Medium needs a business model.

4 min readMar 19, 2017


Medium recently and sensibly decided that its commercial model should not be advertising-based. the obvious alternative would appear to be a subscription based solution, through which Medium establishes a mechanism for collecting membership fees for distribution to the creative bloggers who write the best stuff on Medium. Just over a week ago I had a friendly email from a Medium editor that gives some outline to their plans:

I’m Xxxxx, an editor here at Medium. I’m reaching out to you as a popular writer who’s published high-quality stories on Medium.

You might have read that we’re launching a new subscription product for our readers shortly. It’s the next step in our vision to build a place on the internet where ideas are rewarded for their value, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention.

As fans of your work, we’d like to offer you the opportunity to pitch your ideas or relevant posts early, and become part of a select group of contributing writers for our initial launch.

Our subscription will be an optional upgrade for people to become supporting members of Medium. These people will be able to access additional member-only functionality and new, exclusive content.

Writers across the world will continue to be able to publish on Medium for free, but we know there’s a great deal that never gets written or published by great writers, for lack of it making economic sense to do so. We want those stories – well-researched explainers, insightful perspectives, and useful knowledge with a long shelf life – to exist on Medium as well, and we think our paying readers will want to read them too.

That’s where you come in, because we thought your writing could be a great fit. So what types of posts have you been burning to write? If you knew you had a paying audience waiting for your ideas, what stories could you tell?

We’re looking for pitches within the following categories to start: US Politics, Technology/Science/Future, Self Development/Productivity, Business/Startups, and Culture. So tell us what you’d like to write about and your rate. If it sounds like a good fit, we’ll get back to you with a thumbs up or feedback as soon as we can.

This is a friendly and flattering invitation, but not one that I can react to with enthusiasm. Here are three problems with the approach:

  1. It sounds as though Medium wants to crack the problem of creating a Netflix for short stuff: journalism, blogs mini-essays. But maybe that goal is never going to be cracked. For cultural, economic and political reasons, free access and free distribution is always going to win out for reading and writing short pieces.
  2. It sounds as though the method of commissioning is going to be driven by price. The price being set by the blogger or journalist. “Name your Rate and we will get back to you as soon as we can”. If this really is the way the system is going to work, a la Huffington Post, it will surely become another example of Gresham’s law. Good writing being steadily swamped by hack stuff.
  3. It sounds as though the folk at Medium are thinking that a general method and mechanism for collecting revenues from paying subscribers: micro payments, or small steady monthly subscriptions will be their key money-making lock-in.

I might have got their ambitions and their methodology wrong, but that is what the current Medium initiative, feels like to me.

The key problem with their current approach is that having rightly abandoned advertising and content sponsorship as the economic drivers, they have too quickly jumped into the conclusion that making subscription system work should be their key value proposition. But they have a bigger, better, solvable but so far unsolved problem to tackle. How to make a writing medium in which the crazily best writing will be first placed, and even more important because it will ultimately drive the best writers, how to create a reading medium or forum in which the very best quality will be recognised and gradually float to the top. This challenge of developing metrics for quality is what should be driving the Medium designers at this stage. This would be a worthy goal and generate a community-based mechanism(s) of enormous value.

So how should they do that? I am not in a position to write their business plan, but I suggest one approach would be to generate enormous incentives for writing for Medium, disproportionate but absurdly competitive prizes. Their editor’s letter to me, let’s call her Angie, suggests that they have identified some core themes in which they hope to see the best and unmissable current writing. Well, Angie, why not set up some monthly prizes that will be up-voted for prizes in each field? Say 5 prizes of $5,000 monthly in each field, one category winner of $25,000 per month, and then super category prize winners of $100,000 and $250,000 every month. Rounding up with an El Gordo prize every 3 months of $1,000,000.

Such a prize-driven approach to attracting quality would in fact be quite a lot less of a drain on investment, and less of a constraint on development, than hiring a bunch of editors and freelance journalists to prime the pump in the way they now seem to be doing. And they will have to quickly and intelligently solve some problems to do with assessment of quality, and harness the best and most attentive critics. And Medium can build reader engagement, for each month registered readers aka critics might have premium access to stuff that will be up-voted, or not.

Thoughts and mechanisms for third party subscription services taking advantage of Mediums’s world beating quality metrics, come later. I would be happy to write that up for a fat prize!