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June 23, 2016, 9:52 a.m.
Business Models

“Medium’s team did everything”: How 5 publishers transitioned their sites to Medium

What happened when Pacific Standard, The Ringer, The Awl, The Bold Italic, and Femsplain moved their sites over to Medium.

“Even 15 years after Blogger, it’s still hard to publish on the internet,” a Medium executive told a group of publishers this past spring. Medium has now made it its mission to make publishing easier: After a few years of back-and-forth about whether it was a publisher or a platform (or, ugh, a platisher), the company has stepped firmly into the platform camp.

In April, Medium rolled out a suite of new tools for publishers, and began giving a beta group the option to make revenue from the platform as well.

I spoke with five of these publishers — Pacific Standard, Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, The Awl, Femsplain, and The Bold Italic — about what it’s been like to transition their sites to Medium (or, in The Ringer’s case, launch their site there). We talked about money, migration and design concerns, traffic, and more.

Publishers who’ve signed on with Medium have also signed NDAs, so the people I spoke with weren’t able to get too deep on financial topics. Overall, though, it appears that the only place Medium is taking a cut of publishers’ revenue is when those publishers run sponsored content arranged by Medium. Otherwise, Medium is covering all migration, development, and hosting costs for the publishers it accepts into its beta program, and is at least in some cases providing individualized tech support and building custom features, again free of charge.

Concerns about distributed content and the increasing power of platforms are dominating conversations about digital media today, and I asked the publishers I spoke with if they see Medium as part of the problem. Not really, they said: They see it as more of a solution.

“If anything, going onto Medium has better positioned us to do a distributed publishing strategy,” said Michael Macher, publisher of The Awl. “Being able to seamlessly do Instant Articles, with very little tech lift on our end, allows us to publish across platforms in a better way.”

“I would tell [other publishers who want to join Medium] to wait a bit,” Nicholas Jackson, editor-in-chief of The Pacific Standard, semi-joked, “so I can get exclusive access to the Medium developers for as long as I need it.” (In fact, Medium just announced it’s hiring more people to scale up its publisher program.) Overall, he said, “Moving to Medium was an obvious solution for what we wanted to do.”

Pacific Standard

Nicholas Jackson, editor-in-chief:

[Moving over] wasn’t a hard decision. I had already made the decision a year prior to move over to Tempest, Say Media’s content management system, because they were doing a lot of the same things — collecting non-editorial publishing services under one roof. But I think Tempest is in a situation where they’re not entirely sure what they’re going to do next; Say Media has sold off a bunch of its editorial properties, like xoJane and ReadWriteWeb. Medium is already this big network, so if they were going to be able us to offer the same thing, getting into the network made a lot of sense. WordPress is a nightmare.

Pacific Standard is a nonprofit, and we’re very mission-driven. The major reason I came over here three and a half years ago was to prove that the “conventional wisdom of the internet” was not true. People were talking about how nobody was going to read longform articles on the internet, and certainly they weren’t going to read them on their phones; the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed were in their biggest expansion days, and we know what sort of editorial content they’re typically associated with. I made the move over to Pacific Standard because of the nonprofit, mission-driven focus, and that has stayed our focus.

We’re really good at editorial storytelling, but we have never been good at or bothered to build the team up to do other things. Whenever I have flexibility in my budget, I use it to strengthen the editorial product. We’ve never had a developer, and we’ve never had somebody working full-time on ad sales. We’ve worked with some third parties and contract folks, but it’s never been the core of what we do. So instead of having to deal with five or six or seven third-party operations, moving over to Tempest at the time and Medium now was a way to bring all of those under one roof. We still deal with a third party, but it’s one third party that’s handling all of it for us, instead of bits and pieces of it.

Medium’s team did everything. They’ve got a pretty big team trying to figure this out, and we were one of the first and biggest to move over. We have, I don’t know, 12,000 posts in our archive now. They really took the lead on it. It was a matter of me having some regular phone meetings with them, and they’ve actually come out to visit us here in Santa Barbara, and then I have a dedicated Slack channel that’s my direct access to their team.

We have guarantees with Medium that our most popular story pages are always going to load in under two seconds. Things like that are beneficial to our readers, even if they don’t immediately recognize them. But most of what we heard about from readers [when we moved over to Medium] was aesthetic stuff. At Tempest, we were pretty cluttered with display advertising. We decided to strip all of that out in the move, and readers are very happy about that.

The only digital advertising we’re doing right now is running some of these sponsored posts, and they only appear at the end of our articles; they’re very minimal. That’s something that Medium is going to be experimenting a lot more with and they’ve asked whether we want to participate in certain sponsored content campaigns or packages. That’s probably something we won’t do, it’s not something we’ve done in the past, but just having these promoted stories at the end of our articles is already bringing in the kind of money we were making through programmatic display advertising.

