As A Writer, I Think Medium Needs To Make Two Fundamental Changes To Its Business Model

  • Daily Editor’s Picks Should Equally Promote Free As Well As Paid Columns
  • To Read Columns Behind The Pay Wall, Add An Option To Pay $.0001/Word

By David Grace (

If you’re going to run a business you need to figure out a way for it to make money or pretty soon you will be out of business. Unless Evan Williams is going to dip into his personal fortune forever, that reality applies to Medium just like any other enterprise.

The strategy that your business adopts to make money is called your “business model.”

The two fundamental business models for information providers are

  • Advertising funded, and
  • Subscription funded.

Advertisers are sellers. Subscribers are consumers. Each group has a different set of motivations, biases and interests.

In a general sense, power follows money. Whichever constituency is supplying the cash flow, sellers or consumers, will explicitly or implicitly direct the composition of the information content.

Medium has decided to focus on the desires of the information consumers and adopt a subscription business model. All well and good, but every choice has consequences and they are not all necessarily positive ones.

Pressuring Writers To Put Columns Behind The Pay Wall

Obviously, if you’re going to make your money from subscriptions you want to convert as many free readers as possible into paid readers. One way you do that is by showing the free readers all the wonderful content they’re missing by not becoming paid readers.

Medium has elected to do that using its Editors’ Picks emails to only promote articles that are behind the pay wall. Medium’s refusal to promote quality, free columns has at least two negative consequences:

  • While only promoting paid columns might encourage some free readers to become subscribers, it trains many free readers to simply send the Medium Daily email directly to the Junk folder because they know that it will not contain links to any columns available to them.
  • Additionally, only promoting paid columns tells writers that they must put their work behind the pay wall if they want to have any hope that it will be promoted by Medium’s editors. Only promoting paid columns tells writers, “Don’t publish free columns any more.”

Sure, you can still publish free articles, but you know that Medium’s editors want them to die on the vine as a means of coercing you into putting all your work behind the pay wall.

Medium is now clearly moving toward becoming a subscriber-only platform. Sooner or later there will be a tipping point, and after that most of the free columns will disappear, and Medium will become just another publishing business focusing on widely popular topics in the competition for eyeballs. That’s not what it was initially intended to be.

Negatives From Changing From A Free-Content Platform To A Paid-Content Platform

There are some material down sides from Medium’s conversion from a completely free-publishing platform into a primarily a paid-publishing platform:

  • Content will inevitably be pushed toward mass-market tastes and topics. Just the opposite of what Medium was designed to do.
  • A paid platform will always have materially fewer readers than a free platform. On a subscriber-only platform, Medium’s writers will have their work exposed to a materially smaller daily audience.
  • Articles behind the pay wall can’t easily go viral to a wider audience.

On several occasions third parties have tweeted links to my columns. Had those columns been behind the pay wall, many of the readers of those tweets would have been unable to access my work, thus drastically reducing both my potential audience and the ability for my work to go viral.

Fix #1: Promote Columns Published Outside The Pay Wall

I suspect that a small percentage of Medium writers are earning a significant portion of their monthly income from their Medium articles. Similar, I think, to 90% of Medium writers, I don’t publish on Medium to make money. The whole “Put your column behind the pay wall to make a few dollars” pitch holds no charms for me.

Putting a column behind the pay wall may get me enough money to buy a nice lunch or dinner, but that comes at the price of shrinking my audience, exactly the opposite of what I want to see happen.

For me, and I think for many other Medium writers, putting our work behind the pay wall is going 100% in the wrong direction.

But I have a solution that

  • Won’t cost Medium any material amount of money, and
  • Will likely actually increase Medium’s readership

Expand the Medium Daily Editors’ Email

Pick a dozen fundamental topic areas — humor, sports, business, economics, politics, science, pop culture, government, self-improvement, etc., and promote one or two good columns in each topic area that are free and also promote another one or two columns in each category that are behind the pay wall.

