Substack And Medium: The Difficult Battle For A Future In Journalism

Medium aims to provide real opportunity. Substack is looking to do the same. Are both models flawed or is the system just broken?

“The role of publications — in the world, not just on Medium — has decreased in the modern era,” — Ev Williams, Medium Founder

In a column I wrote last week about the rise of subscriptions in news publications, I proposed the idea of social media companies following suit. With Apple set to change their privacy rules for third party tracking next month, the move towards subscriptions for tech giants TikTok and Instagram, seemed obvious. A small fee for a better experience versus dealing with constant privacy violations and increased ad targeting makes sense no?

Not so fast.

As obvious as the switch is, especially with how successful its been for The New York Times, getting customers onboard isn’t as simple. I proposed the idea to my friend Josh, asked if he’d consider paying for subscriptions for his social media. He balked at even considering the option. Says with all his other subscriptions, it would be too much. I get the sense a lot of people feel the same way he does. This dilemma — and reality — leads me to Substack and Medium.

From The Verge:

In a blog post, billionaire Medium founder Ev Williams announced the latest pivot for the nearly nine-year old company. Just over two years into an effort to create a subscription-based bundle of publications committed to high-quality original journalism — and in the immediate aftermath of a bruising labor battle that had seen its workers fall one vote short of forming a union — Williams offered buyouts to all of its roughly 75 editorial employees.

“We have published many stellar stories that found a wide audience and more than paid for themselves,” Williams wrote. “But our hit rate has been low, and we’re not near where we need to be to make it work economically.”

Here’s how I feel about Medium. I adore the platform. A writers dream. It’s exceptionally easy to use and publish with. I’ve been a member since 2016. It felt surreal when I joined. Exciting. Finally there existed a media platform where writers could flourish and find careers.

Again, not so fast.

“They believed if you write it, they will come,” one employee told me. “And it never worked that way.”

I’m guilty. I drank the Kool-Aid. When I began Track and Food on Medium I hoped that if I published frequently and did good work, readers would come. For the most part as the quote says, this did not happen. Yes, I do have some columns which reached in the thousands of views. Tock founder Nick Kokonas even commented on one of my stories. These successes, small as they are, overshadow how difficult it is to be noticed on the platform or how hard it is to make even a bit of money.

From The Verge:

Like most such efforts, Medium’s renewed push into original journalism in 2018 was greeted with optimism by the reporters and editors who were hired to build the project out. One editor recounted to me the joy at being told they could pay freelancers $1 a word — more than they had been able to pay at previous jobs.

The rest of their “publications” would comprise posts written on spec by an army of self-serve freelancers who uploaded their work to the platform in hopes it would be selected by an editor for promotion. This program, called “Amplify,” has become a core pillar of Williams’ vision for the future. Instead of paying full-time salaries and benefits to staff, Williams can use Amplify to get the content he wants at a fraction of the cost.

Amplify’s writers are paid a small and essentially random fraction of subscription revenue, based on how many people read their story. In theory their financial upside is unlimited, but in practice the program pays almost no one a living wage.

Medium began as a space where independent writers could contribute to a global journalism ecosystem, similar to Twitter. Unlike a traditional newspapers, anything could be uploaded. Ads were taken out with small subscriptions added to help finance the site and to pay its best writers, regardless if they worked for a publication or not. This model, as you can see, was never sustainable. Too many writers, not enough revenue and quality. In letting everyone on, great work became overlooked or undervalued. Most of what I came across felt as if it came from BuzzFead. Clickbait with little substance. Not ideal.

This dilemma — and reality — leads me to Substack.

Substack took off over the past year because, much how Medium felt promising for its business model, the idea of creating your own paid subscription newsletter on a platform where you could* be found by millions seemed tantalizing. The numbers early on were shocking. Thrilling.

From NY Magazine:

A tool for publishing newsletters, Substack grew in prominence over the past year as several well-known opinion journalists abandoned their longtime employers to start their own subscription-based, bespoke punditry shops on the platform. In most cases, this proved to be an astoundingly good business decision. There are apparently a great many journalism consumers who aren’t willing to pay $5 a month to support the work of dozens of journalists at a single publication but are eager to pay $8 a month to patronize a single blogger. Combine this reality with the exceptionally low overhead costs of running an email newsletter, and you get a formula for achieving the impossible: a hyperprofitable digital-journalism enterprise. Former Vox columnist Matt Yglesias, for example, is reportedly poised to rake in $860,000 in subscription revenue this year. Unless he’s paying $50,000 a month for his internet connection, his newsletter’s rate of profit dwarfs that of most any major media outlet.

Could is the word I want you to focus on above. Yglesias’ success was built long before he joined Substack. His career on Vox gave him the gravitas and brand awareness to immediately succeed on the platform. His initial payout from the company took away any and all risk for the jump. That’s all it was for.

Most won’t be so lucky. Hence the carrot in front of the horse. For Substack, his success and that of others similar to him will bring on new writers, myself included. The lure is that strong because there isn’t much else. There are only so many positions at traditional media houses. Local journalism has been carved out. Left in its wake is minimal coverage and even less opportunity.

From Pew Research Center:

From 2008 to 2019, overall newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 23%, according to the new analysis. In 2008, there were about 114,000 newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers and videographers — in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” (the best match for digital-native news publishers). By 2019, that number had declined to about 88,000, a loss of about 27,000 jobs.

So what can be done?

The ad-supported business model died when Google and Facebook took over. Subscriptions have been slow to develop and implement. It took the New York Times ten years to get 7 million subscribers. This will take time. Consumers have been anchored to the reality that the internet is free and because of this it’s been hard to get them change their behaviour.

From a Misperception column I wrote back in 2018:

Behavioural scientists have studied these past experiences for decades, most notably by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In their 1982 paper Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, Kahneman and Tversky looked at the idea of how past experiences, or priming as they would say, is an “effect whereby initial exposure to a number serves as a reference point and influences subsequent judgments about value. The process usually occurs without our awareness.” This essentially confirms the concept that your first experience with anything will invariably become the benchmark for any and all related experiences.

Medium will continue on. Williams will look to re-position it and hope profits can be attained, or he’ll sell and get out. For most on the platform, small amounts of money can be made, hardly enough to justify it ever being more than a side hustle. A select few will carve a niche. Careers possibly. Regardless, the platform doesn’t fix the issue of why journalists can’t find careers that pay. Medium, for all its positives is just a slightly different model, one dependent upon desperate writers all over the world giving away their work in the hope that something will hit. It’s more like gig work than anything.

Substack, however, could and should have a more positive outlook. Many will fail, but a few, more than Medium, will succeed. A monthly subscription at $5 a pop can turn into decent coin if you get 1,000 subscribers. The more niche one goes, the greater the possibility of growth. Nevertheless, Substack still is not the answer. The system itself is broken, similar to how work and whom we deem an employee is fractured. The gig economy is the result of how we’ve shifted. New rules need to be added. Subscriptions have to be implemented in a lot more places. Governments must get involved.

Investment in media and journalism is tantamount in helping foster an informed populace. In a 100 years we’ll be remembered for the stories we told. We’re in an adjustment phase of dispersion within our society. Things will get better. I’m hopeful we’ll solve this issue and that one day being a journalist won’t be such a soul crushing endeavour. Medium and Substack are steps in the right direction. Where we end up next might only be a click away.

Track and Food (Editor, Podcast Host) | Scout Magazine (Contributor) | Sommelier | NBA junkie and lover of a good cookie.

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