The state of paid media and Medium

Gotta love coincidental timing. Just after my post on the state of paid media, in which I listed oodles of things for which people are willing to pay and lamented that they’re apparently not willing to pay for newspapers and magazines (even in new media form), I was sent this link …

https://praxis.fortelabs.co/why-im-leaving-medium/amp/

The upshot of it is that someone decided Medium’s sort-of paywall wasn’t going to work, so he’s going to do his Niche Blog That Has 10,000,000 Paying Readers Who Also Buy His Ebooks. Invariably, such niche blogs fall into two categories:

  1. Technology
  2. How to make money on niche blogs about technology

But this piece got more interesting than the typical “I make $200,000 a year writing about JavaScript” piece:

Traditional newspapers had to maximize their potential audience by including “something for everyone” in each issue. Thus their pages include a wild diversity of content — crossword puzzles, editorials, comics, recipes, news stories — but most of it of mediocre or standard quality. This makes no sense in a digital world where the very best content in each category is just a click away.

Online media, despite being so different from traditional printed media, is still trying to maximize its potential audience, and in order to do that, going for quantity over quality. Look at any popular media website, and you’ll see a constant stream of mediocre, click-bait updates. This is because, until recently, the only viable way to monetize online was advertising, and making any meaningful revenue from advertising required millions of readers. Only the biggest operations could afford to play this game, so we mistakenly concluded that online media only worked for large corporations.

I said it was more interesting. I didn’t say it was right. He’s half-right.

The traditional newspaper business model is dead, but he’s too dismissive of it. Even today, I wouldn’t exactly call the New York Times crossword puzzle “mediocre,” and the Washington Post still carries the best comic strip today (Pearls Before Swine). In older times, much of what was in a typical newspaper was actually the best — admittedly, sometimes by default. It had the best local news except in the rare market in which the newspaper sucked and a TV station managed to delve into the issues. (Still true.) It had the best comics aside from Mad magazine — which, alas, is also disappearing. It had the best classified advertising by default, and local newspapers’ inability to cover the shortfall for losing that revenue is the biggest reason local newspapers are going under. I’m not sure how he determined that the recipes weren’t that great. In any case, in the 19th and 20th centuries, newspapers were a pretty good deal.

He’s absolutely right about clickbait and the difficulties of making money through advertising. I’ve always thought it’s a little silly that an advertiser will pay big money to have a logo on the right front fender of a race car but only hands over money to a local newspaper if they can come up with some “metric,” but I can understand why such money simply isn’t going to pay the bills. I once got $100 from Google Ads when tons of people clicked on the Olympic medal projections that took maybe 200 hours of labor, which may explain why I consider myself my own worst boss.

So, yes, it makes sense for any news organization that can’t bring in money on subscriptions (NYT, WaPo, WSJ) or donations (Guardian, ProPublica) to focus on a niche. Even ESPN is “niche,” though “sports” is rather broad, and their coverage includes live events and plenty of video highlights.

Then you can sell ebooks and other merchandise, depending on your topic, and you’re freed from having to game the system with SEO so you can get a million page views and make ends meet.

Here’s where he’s wrong …

People are going to tire of having a multitude of subscriptions.

If you’ve researched cord-cutting, you know how tricky this is. OK, so you’ve kicked Verizon to the curb. Now you have to pay for Internet access, and you’ll probably have to pay more than you were in your old bundle because you need faster speeds for everything you’ll be watching. Then you pay for Netflix. And Hulu. And HBO. And SiriusXM. And Spotify. And Pandora. And NBC Sports Gold (freelance client-shilling here). And so on.

And that’s just for video, which he notes has more pull for subscribers than the written word.

So how should we expect readers who already subscribe to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and/or the Economist to pay to subscribe to every blog we read on occasion?

The error here is a misreading of “freemium,” which he describes as “the practice of publishing free content to give readers a taste of what you offer, and then up-selling them to other products and services over time.” In some cases, that’s true. But it’s also the practice of opening your door to people who just want one story.

In another bit of coincidental timing, I was referred today to a Dutch news organization for an important soccer story. That news organization asked me for a subscription. Yeah, no.

A handful of services — Trim, Truebill and others — actually advertise their capacity to find all the things to which you’re subscribing and help you get rid of them. You’d think anyone who can read a credit-card statement could do such things for free, but go figure. The point is there’s a market for getting rid of the very thing this writer is trying to sell.

Here’s a little experience. Check your browser history for one day. Exclude the things you read for work, and exclude anything to which you subscribe. Here’s what I had today:

  1. PC Magazine (for one of the links above)
  2. A curling news site
  3. A local parents’ message board
  4. StackExchange
  5. The Nation
  6. A blog on a video game (ironically, a freemium game)
  7. A soccer satire site
  8. The BBC
  9. A soccer refereeing site
  10. Another soccer refereeing site
  11. A TV review site
  12. A Reston news site
  13. A Tysons Corner news site
  14. MacWorld

Now imagine that I pay $5/month to all 14 of those sites.

Now imagine that I pay $5/month to 10 more sites that I visit tomorrow.

And so on.

The “five free views” model has some utility. Most of a local newspaper’s content is going to be of interest only to locals, and that’s who the newspaper should target for subscriptions. But every once in a while, something will attract a wider audience. Maybe it’s something on a local sports team. Maybe it’s a weird crime story. Either way, there’s a benefit to letting everyone in on the fun.

If you’re counting on advertising to support all of your content, you’re probably not going to survive. If you’re reaping the advertising benefit of that one story that gets 200,000 page views, great. And if 10 of them decide to subscribe, so much the better.

I can’t really speak to Medium’s pay system, having not yet earned any money from it. (Haven’t really tried. You probably don’t even know I’ve posted on Medium.) And I can’t speak to this specific blog.

But in general — we have to find a way to accommodate people who “graze” for news from many different sites. It’s a valuable thing to do. One of the wonders of the Internet is that we can get different perspectives and chase different pursuits.

And frankly, those of us in mass media (which still exist) can’t afford to leave anyone out.

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