The other thing that we may experiment with in the future is the paywall option that they’ve built out. You can see it being used on Electric Literature‘s new site and a couple of other smaller, digital-only sites they have. We’re trying to figure out smart ways to sync it up with our print subscriber list, since that’s something we remain committed to. So we may experiment with paywalling some of our print content.

Our primary revenue driver is going to be print subscriptions, which seems counterintuitive but is working really well for us. We made the decision awhile ago to strip out or offer refunds to all of the, like, non-subscriber subscribers from our print list — the folks that exist on every print magazine’s list because it absorbed another magazine’s subscription list at some point. We offered refunds to all of those folks because we wanted to get down to a group that was core, loyalist readers, and focus on them. After we did that, our print list has grown faster than it ever has, which seems crazy but is true. Print advertising still brings in more money than anything you’re gonna get on digital.

Medium gets a percentage of whatever [sponsored content] they’re able to sell for us. We can sell our own sponsored content or display advertising or whatever we want and keep 100 percent of the revenue from that, but with the sponsored content posts that they arrange — which is what we’re currently running — they keep a percentage.

Medium lets you do display advertising, but only as a workaround: You have to hard-code it into stories on an individual basis; you wouldn’t be able to do a large, across-site programmatic display option. It’s a pain, although by hard-coding it in you also are able to get around any sort of adblockers.

We do a lot of original content on our website, not much short-form aggregation, but we still also think of the website as a way to advertise that we have a print product and to drive subscriptions, and we’ve been working with the Medium folks to carry some of that stuff out — calls to action to promote print subscriptions. Medium is rolling those things out as they’re able to build them for us.

Yes, you can tell it’s a Medium site, although they’ve built in a couple of small customization features for us. I think our content stands out for being quality content, and it doesn’t really matter where it lives, especially if you’re accessing it from a phone. It’s no different from being on Facebook Instant Articles, except that we still own our content and we don’t have to worry about whatever Facebook is doing. Medium does offer Facebook Instant Articles integration now; we haven’t started doing it yet, but it’s something we’re thinking about. They’ve baked it in to be really easy: I can hit a button and all of our stuff will start populating on Instant Articles, if I want it to.

I think Medium is doing this to build up their audience. I mean, The Ringer alone — over time, it’ll bring another 10 million uniques to Medium, probably. And I think you’re gonna see a lot of places [offering services like this]. You guys are on WordPress, and I think that WordPress, especially like WordPress VIP, will start offering services like this.

We used to work in a place where everything was controlled under one roof, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re one of the massive players left, and I don’t know that there are going to be that many of them standing in a couple years. Who do you expect to make it? There are only a few places that are going to be able to reach the kind of scale that they need to bring in advertising revenue, and the ones that are scaling are places like BuzzFeed that can be described as something other than a traditional publisher.

I don’t think there are that many people left who still like hand coding. I used to be one of those guys. I went to a high school for math and science geeks and studied coding and stuff, and in the first couple of years that I was at Pacific Standard, before we moved to Tempest and then Medium, we were able to keep investing in editorial because I would just make small tweaks and updates to our site myself. I knew my way around the code pretty well, so we could do it without much hassle. But there just aren’t that many place like that, and I don’t know that you want there to be that many places — I want good writers and editors. It’s much easier to find them if I just have to hire a good writer or editor, instead of somebody who can also deal with all this other stuff.

Moving to Medium was an obvious solution for what we wanted to do. Everybody has concerns about not owning and operating all of their websites, but this is really not that different from the conversations people are having around Instant Articles or anything else that’s coming down the pike. I would tell [other publishers who want to join Medium] to wait a bit so I can get exclusive access to the Medium developers for as long as I need it, cause they’re gonna have to scale their team as more people come on, but ultimately, it’s good.

A bunch of the Medium publishers have built a private Slack that Medium is not a part of. There are people from Backchannel and The Awl and a bunch of other sites that operate on Medium. It’s a place where we can talk about new developments or new revenue opportunities or new things that we want to see on the platform, and now we have this collected voice to push for them. We gotta get the Ringer folks in there. I’m sure they have some pull.

The Awl Network

Michael Macher, publisher:

We moved The Billfold to Medium last December, so that property has been on Medium the longest, and we have the most information on how it’s working. It’s been a tremendous success, from both a traffic perspective and a monetization perspective. Since the move, we’ve seen a 10 to 15 percent lift in overall traffic, and some really strong monetization working with some custom programs with Medium and also working on our own programs. We’re really pleased with the results on The Billfold end of things.

