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 student, 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!

5 Replies to “The Middleman: Medium vs. Platform Cooperativism”

  1. Hey Jaz! Thanks so much for writing this and sharing your thoughts. I enjoyed reading this post so much, and I thought it was great that you found secondary resources to understand platform co-op a little more. I think it’s a great set up for readers who might not have read the articles last week.

    I’m very interested in your ideas, and I heavily agree that it’s only fair that corporations “take a cut for the services they offer, but this capitalist structure is not the only way of doing business.” I wonder then in a business point of view, what is the point of taking a cut then if it isn’t ultimately to benefit themselves. I sadly think it’s the intrinsic, innate, quality of businesses for them to be capitalist. I almost wonder if they shouldn’t take a cut at all. I ultimately believe that the benefit should be in the hands of the creator, as you’ve stated in the beginning of this post. Until then…

  2. Thanks for your comment Charlotte! Yeah it’s such a tricky subject, we all need money to survive, but looking for increasing profits all the time isn’t necessary!

  3. I really liked your focus on the middleman element of Medium, which I think is a unique take to have with this topic. You had a very balanced perspective that outlined the pros and cons of the subscription model (importantly the need to pay creators) and also how it could grow into an even more beneficial program in the future.

    You mention that people are not willing to pay for something that they can get for free elsewhere, and I agree, but it also makes me think of things like pirate bay and torrent, where people don’t need to pay for movies or tv, but Netflix is still a very successful company. What is it about print that seems to have less value in the eyes of consumer, I wonder?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  4. That’s a good point. I think people start to pay for content when the service provider is reliable, high quality and ad free. Netflix is a good choice for many because its faster than trying to find a torrent and the picture quality will be better. Perhaps the quality angle is harder to prove for article based content. It seems like a harder concept to grasp when talking about text.

    Thanks for your thoughts! :)

  5. I am loving that several of you have found the idea of platform coops attractive. I too think they offer a promising way forward that is less extractive than models like Medium’s. Your post is full of good content, and I do think the argument you make is sound. However, as you can see in some of my comments, there are places where i felt things could have been restructured to make it easier for the reader to navigate, especially readers not already familiar with coops or the issues at hand. Similarly, I think you could do more to justify your opinions on some of the issues. While in a blog post like this you wouldn’t be expected to provide a ton of evidence, a nod to a place where the discussions and arguments you claim are ubiquitous would help give authority to your piece.

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