The Middleman: Medium vs. Platform Cooperativism

Medium describes itself on their about page as, “A customizable reading experience, made just for you.” They are selling themselves explicitly as a platform that is created with the reader at heart, focusing more on good quality content for users, rather than trying to please advertisers. To experience unlimited content, free from all ads and pop-ups, readers need to become members for $5/month or $50/year. If you’re one of the readers who signs up for Medium because you want to support good journalism, your money isn’t actually going directly to the journalists and writers, Medium also takes a cut. The idea of the ‘middleman’ makes us uncomfortable but it isn’t inherently wrong. Medium is simply providing a service that gives people a place to publish and find and audience. I believe that the success of Medium can be used as an outline for a platform co-op that would leave the revenue in the hands of the creators. In order to discuss this alternative business model I will first review why the subscription model is working, then how it could be transferable to a platform co-op model of publishing.

The Medium model has become very successful, proving that people are willing to pay for content that they value, despite the fact that stats suggest many Canadians aren’t willing to pay for news online. People will pay for quality content that they know will be engaging, credible, easy to find, or from a source whose personality they enjoy. This is great news considering the American Press Institute stated in 2017 that, “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly, as content distributors like Facebook and Google take up the lion’s share of digital advertising dollars.” So why is it hard to get some people on board?

There are many reasons why people are not interested in paying a subscription fee for journalism. Arguments include: they can find the same content for free elsewhere, they can’t justify the purchase given the number of other subscriptions they are already paying for, they can’t afford it, they don’t trust the source, and the list could go on. These reasons are justified but is there another model that has the potential to convert some of these nay-sayers? In comes platform co-op. People are more willing to pay for a publisher’s content when they are aligned with the values and mission of that organization. With discussions rising about Facebook and Google running the advertising game, people are become wary of giving their money to monopolizing giants, but what about a platform that they can own, contribute to the success of and really see how their money is being used? Platform coopertivism may prove to be a successful model for a new subscription\-based publisher to rise up.

Mai Sutton on Sharable defines a platform co-op as, “a digital platform — a website or mobile app that is designed to provide a service or sell a product — that is collectively owned and governed by the people who depend on and participate in it.” Since many of the readers who are paying for subscriptions are interested in supporting the ideas that they are reading about, there may be enough interest to create a platform that is owned and operated by a co-op interested in keeping the revenue within their community, ensuring that writers and journalists are paid equitably for the work they put in, without a middle man taking a cut.

As a publishing professional I see so much benefit in becoming a member of a platform like Medium. The audience, convenience and support is there, but it is a bit unsettling that Medium is walking away with a higher paycheque than the journalists I would be trying to. I believe that companies deserve to take a cut for the services they offer, but this capitalist structure is not the only way of doing business. I don’t think it would be easy to get right, but a platform co-op publisher would be an interesting model to see in action, and one that I could definitely get behind!