For The Awl and The Hairpin, it’s a little early; we migrated them over to Medium [a couple weeks ago] But in terms of the tools and what we’re seeing on the initial launch, it’s positive.

We moved The Billfold first because we were thinking about Medium as a larger initiative, and we wanted to move the property that was the most conversational, because Medium is a good environment for conversations. We thought The Billfold, which is a really thriving community, was a great property on which to test the effects of Medium, and The Billfold’s content also tends to be extremely shareable. From an editorial perspective, it was a really good fit.

We wanted to see what the benefits would be from a traffic amplification perspective, as well. Medium’s additional layer of amplification was really attractive to us.

[The Billfold has a lot of active commenters], and, as with any site where there’s a thriving commenting community, there are people who feel strongly about the way comments are organized. We saw some blowback from some members of the community [when we moved to Medium], though I think that’s always the case when major changes happen. We’ve worked with Medium to figure out the best way to position comments and make tweaks to make them better, and Medium has been wonderfully receptive. We asked, for instance, for slightly different formatting of comments, like nested comments that were a little bit more familiar for our users.

We were not sure at first that we’d bring The Awl and The Hairpin over. The Billfold was the first publication to make a full, 100-percent content migration to Medium, and for everyone, it was kind of a case study. How would [the move] affect SEO? What are the traffic effects, and how is historical content treated? Neither we nor Medium had all the answers. But based on the initial migration, a lot of information came to light, which I think helped other publishers understand what [a move] would look like for them.

[With The Billfold], Medium did a lot of research and worked with a firm to make sure the SEO was unaffected by the migration. We saw no decline in SEO. The archives also came over fairly easily. There were some hiccups, but both our team and Medium’s team were able to quickly make sure that there weren’t too many problems.

I personally am not bothered at all by [the standardization of Medium’s design]. I don’t think it undermines our identity at all, and if you’re really concerned about it, I think Medium offers enough opportunities for customizing the page that it’s not a problem. For me, though, it’s all about the content and user interaction. I’m concerned with users having a speedy experience and being able to interact with the content the way they want to.

Medium just rolled out Google Analytics integration. We are also a beta tester for integration with Facebook Instant Articles. The integration is easy and Medium has been really helpful. [The Awl] doesn’t have the type of development team that would make scaling Instant Articles easy for us, so the fact that Medium built that out was really great.

Advertising is business as usual. The big difference is that we no longer offer banner ads and we’re not working with ad exchanges or networks anymore. We’re more focused on high-gloss custom editorial now. We do content marketing deals and sponsored posts with brands, and we have a few of those deals in the works. Medium also sources some deals and we produce content for them; we worked on a great program for the financial tech company SoFi, and there’s more coming down the pike.

We’d always been really good at working with the ad exchanges, but from a design perspective, we’re happy with the way the site works now. It’s much cleaner, it’s much faster. I think the biggest positive has been from the user perspective: We don’t have as much latency, and the page performance is a lot better. We have not seen a big issue — or a little issue — with revenue [as a result of getting rid of banner ads]. We’re really pleased with revenue; it’s good.

If you’re a huge website and you have a huge development team, I think Medium is a good place to copublish but not necessarily do a full migration. If you’re an independent, small or mid-sized publisher and you’re spending way more time and money on technical aspects than you want or need to, Medium allows a lot of autonomy and will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. There’s a lot of value there for independent publishers.

If there are concerns I have, they’re concerns I have about media in general, structurally speaking, not concerns about Medium specifically. If anything, going onto Medium has better positioned us to do a distributed publishing strategy. Being able to seamlessly do Instant Articles, with very little tech lift on our end, allows us to publish across platforms in a better way.

To the extent that Medium is building tools that help publishers enact a distributed strategy, it’s a really positive sign. Working with them has been great so far, honestly, and so I’m not too worried. I think the bigger worry is just, the media landscape in general is really, really tough. I worry about structural things sometimes, but I feel really good about this partnership.

The Ringer

Juliet Litman, managing editor:

We considered many different options for [The Ringer’s website] and took a look at the landscape of how websites are built these days. I believe Bill [Simmons] and [Medium CEO Ev Williams] had a preliminary conversation that involved more folks. Medium seemed like a natural fit for us.

Grantland was on WordPress. The Medium experience has been, honestly, quite enjoyable. When we started working with them, they were transitioning from being an individual platform to working with publishers. Because the group of us who were starting The Ringer had publishing experience, we were able to talk through some of the features we were interested in and about workflow ideas, and then they did all the design work for us.

