Dear Mr. Stubblebine,
You can imagine my surprise when an email from the brand new CEO of Medium landed in my inbox.
Furthermore, I was really intrigued with what you said:
“The first reason I’m reaching out to you is because in my experience Medium has given mixed messages over the years about how it feels about our open platform. ‘Open Platform’ is the term we use for publications like yours that publish outside of the Medium paywall.”
You’re right on target. I’m the Managing Editor of the New RC Soaring Digest (RCSD) which launched at the beginning of 2021 and has just published its 20th monthly edition on Medium. This brought back from the dead the original, legacy RC Soaring Digest which published monthly and ran for 34 years continuously until being shuttered at the end of 2018. When I made the decision to revive the publication, I chose your platform with the specific intention of using it to make the ‘new’ publication available to RCSD’s readers free of subscription fees and any other direct charges.
Also in your email, you went on to say:
“Secondly, I’d also love to hear from you. What can we be doing better? What does success on Medium look like for you? We see a huge potential in Medium’s future, and want to help build it with you, so getting your feedback is the first step.”
Cool! Having sent in various suggestions to Medium since RCSD launched — and have them go more-or-less unaddressed — I am obviously keen to provide some input in response to your survey questions. However, I am reluctant to be constrained to a tiny online form, hence the ‘open letter’ format herein. So, without further ado:
Monthly Issue Support
Continuous publication is the demon spawn of the 24 hour news cycle and social media. These days, the premium seems to be on half-baked stories (or no written story at all!) along with shapeless heaps of uncurated, uncaptioned images and unedited video all pushed out as fast as possible.
From the very outset RCSD never intended to take this route. Rather, I made the specific decision to retain the monthly format. There’s a huge payoff in the delayed gratification of a carefully prepared publication eagerly anticipated by its readers. Our readers in over 90 countries around the world appreciate that, as do RCSD’s all-volunteer author cohort. It’s the digital equivalent of the Sears’ Christmas Wishbook landing with a thunk on the front door step — remember what joy that brought? That’s RCSD’s aim each month.
What’s needed is quite simple: enable the publication’s editorial team to do everything necessary to get the issue ready, but have the stories and the specific issue with which they’re associated out of sight until the issue is released. When the release date/time finally comes — click! — the entire issue launches all at once. I imagine other publications would require different publication frequencies: weeklies and quarterlies would also be popular choices, I’m sure, so that flexibility should be built in.
Also note that RCSD has put together workarounds which enable the simulation of a monthly reasonably well — but they amount to hours upon hours of repetitive and error-prone ‘busy’ work each month. I would rather focus of yet more high quality content rather than squirting oil on the Rube Goldberg-esque subterranean machinery.
“Chase a Loyal Audience with Quality Information…[and] Flourish”
In reference to their recent sale to Cox, Axios Co-Founder and CEO Jim VandeHei eloquently stated: “Chase fads, fantasy and clicks, you fade or famish. Chase a loyal audience with quality information, you can flourish.” That’s exactly our goal: to use the quality of our journalistic product to steadily build a loyal audience, and then monetise that in a way which reflects our readers values and sensibilities. That is to say, make the publication sustainable indefinitely while retaining the ‘coffee table magazine reading experience’ (see your last question, below.)
Highly specialised publications such as the New RC Soaring Digest, given that they cater to very narrowly defined market segments, will never generate revenues to sustain large staffs and high cost facilities. However, by employing the efficiencies of full-lifecycle digital publishing and taking advantage of the new work-from-anywhere phenomenon — a small core staff can potentially be compensated such that they are no longer providing their labour for free. While the latter is noble, of course, it’s fundamentally misguided in that it virtually guarantees the publication will continually pass from one caretaker to another until one of them simply throws up their hands and the publication folds.
Medium’s current method of compensating its authors — the paywall — is simply not viable for a journal such as RCSD or other, similar specialty publications. Readership numbers are unlikely to ever hit the minimum threshold to adequately compensate authors. To say nothing of paying the core editorial staff fairly for the significant work required to pull the authors’ collective work product into a cohesive, navigable and discoverable publication.
An entirely new revenue model is required and it must reflect the characteristics of the ‘nano-economy’ of the special interest group a given specialty publication serves. All this requires is to put some relatively simple new features in place with Medium.
The public television model — where interested parties sponsor an article or issue just like shows are sponsored on PBS — is fairly close to what’s required. This means the patron gets to have a little say at the beginning, and then another little say at the end, but otherwise they leave the reader the hell alone and just let them enjoy the article. The revenue from that would be split between the journal and Medium in some equitable way.
Coffee Table Magazine Reading Experience
I wrote about this in my In The Air editorial in the April 2022 issue of the New RC Soaring Digest. One paragraph in particular sums up the motivation for picking Medium as RCSD’s publishing’s platform:
“I have been writing on Medium for six years (nearly to the day) and what attracted me to the platform in the first place was its focus primarily on a ‘pristine reading experience’. If you imagine a high quality, coffee table magazine — you know the ones that cost $20 in the local bookstore — the folks at Medium seemed to have used that as their Prime Directive for what readers would see when they were reading stories. Seemingly not far behind was making it an easy-to-use platform for writers. They made it a lead-pipe cinch to make a story look good. That came with limitations…but on a net basis, I was quite happy to work within those limitations for all the time and energy I saved not tweaking format.”
The article goes on to say that the selection had worked out well until the introduction of Medium’s new user interface earlier this year. Although it is beyond the scope of this letter, for the most part, my conclusion was:
“So, the pristine reading experience which was a really important reason why Medium was chosen in the first place, has become the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.”
With the primary reason for selecting Medium seemingly out the window, and with a revenue model which simply doesn’t work and will never work for specialty publications as exemplified by the New RC Soaring Digest, the time to consider alternatives to Medium has seemingly arrived.
Have Your People Call My People
I am happy to talk with you about any of the issues raised herein, or any of the other intricacies of the specialty journal publishing field. You can reach me pretty much any time at the editorial offices of the New RC Soaring Digest. Candidly, there are a ton of additional points I would like to discuss, but I thought it best to tightly focus (for the most part!) on the specific questions you asked in your email survey. So lots to chat about, should the opportunity arise.
In Conclusion (and it’s good news)
Let me say just one last thing: this is far from being a problem for Medium. The exact opposite, in fact. It’s actually a huge opportunity. If you consider how many specialty publications are out there — each with their own, built-in nano-economy — Medium’s ability to ‘seize the day’ and extend the platform to meet the needs of this class of publications has the potential for a significant financial payoff for Medium over the longer term.
Thanks for your time today, and I wish you the very best of luck in your new role at Medium.
©2022 Terence C. Gannon