For example, the Medium Daily Email might look something like this:

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Medium Editors’ Picks


****The Dark Side Of The Boom In Electric Scooters****

Can Uber/Lyft Survive The CA Court Decision Limiting The Definition Of Independent Contractors?


****What Factors Really Set The Price Of Unskilled Labor****

Why Generic Drug Prices Seem To Be Immune To Market Factors


— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Each Medium member would get two emails each morning:

1) Columns by people you follow or that are clapped-for by people you follow, and

2) Editors’ Picks free columns in the twelve topic areas and Editors’ Picks paid columns in the twelve topic areas.

If I’m not a paid subscriber, this email will still tease me with all the great columns I could read if I only signed up, but it will also promote the work of writers of free columns by giving their work a level of promotion equal to that given to the writers of paid articles.

Fix #2: Making Content More Easily Available To Viral Readers

Expand The Three-For-Free Program?

What happens if a non-subscriber clicks on a tweeted link to a Medium column that is behind the pay wall?

They may be given a free read under the “three free reads per month” plan but after that’s exhausted the viral Twitter reader is pretty much dead in the water.

The ability for my work to go viral is extremely important both to me and to Medium as a platform, and barriers to going viral are a huge negative.

Medium could adopt a policy of allowing members of the public to read columns behind the pay wall for free by simply clicking on a Twitter or Facebook link, but then people who didn’t want to pay a subscription fee would probably catch on to that trick and might do an end-run around the pay wall.

Or, Medium could amend its current “three free reads per month” policy to a more generous level of three per week or even one free read per day. But when you do that there’s always the nagging fear that giving stuff away will train people not to pay for it at all.

BTW, there is a counter theory that the more people use and like a product the more they will be willing to pay for it. One free article per day or every other day might, in fact, addict readers to Medium to the point that they will be more ready to pay for the privilege.

But I think I know a better way of enabling viral reads than allowing a non-subscriber to access a flat number of free articles per time period.

Adding A $.0001 Per Word Payment Option And Giving Viral Readers An Automatic $1 Credit

Another way to allow social-media readers to have access to Medium articles that were published behind the pay wall would be to give people an alternative to the $5/month subscription plan.

In addition to the “all you can read” subscription plan, allow people “bank” $5 and read as much as they want at the rate of $.0001/word. That is, if they read 15% or more of a 2,500 word column, that would cost the reader $.25. When the initial $5 deposit was down to $1, the reader would be nudged to add another $5 to his account.

If Medium adopted this mechanism, it could automatically give people who clicked on a Facebook or Twitter link to a story behind the pay wall a $1 credit in exchange for logging in to Medium with their email address. If and when that credit was used up, they could be nudged to refill their account or sign up for a flat monthly subscription.

Suppose this social-media reader didn’t sign up, but he/she did read enough behind the pay-wall articles to use up their entire $1 credit.

If they clicked on a Twitter-Medium link within thirty days of getting their used-up $1 credit they would have to add money to their account. If they clicked on a Twitter-Medium link more than thirty days after getting their used-up $1 credit they would get another free $1 credit.

The important thing is that if they read the column and liked it they might re-tweet it, thus bringing more readers into the Medium fold.

Personally, I’d prefer this kind of per-word payment plan, but there’s no reason Medium couldn’t do both:

(1) a $5/month all-you-can-read plan, and

(2) a $.0001/word option for articles where you read 15% or more of the text.


I think:

  • Medium needs both free and paid articles. To keep both it needs to promote both. The simplest way to promote both is with the daily Editors’ Picks emails.
  • Medium needs to provide free access to articles via social media links. An easy way to do that is to give people trying to access pay-wall articles some level of free access beyond the current three-for-free/month plan.
  • Medium will make more money and get more subscribers as well as increase access via social media links by adopting an additional payment mechanism of charging $.0001/word to read articles behind the pay wall.

— David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace


Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.