On the editorial side we’re really collaborative. [We worked with Medium to] allow for that process [on the backend], making sure that the platform allowed multiple people to work on one piece, making sure that more than one editor, if necessary, could work with a writer, making sure our collaborative process was possible. As Medium was building the publisher tools out, we were able to give feedback and discuss whether it was working or not.

We worked a lot on our branding and logo because we knew that would be important on Medium. The green we chose is really bold, but it accomplishes the goal of making it clear that this is The Ringer. We had to integrate the podcast network, and social, and we wanted branding that would make it clear that this is one property across all platforms. It’s been successful so far. Medium’s layout has a lot of white, and not a lot of other modules to distract readers, so when you introduce art, it really pops. It’s been thinking about how to design for the platform.

For example, we did a piece on soccer hairstyles for the Euro 2016 tournament, and we thought about the visual pop of pariring text with images. Bold photo illustrations also look really nice on Medium, and so do full-bleed photos. And we launched The Ringer with a header that was an animated GIF of a stadium with people’s phones flashing on and off.

In the last year of Grantland, we did away with comments. Medium’s responses feature has been interesting. It’s a nice way for our writers to respond to their readers and also just know that readers are reading their work. When you respond to a comment, you know who you’re talking to, and you have context about the stories you’re interested in when you look another profile.

On launch day, the biggest unknown was whether this would work on a techincal level. That’s probably true for almost all launches. A lot of that guess work is eliminated on Medium, though; there was staff available to us if we had a problem. We weren’t banking on something we had built. We weren’t uncertain if our server would hold. There were fewer unknowns. It was a really comforting way to come into the world as theringer.com.

Femsplain

Amber Discko, founder:

Femsplain started out as a side project, in October 2014, built in my free time with help from a few friends. It grew to be much larger than we thought, and after successfully launching and reaching our goal on Kickstarter, we were able to pay our writers for an entire year. Then, due to a lack of funding almost one year after our Kickstarter, we had to go on a short break to figure out how we could continue publishing new stories. Medium approached us earlier this year with an offer to become a launch partner for their new publisher program. The partnership just made a lot of sense, for everyone.

We’ve only been able to monetize through Femsplainer sponsors (our daily newsletter), memberships and Medium’s native advertisements. Memberships are working! Slowly but surely, we are very close to hitting our 200-subscriber goal, which will allow us to publish every day.

It’s been challenging and frustrating for us, because we’ve been in somewhat of a catch-22: We need stories to receive money from advertising revenue, but we can’t pay our writers without support from membership. We had been waiting on payment from Medium, and there was a delay, but now it’s all sorted, and we are finally able to pay our writers what’s been owed.

The Bold Italic

Sunil Rajaraman, CEO:

We discovered that they were releasing Medium publisher tools after I wrote a Medium post. It got a lot of traction on Medium, and the head of business development reached out because he saw I was one of the owners of the Bold Italic, and that we’d revived it. He said he’d love to get together and talk to me about some of the publisher tools Medium was working on.

We’ve been in the process of reviving The Bold Italic for about a year now, but we’re a barebones crew. Right now, we have no full-time staff. We have a dedicated group of contractors, but it’s more a labor of love than it is trying to build a multi-billion-dollar, venture-scale business. From that standpoint, we’re always looking to make things more cost-efficient and use new technology tools.

Medium has the best CMS that we’ve seen, and they’re taking on all of the development operations. The previous iteration of The Bold Italic had a highly custom Ruby on Rails CMS, which was a little bit quirky and not easy to use. Medium has, hands down, built the best technology tools for independent publishers like us. It just made everybody’s job easier.

In terms of the revenue arrangement: They’re obviously presenting ads against our content. That is great, because a local publisher like The Bold Italic can’t really sell national campaigns. We’re definitely thinking about some kind of subscription model as well; the nice thing about the arrangement with Medium is that we are allowed to do whatever we want to monetize the site.

Most discovery of our content before was through Facebook and Twitter. Medium gives you a third channel for content discovery, a third place where your content can go viral. We view Medium kind of like YouTube channels for publishers. In the early days of YouTube, when they were building out their infrastructure for power users, you could build a really valuable piece of real estate, and a lot of YouTube stars did. We view Medium as the equivalent for independent publishers.

The way independent publishing is going, it’s going to be very, very difficult to build an independent, venture-scale business like a BuzzFeed or a Vox Media or even a Huffington Post. If you’re considering building on Medium, it’s a simple math problem. Run through all the costs of the publication, the costs of the content, the server costs, etc., and see how much of that you can offset through Medium. I would tell an independent publisher that, if they’re not able to sell national advertising campaigns very easily that they should strongly consider moving over to Medium. And the Bill Simmons thing was a big thing: They got the big name in there, and that helps a lot.

POSTED     June 23, 2016, 9:52 a.m.
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