publisher to join its partner program.

That's the program where readers can pay a monthly fee (currently $5) to access content behind a paywall (plus, they get early access to new features). The writers who participate will then get a share of the revenue, based on what CEO Ev Williams said is an evolving formula that includes things like how long people spent reading an article, as well as claps, where readers can explicitly show how much they liked it.

Williams said the goal here is to fund high quality written content, particularly in a way that doesn't require someone to either get a job with a big media company or to write for themselves with minimal compensation.

Medium isn't saying how many subscribers have already signed up, but as a sign of increased engagement since paid memberships launched in March, Williams pointed to the fact that there's been 44 percent growth in weekly logged in users.

More significantly, the company has also shared data about how much money it's actually paying out. In September, 83 percent of those who published paywalled stories received money — the largest payment for a single author was $2,279.12, the largest payment for a single publication was $1,466.68 and the average payment was $93.65.

"The economic model works," Williams said, though he added, "It's not evenly distributed. It's the nature of media that attention is not evenly distributed, value is not evenly distributed."

And yes, at a time where "pivot to video" has become a media industry cliché, Williams knows that focusing on text may seem kind of old-fashioned. But he insisted, "People still read things. The way we understand the world is primarily through what people write."

Now that the program is opening up, Medium will have less control over what appears behind the paywall, but Williams said content still has to adhere to Medium's guidelines, which means there should no advertising, no content reposted from elsewhere and no hate speech or doxing.

That led to the broader question of what kind of responsibility Medium has for the content it publishes (particularly as concerns grow about how the big online platforms — including Google, where Williams used to work, and Twitter, where he was co-founder and CEO — may have facilitated the spread of misinformation from Russia).

Williams said he "can't really say" how his previous companies should be dealing with with ideologically-driven misinformation. But on Medium, he broke the issue down into two broad categories, abuse and bad information/fake news. On the abuse side, he said, "We have strict policies. It's something we pay a lot of attention to."

As for information quality, he said, "It's something we're thinking about a lot, but we haven't [addressed it] explicitly." It sounds like Williams thinks the answer will have less to do with keeping fake news off the platform entirely, and more with tapping into "the intelligence of the network" to ensure that high-quality information (or information that corrects/combats misleading stories) gets more visibility.

Bringing it back to the subscription business model, Williams also noted that different models encourage different kinds of content. Without advertising, he said there's less of a commercial incentive to publish and spread misinformation.

And yes, Williams said subscriptions and "a consumer-supported model" (which might also include things like micropayments, tipping and Patreon-style payments) will remain Medium's "core" business. While he didn't completely rule out the possibility of branded content deals in the future, he said, "Advertising-driven content is very problematic. We have no plans whatsoever to even supplement with advertising."

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