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Aug. 31, 2022, 9 a.m.
Business Models

Medium’s new CEO on the company’s journalism mistakes, bundle economics, and life after Ev Williams

“For me, fundamentally, the mistake was thinking that journalism was where Medium was going to shine.”

Sometimes as a reporter you write a piece that is critical of a company and the company decides not to talk to you again for a long while, or ever again. Other times you write a critical piece and the CEO sends you a note that says hey, we should talk. And you hop on the phone and see whether you can find any common ground.

I had the latter, more pleasant experience recently with Tony Stubblebine, who last month became the second CEO in Medium’s history. The publishing platform is no longer as buzzy as it was in the early 2010s, when its clean design and beautiful text editor helped it emerge as a kind of longform cousin to Twitter, with whom it shared a cofounder in Ev Williams.

But it has been an occasional subject of interest for Platformer (where this piece originally appeared) as I report on changes to our information environment. Last year I wrote about the company’s move to hire and then suddenly lay off dozens of journalists for the second time in its history; in July I wrote about the company’s long history of business pivots amid Williams’ decision to step down.

The fate of a blogging platform may have somewhat lower stakes than some of the subjects we usually discuss around here. But a key question at the intersection of tech and democracy is what sort of publishing models the internet will support. How many journalists and other writers will be able to make a living? How will their work find an audience? And will the platforms they operate on ever find long-term stability?

In a phone call phone, the genial Stubblebine projected confidence as he talked me through his plans for the company. (He was funny, too: when I asked what we should expect from Medium over the next few quarters, he deadpanned: “I’m hoping to pivot every three months.”)

Stubblebine may lack the high profile that his predecessor had in Silicon Valley as a cofounder of Blogger and Twitter. But the two men go way back — Stubblebine spent a year as vice president of engineering at Odeo, the company that would later evolve into Twitter. And he was one of Medium’s biggest fans from the start, as an original beta tester who shared office space with the team in its early days.

Around that time, Stubblebine was working on a habit-building app called Lift; later he transitioned to build the online coaching service He began posting self-help content on Medium, which eventually turned into a big publication on the platform called Better Humans. (On his LinkedIn, Stubblebine says that Better Humans and its sister publications are responsible for 1% of all Medium traffic.)

That gives Stubblebine a unique vantage point as he works to build a durable business around a company that raised $132 million. Medium reported last year that it has 725,000 paid subscribers for its $5-a-month, $50-a-year membership program; Stubblebine declined to give me an update on those numbers.

Medium turned 10 this month, and celebrated with a blog post that recaps some of the most famous stories to appear on the platform, along with the product changes and business pivots it made along the way. I asked Stubblebine what he thinks Medium is 10 years later — and what he’d like it to be after he’s finished.

Medium’s first role is a place for subject matter experts to share their knowledge, he told me. Most people don’t want to set up a blog or a newsletter; Medium fills a niche for people who have something to say only once in a while. The value the service provides lies in helping people find a broader audience than they might otherwise on their own, and enhancing the reputations of the people who publish there, Stubblebine said.

“Medium is a place to write if you don’t already have an audience and you’re not trying to build an audience,” he said. Subject matter experts “are more interested in reach than they are in money, because they make their money somewhere else. So distribution is the first pitch.

“But paired with that is ease — simple publishing tools. You don’t need to set up a WordPress hosted account. You don’t have to pay anything to publish here. The editor’s still very good. So it’s an easy way to get something out there.”

The future of Medium lies more in people sharing-first hand experiences, he said — not paying journalists to go interview those people.

“For me, fundamentally, the mistake was thinking that journalism was where Medium was going to shine,” he said. “We have the source material that feeds journalism. In a lot of ways that’s unique and special. And Medium exists to do something unique. It’s not supposed to reinvent the wheel.”

Of course, all those volunteer subject-matter experts have another useful quality for Medium: they write on the platform for free. Stubblebine argues that the exposure can create opportunities — he cited Julie Zhuo, a former Facebook VP of design, who got a book deal after building a following on Medium. But that feels like weak tea in a world where top writers on Substack are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. (See my ethics disclosure about Substack.)

Medium does allow writers to make money through its partner program, which distributes funds from its subscription revenues based on an arcane formula related to how much time they spend reading each writer in relation to other writers in the program. Writers can also earn money by referring readers into the subscription plan. But if any writers are making a full-time living on Medium, they’ve been awfully quiet.

And the current revenue share model means for every new writer that comes in, there’s less money to go around — something that the company has begun to acknowledge.

“Our partners are more in competition with each other,” Stubblebine said. “Each new author comes in and they’re splitting the same pie.”

Stubblebine said the economics of Medium’s offering to writers need to be improved. Specifically, writers who generate subscriptions need to be better compensated for them.

“The issue right now is that we’re not paying enough for the subscribers you bring in yourself,” he said. “That’s basically, fundamentally, why it doesn’t work. And I think that’s crazy, right?”

I do think that in a world where a writer can make $10 a month from thousands of people just by asking for it, Medium’s model does look like a relic. The company also faces a challenge from Twitter, which is testing a longform writing product of its own called Notes. Medium took off in part because Twitter users needed a place to write longer than 140 characters; soon they won’t have to leave the platform at all to do so.

At the same time, it seems inevitable that some digital media upstart will succeed in offering a premium bundle of writers for some relatively low monthly price. The New York Times bought one such effort, sports-focused network The Athletic, for $550 million in January. (Another ethics disclosure: I’m making a podcast with the Times.)

What The Athletic had, though, was premium journalism: some of the country’s top sportswriters, doing original reporting and analysis, on a regular cadence. Medium used to have that, too, and attracted hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers with it.

But those journalists have been gone for more than a year now. And even at $50 a year, Medium’s grab-bag of first-person essays, self-help, and business analysis may struggle to compete against more professional offerings. Stubblebine told me he wants to get clearer on the bundle’s value proposition: right now Medium’s pitch is “unlimited reading,” he noted — not something most people are looking for.

I’d like Medium to figure it out, if only because I like seeing writers get paid. Medium may never again be a destination for original journalism, but there’s no reason the company couldn’t make it easier for independent journalists and other writers to build businesses there, and improve its own prospects along the way.

Stubblebine says he’s determined to take Medium public someday. After laying off another 29 employees this month, the team now numbers 78 people: a lean organization that will focus on quickly shipping changes to the core product, he told me.

My fear, though, is that Medium continues to try to do it all on the cheap. Extracting the maximum amount of value out of the least expensive writers you can find isn’t a new approach in digital publishing, exactly, but it does feel somewhat out of step with the times.

Because for all the hype about the creator economy, it has created avenues for a (too-small) group of independents to earn massive amounts of money by cultivating their niches. If the biggest opportunity Medium can offer its users is getting famous enough to make money in some other way, it’s hard to imagine the company putting together a roster of writers that will sustain hundreds of thousands of annual subscriptions or attract many new ones.

For now, though, Stubblebine gives the company a fresh start — and a leader who, after 10 years actively using the product, sounds as excited about it as ever.

“This is a really persistent company,” he said. “We don’t always make the right decision, but we’ve been really persistent.”

Casey Newton is the editor-in-chief of Platformer, where this piece originally appeared. Subscribe here.

POSTED     Aug. 31, 2022, 9 a.m.
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