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Oct. 27, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
Business Models

How Medium is attracting premium publishers to its partner program (hint: money up front)

Unlike other Medium partners, they’re not paid per clap: “Medium has derisked it for us by providing financial value while creating opportunities for us to establish direct relationships with readers.”

Would you pay, online, for something that you already have access to free online?

Medium hopes that the answer is yes. Last month, the site started running, behind its $5/month paywall, “curated content” from a couple dozen publishers. Some (the Financial Times, The New York Times, The Economist) have paywalls of their own. Many others (The Atlantic, Forbes, New York) do not.

Publishers that either don’t have paywalls or have metered paywalls cite curation and an ad-free experience as a reason they agree to put some content behind Medium’s paywall (which is now also metered, allowing non-paying users to read 3 paid stories for free each month). “Even though the content may be free on our site, Medium is providing a level of curation to their subscribers that provides value-add,” said Camilla Cho, New York Media’s executive director of business development and strategy. “That merits a fee for certain types of subscribers.” So far, New York is putting longer-form content from the magazine, Vulture, and The Cut behind the paywall, “after discussing what kind of content Medium believed would resonate well with their subscribers.”

“We see this as an opportunity to engage prospective subscribers and lighter readers, and to get our brand and content in front of them more,” said Rebecca Grossman-Cohen, The New York Times’ VP of audience and platforms. The Times has one or two stories a day in the Medium paywall program; right now, Medium’s editors are choosing what Times content appears. “We’re interested to see what resonates with their readers over time,” Grossman-Cohen said. “So far, it seems to be pretty typical of any news audience these days, so — politics. But we also see strength in tech, culture, science. We’re interested in working with Medium’s editors more closely over time on their selections.”

In addition to curation and a nice reading experience, though, Medium’s news program partners get another benefit: money. Each deal is structured slightly differently depending on the publisher, how much content that publisher is putting in, and whether that content is paywalled on the publisher’s site, said Basil Enan, Medium’s vice president for content partnerships. But “at its core, our message to publishers is that this is an opportunity for them to create a new source of subscription revenue, off-platform.” For the most part, publishers get a flat fee per article on Medium “to guarantee that this is worth their time from day one.” (In the case of one publisher I spoke to, who is not quoted in this piece and who didn’t end up participating, the rate was $200 per piece.) This payment model is in contrast to the one that Medium is using for its regular partner program, which lets anyone put content behind a paywall: Those writers earn money based on how much people engage with (clap for) their posts.

If Enan’s name — or this model of content partnerships — looks familiar, it’s because he was previously cofounder and CEO of Discors, a news app startup we wrote about a couple times. Discors was initially a context-around-the-news play, but when it relaunched this spring, it looked a lot like what Medium’s doing: a $5/month subscription that gave you access to a limited selection of content from premium publishers, including The New York Times, the Financial Times, and The Economist. That version of Discors didn’t last very long, shutting down in June, but Enan joined Medium in July, and many of those Discors partners are now in Medium’s program.

The amount of content on Medium varies by publisher. The Financial Times posted 16 stories between October 1 and 24. In the same period, The New York Times had 23 stories; The Atlantic, 16; Fast Company, 16; Foreign Policy, 16; Forbes, 15; The Cut, 13; Popular Science, 12; Vulture, 12; Rolling Stone, 12; The Guardian, 11; Bloomberg, 10 (in just two days); MIT Technology Review, 7; Project Syndicate, 7; The Intercept, 6; The Economist, 5; Inc., 5; Billboard, 3; Boat Magazine, 3; CNN Opinion, 3; New York, 3; and The Hollywood Reporter, 1 .

“In many cases, you’d make more on a piece if we didn’t give you a guaranteed rate,” Enan said. “But, to get everybody set up, it was easier to say, okay, if you’re doing 100 pieces a month, here’s what that revenue will look like, and let’s just revisit that when we see how it’s performing. The membership as a whole really only started a few months before we started doing these deals with publishers, and the idea was really to guarantee them some visibility into what they’d make per month, in return for their investment of time and resources. Over time, we’ll shift them to actually prove out. We’re very close to being able to show them that it’s in their best interest to not take a guaranteed deal, and to instead publish in the same way as our writers are publishing in our partner program. There is the unlimited upside of what a publisher could make on an individual piece, versus having X hundred dollars per piece guaranteed up front.”

For now, publishers like the Times are basically getting free money for letting a Medium editor pick one of its pieces to post every weekday or so. Or, as Grossman-Cohen put it, “Medium has derisked it for us by providing financial value while creating opportunities for us to establish direct relationships with readers.” Each Times Medium story links back to a Times subscription offer (meanwhile, in Medium’s partner program for regular writers, soliciting subscriptions is not allowed), and the Times can also communicate directly with readers through Medium.

The publishers that I spoke to said it was too early to draw any conclusions about the platform. “So far, the results are showing decent ratios of exposure to engagement,” Grossman-Cohen said, stressing that the Times hadn’t entered the deal expecting volume.

“Every publisher has at least one person, if not a massive team of people, who are managing their social media accounts, and I think for many, at least historically, Medium hasn’t been a huge priority there,” Enan said. “I think we’re seeing that shift to: ‘Okay, my read numbers aren’t going to be huge. But there’s a huge revenue opportunity here.'” Especially as long as Medium just keeps paying them.

Photos of coins by J J used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Oct. 27, 2017, 10:30 a.m.
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