LadyBits’ First and Last Year on Medium

So long, folks. It’s been real.

In May of 2013, I signed on as a Collection Editor with Medium to launch LadyBits on Medium. It has been a thrilling experiment in new media publishing, business management, brand development, and technological creativity. Now, a little over a year later, Medium and I have mutually decided to bring our collaboration to a close. This will be the last LadyBits post on Medium.

Seeding the Partnership

When Evan Hansen, my former editor at Wired, first approached me about the prospect of being a Collection Editor on Medium, LadyBits had been brewing as an idea for about a year and was nearing its boiling point. I knew that if I didn’t start LadyBits, it wouldn’t exist.

“Think of it as your own personal magazine,” Evan wrote in an email detailing the original vision for collections. Initially I was asked to just start it and see if it caught on; the money talks would come later. I wasn’t in a position, financially or morally, to work for free, so I reminded Evan that he already knew the quality of my work and my abilities from our previous years working together at Wired. So he offered me what he described as “the standard Collection Editor rate.” Once the money was on the table, it was easy to say yes.

So we launched! And suddenly LadyBits was a thing that I was doing. It was the thing I was doing. Everyone who had supported the idea over the past year, the writers, editors, business-minded folks and creatives, began to solidify into a network more vibrant than I ever could have imagined. We collaborated on a list serve, shared drafts in Google Docs, and devised a distributed editing system where people could participate in the publishing process in every way.

Going into the arrangement, I was told that Medium was an experiment. This was a tech startup, after all. I knew that by taking on this role I would essentially be a super user helping to test the product that Twitter founder Ev Williams and his team at the Obvious Corporation were building. As a former engineer-turned journalist, I was into this idea, and I was under no illusions that the system wouldn’t have its bugs and early-stage issues.

So I didn’t put all my eggs in Medium’s basket. Within two months of launching on Medium, I accepted partnership offers from Refinery29 and Popular Science to produce LadyBits content via their platforms as well. I too wanted to experiment with platforms, and I needed to grow LadyBits as a brand. I knew those other outlets could help form LadyBits’ identity in the science and technology realms, while Medium’s identity was still a big question mark. Nobody knew what it was.

But I wanted to support a company that was exploring new methods of online publishing, and a new monetization practice for an industry that is desperately struggling to wrap its advertorially-brainwashed mind around the internet. Given the failings of old-school journalistic institutions to include and support women with anything resembling fairness and equality, I have always viewed the internet as the only hope for creating the diverse media that is actually representative of the population it exists to serve.

By including LadyBits in the first group of beta testers, Medium set a precedent for the site that would ripple outwards to all users for generations to come. As Kate Lee, a staff editor of Medium told me over coffee a few weeks ago, LadyBits helped brand Medium as a place where women were welcome to publish; a place that wasn’t just for tech bros.

Hatching LadyBits on Medium

I signed a contract with The Obvious Corporation as a Collection Editor to be compensated at a rate of 5 cents per view for anything published in the LadyBits collection (with the rate decaying after certain traffic thresholds). Nobody knew where the money was coming from to pay writers, but several Collection Editors speculated that the operation was financed by Ev and his mystery Twitter fortune.

At this point, Medium was still in closed Beta where only those with an invitation could post articles and start collections. I was one of a group of about 10 paid Collection Editors handpicked by Evan. I was in good company among fellow freelancers like David Axe, Frank Swain, and Tim Maly.

I was initially skeptical of the payment model. Analytics weren’t yet available on any kind of functional level, and no one but Medium overlords and the illusive “product team” could see traffic data beyond their own individual posts. I didn’t understand why the best model of compensation a publishing platform that didn’t have (or intend to have) ads could come up with to compensate its talent was a pay-per-view model.

How were we to know how much compensation to offer writers if we didn’t know how much traffic their articles were getting? The pillar of the LadyBits brand is quality, and if I wanted quality writing, I knew I would have to offer competitive pay. The best method I came up with, that would compensate writers and protect LadyBitsLLC from going into debt, was to offer to pay writers 50% of the income their posts generated from Medium (2.5 cents per view), and put the other 50% into the LLC to pay editors, the increasingly necessary staff to manage workflow and financials, and myself. I tried a variety of other techniques to estimate flat rates but as the pitches poured in and the workload grew, asking us to predict traffic performance across a month’s worth of content and base a budget off of it became a job in and of itself.

But we had editorial freedom, we were building a sustainable business, and we were financially OK for a while. It was a best case scenario for our startup publication.

Fledglings in a Shaky Nest

The turnover rate of Collection Editors was rather remarkable; at any given time there were no more than 15 collections on the monthly traffic spreadsheet, and they were always changing. I saw dozens of collection editors come and go over the past year, but only a handful remained consistent. Most of the editors, who were freelancers, couldn’t justify the investment of their time on the off-chance that one of their posts would go viral.

