News has had a rough couple of years (or decades). If it’s not "fake news" calling institutions into question, it’s the threat of the internet, where billions of people have ditched paying for a paper or magazine at the newsstand in favor of a free website. That, in turn, has led news sites to become ad-ridden hellholes where you’re as likely to spend your time trying to click out of a popup or scroll past a full-screen ad as you are reading an actual article.
Medium looked to change that. Ev Williams, former CEO of Twitter, started the blogging platform as a new way for writers to reach readers. It was clean and free of display ads, which meant a frustration-free experience for readers, and it was easy to use whether the publication was an individual journal or a company blog. It’s found success, with a number of high-profile sites now hosted on Medium: The Ringer is backed by HBO, ThinkProgress shows that legitimate news organizations can live there, and The Billfold and Backchannel have grown dedicated audiences.
But there was always the problem of how these groups would actually make money. After toying with systems like branded content, Medium announced in February 2017 that they’d be introducing a paid subscription. For $5 a month, readers could get extra features and directly support what they enjoy reading. However Medium wasn't forthcoming on exactly what those special features would be.
I joined to find out and discover whether paying for Medium's new premium subscription is worth it. After two months, I can confidently say...kinda.
What a Medium subscription gives you
I was given the opportunity to join Medium’s subscription tier early for being an "active member," which was red flag number one: I’ve published a few things and follow a few publications, but if I’m their definition of an active member, Medium is in trouble.
Also a concern? At one point it listed that I’d been a member since 1970. Later, before I had paid, it updated to 2017. Small issues, but still things that make you go, "hmmm."
But what do you actually get by paying for Medium that you don’t get from the still-available free version?
The most immediate benefit was a sneak peek at their new homepage. Unlike the previous homepage, which was essentially just a blog feed, the new page has a bit more organization to it. Stories are divided up a few different ways: "New from people" and "publications you follow," new stories in different tags like Art and Technology, Recommended articles, and additional curated topics like Basic Income handpicked by the Medium staff. These articles are refreshed throughout the day, with updates coming in the morning, afternoon, and evening. It’s a nice way to have new stories coming through over the course of your day.
Then there are stories exclusively for Medium members, "funded by members’ monthly contributions." These can be fun gems to find, and it’s how I now know why "Expensive Public Transportation Projects Won’t Survive the Shift to Autonomous Vehicles." It was recently announced that these stories will have audio narrations available, which may be attractive to anyone more into podcasts than longform articles.
Finally, membership allows you to save articles for offline reading. This is pretty self-explanatory: See something you don’t have time to read, and know that your connection will be spotty on the subway? Save it to read without an internet connection.
"What am I paying for?"
This is all fine. I enjoy exploring new topics, like Basic Income or the fiction Lit section. Offline reading is handy. But over my month-plus of being a Medium member, there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my head: "What am I paying for?"
Okay, I know what I’m paying for – it’s all of the stuff I just talked about. But the benefit to paying isn’t always apparent, so maybe the better question is why I’m paying.
Let’s start with the new homepage. It’s nice, but how much value is it adding? If I’m already following publications and people, having an entire section dedicated to them doesn’t do anything more than the free Medium feed does. Finding new articles and writers is fun, but it’s also a very hit-or-miss proposition. The strength of Medium is that it isn’t a newspaper, but that will always be a challenge, too; I might pay for a subscription to the Washington Post, for instance, and I know more or less what I’m going to get. But paying for a Medium subscription means thousands of writers and publications, and it’s sort of a grab bag. That can be fun, but not necessarily something you want to pay for.
That’s a similar concern for the exclusive stories. I’m told that my subscription is paying for them, but it’s not clear what the qualifications are for that. And what if that’s not where I want my money to go? I enjoy reading The Billfold, for instance. But how are they benefiting from my subscription? Are they being supported, or am I paying to read (no offense to this article) "How to Use the Right Tools to Beat Procrastination"?
(Another point on exclusive stories: If you share them with non-members, they won’t be able to read them. This is no different than sending someone a paywalled story from The Wall Street Journal, but that’s equally as annoying, so Medium doesn’t get a pass for it.)
And as cool as offline reading is, that’s what I use Pocket for—for free. All this has done is split my saved reading between two different platforms, but one only has Medium articles and the other has the rest of the internet.
Which brings me back to "why." The new features are fine – good, even – but nothing revolutionary and not something I’d pay for on its own. The main draw is the curated topics, and is probably what I get the most use out of from my membership.
The ostensible value add of improved journalism (or "journalism," if you’d rather read blog-style articles) also isn’t apparent. I don’t know where my money is going or who exactly I’m supporting. Member-exclusive stories are through Medium’s Partner Program, so I guess if I want a publication I enjoy to benefit from my subscription, I have to make sure they’re part of that program? Or tell them to get a Patreon? Or move to a different platform and insert ads, or pull a Wirecutter and have a great affiliate program (and then get bought by The New York Times)?
What Medium is trying to do is admirable. We need quality writing, and it needs to be paid for. It’s the same reason why Jimmy Wales is experimenting with Wikitribune. I’m just not entirely sold on a Medium membership being the answer.
A good analogy is with cable TV cord cutting: People want to pay less for cable and would like to pay for only the channels they watch. But some networks subsidize others, and untangling all of that while still keeping it all affordable is a challenge. I’d like to just pay for the publications that I read and enjoy, but how would that subscription work? I’d likely end up paying much more than the $5 I pay now, but I don’t know if the $5 I pay now is supporting the publications I read and enjoy. It’s a catch-22.
The real question is whether or not I’ll continue to pay for Medium. Truthfully, I’m not sure. I read a lot of things on Medium, and $5 is less than any other subscription service I pay for. It’s cheap enough that I might just leave it in place. There’s nothing I actively am against in the model, and it’s supporting a worthwhile experiment.
Of course, I recently had to cancel my credit card after a fraud charge, so in order to keep my Medium subscription in place I’ll need to update my payment method. We’ll see if I decide to do that.