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May 10, 2018, 11:07 a.m.
Business Models

Medium abruptly cancels the membership programs of its 21 remaining subscription publisher partners

“Could we have a better metaphor for the way Silicon Valley considers local journalism?” fumed the owner of one of these remaining publications.

Medium has informed publishers using its platform to offer paid memberships that it’s ending that feature. An email at the end of last month from Medium’s head of partnerships Basil Enan told publishers that the company was planning to discontinue memberships in May.

“We were among the first to sell memberships on Medium, among the few local organizations working with them,” Chris Faraone, founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, told me. “We’ve had an arrangement with them for two years. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to break it. We’ve been scaling back, trying to get people to other platforms anyway. But it’d be nice to have more of a heads up.” (Faraone also works as the news and features editor of alt-weekly DigBoston.) “Our experience in dealing with a lot of these tech-oriented operations is that there’s some good reception, but in the end, it’s whatever their whim is.

“Meanwhile, we’re trying to make a living here. We’re cool with experimenting. But this is been an unbelievable blow. Could we have a better metaphor for the way Silicon Valley considers local journalism?”

BINJ, which commissions freelancers, copublishes their work with both local and national outlets, and puts much of that work up on its Medium site, has about 100 paying supporters, Faraone said. When one of those members forwarded an email saying their membership was canceled and not being renewed, Faraone said it was the first notice he’d gotten that something had changed.

“Publication owners with active paying members were alerted on April 27th that we intended to begin the process of discontinuing the program on May 7th. Beginning that date, individual memberships would be canceled as they came up for renewal,” Enan said in an email via a Medium spokesperson. “Memberships would not be canceled mid-term. Thus, the final cancellation of the publication membership program will be in June once all individual memberships have non-renewed.” (Medium said it never heard from BINJ after sending an April 27 notice that memberships would be canceled; BINJ contends it never received that email.)

About two dozen publishers are being affected by this change, a Medium spokesperson told me. Any publishers who asked for extra time before the shutdown got more time to deal with telling their paying members and try to move them elsewhere, according to Enan.

“In every instance where a publication owner indicated that they needed more time to make the transition they have been given that time and we continue to work with those publication owners,” he said. “I had several conversations with publications owners last week and have more scheduled for this week so we can find a way to help them replace the lost revenue.”

Electric Literature, for instance, promptly moved its membership campaign to Drip, which is a Kickstarter product:

Publishers I spoke to emphasized that their direct contacts at Medium (some of whom were laid off in last year’s pivot) had generally been “lovely” and as “helpful” as they could be. The blindsiding, they said, came from the “top leadership level.”

After each strategy shift at Medium, partner publishers have said they felt the rug being pulled out from under their feet, with no notice. In the spring of 2016, Medium rolled out a suite of tools for publishers and attracted big names like Bill Simmons’ The Ringer and California magazine Pacific Standard, along with beloved indie outlets like The Awl Network, Film School Rejects, and Femsplain. All of these publishers have migrated off Medium (most depressingly, The Awl and Hairpin aren’t around anymore at all).

It didn’t work out. Medium laid off about 50 people, or a third of its staff at the time. It launched its own Medium memberships for $5 a month, which would unlock stories. Individual writers can be paid based on a system of “claps.” (Two points: (1) As a test, I’ve written two posts that I’ve put behind this Medium paywall, and I’ve earned money on them. (2) I’ll “clap” a ton for anything I actually find myself reading on Medium.)

Publishers like BINJ that were collecting their own memberships through Medium couldn’t benefit from any revenue through “claps” on their stories. On occasion, readers of those publications expressed confusion about whether they were signing up for Medium’s own membership, or the membership in support of a particular publication — this, Enan said, was part of the reason Medium moved to end the feature for partner publications.

“The primary reason for discontinuing this feature is that it creates confusion among paying Medium members who do not have access to certain stories that are locked only for subscribers of a specific publication,” Enan said. “In addition, out of the tens of thousands of active publications, only 21 still had active paying members. Since Medium introduced its own subscription product in March of 2017, publications that want to build their own subscriber bases have largely found other avenues via which to build that base.”

No publication has been burned worse throughout these changes, perhaps, than The Establishment, which had been wooed to move off WordPress and entirely onto Medium, and migrated all its content the same day Medium announced its drastic changes early last year. “I shan’t lie to you, gentle reader — it was a dark and shocking day for The Establishment,” cofounder Kelley Calkins wrote at the time. Now, it’s at a precipice again.

Further rankling indie publications this week, Medium CEO Ev Williams spoke to The New York Times at length about the various ills of internet publishing and Medium’s efforts to address them. Williams had sent the Times a two-page document he’d written about why ad-based models are bad for supporting creative work online and calling for solutions. There wasn’t much in the “mini-manifesto” or the Times followup that Williams hadn’t already put forth many times before, through interviews and on Medium.

The internet may have a short memory, but it’s not that short.

“I’m trying to be positive here, but it’s been a lesson,” Faraone said. “Between places like Patreon and Civil wanting to be friends…we’re really not looking to jump into bed with others at this point.”

POSTED     May 10, 2018, 11:07 a.m.
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