It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case.

I watched the collection traffic tallies come in after the month was over, varying wildly and skewed drastically by single posts that garnered millions of views. The one exception was David Axe’s collection, which has remained consistently at the top of the traffic reports. Apparently war is never boring.

LadyBits started off strong in the top five highest-trafficked collections. But things started to change—not our production quality,that stayed constant. But the product team began making bizarre changes to the CMS. One day I woke up with dozens of emails from Medium in my inbox informing me that people were submitting posts to LadyBits. Before the system was set up with “open” and “closed” collections to give contributors a clue about what was being curated by a human and what was more of a category bucket. Now all content came in “by submission.”

We soon got the follow-up email telling us they’d upgraded the system. Sweet upgrade, thanks. The emails didn’t stop pouring in, hundreds of them. The majority of them were spam, advertisers trying to sneak their product reviews onto the platform to boost their SEO, or disjointed thoughts spewed on the page. I’m sure there were a lot of quality ones submitted that we just missed as well (sorry). It bottlenecked our system, and we were left having to restructure our whole editorial workflow at a moment’s notice. This was the first of three major changes that made things subsequently worse for us.

At the same time, Medium stopped curating a universal homepage where people browsing would be exposed to the best writing on the site. That meant that the people who were coming across LadyBits content because it was good, who wouldn’t normally have been exposed because they weren’t searching for feminist tech perspectives, weren’t finding us. Our traffic fell by about 50%, as did our income.

Brood Parasitic Chocolate Factory

With every technological “upgrade” that shifted more curatorial burden to the collection editors, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Cowbird, a brood parasitic cuckoo that lays its eggs in the nests of other birds when they are away. The host mother bird unknowingly nests the foreign eggs and, when they hatch, the cowbird chicks consume an inordinate amount of resources, diverting them away from the native chicks.

Image via “The larger, redder gape belongs to the older parasitic brown-headed cowbird chick, while the smaller, paler gapes are the phoebe’s own young.”

We were reminded that this was all an experiment, and if we would just put in more work something would probably go viral to make up for the stuff that didn’t. But if I wanted to produce things that were likely to go viral, I would have applied for a job at BuzzFeed. I started to consider the incompatibilities between the publishing company I was building at LadyBits, and the runaway platform Medium was evolving into.

I voiced my concerns, as did other Collection Editors, but they were dismissed, though sympathetically so. We couldn’t be given notice of technological changes in advance, we just had to roll with the punches. This was a startup, after all. We were all still flying blind with analytics, but this did not make it onto the priority list for a full year. The analytics they did provide were a mess: daily spreadsheets full of either tiny puzzle pieces of meaningless data, or one, site-wide dump filled with overly-specific values about every single piece of content that had been published the previous month.

The wage disparity turned outrageous. I watched several artfully curated collections dwindle in traffic and drop out while a few black swan posts went viral and the collection editors were contractually bound to receive insane payouts from Medium.

I began to think of Ev Williams like Willy Wonka, and the Collection Editors as the golden ticket “winners” in his chocolate factory. We couldn’t anticipate what was coming next. We just had to make it through one obstacle after the other and stay alive.

Leaving the Nest

The technological development process at Medium this past year may have been rocky, but it was still fun, productive, and I’m glad I was a part of it. Whatever Medium becomes, I’m sure it will be awesome and that tons of people will benefit from the existence of this platform. As frustrating as it was at times being subjected to the technological process at Medium, what they are developing is still, sadly, leagues beyond almost every other online publication. At least they’re doing something. At least they’re trying, and I hope I helped. I hope this post helps the tech team better understand some of their users, and for contributors to understand what’s at work here.

Overall, this past year at Medium was an invaluable experience for LadyBits as a company and for me as a person participating in the publishing industry. The LadyBits team produced hundreds of bold, brilliant works here. We defined our identity a hell of a lot more, and solidified our value system, which prioritizes quality and editing. And the silver lining of working with a tech startup publication is that, as a team, we learned to be lightweight and adaptive, however painful it was at times.

Medium nurtured LadyBits in its infancy. It provided us with resources, support, and an ad-free platform. We’ve grown up strong and can fend for ourselves now. So with one last expression of gratitude, it is time for us to fly away.

Everyone at LadyBits is grateful to Medium for inviting us to be a part of this crazy experiment. Personally, I’m forever grateful to Evan Hansen, the Medium product team, Ev Williams, and to the tech community for understanding the value of LadyBits and for facilitating what we wanted to do. I hope that it continues to grow to support independent writers and provide a nurturing environment for innovative publishing projects. There are so many good ideas out there just waiting to exist.

Thanks, Medium.