Facing shutdowns and stagnating readership, independent publications are finding new life on Medium
Neil Miller was in crisis mode.
At the end of 2015, the 32-year-old founder of Film School Rejects was watching the movie site he'd founded more than a decade ago slide slowly into stagnation.
Traffic began to plateau. Ad-blocking cut into the site's profits. The feast-or-famine cycle of digital advertising forced him to consider a major change — loading up the site with ads, cutting staff or even selling the site outright, something he said he'd never do.
But then, in February, he got an email that changed things.
"The subject line was just 'Film School Rejects' and Medium," Miller said. "And my first thought was, oh, this is interesting."
The man on the other end of the keyboard was Saul Carlin, the head of publisher development at Medium. He wanted to know: Would Miller consider hosting his website on Medium, the publishing platform known for its minimalist aesthetic and confessional essays from Silicon Valley types?
After a conversation with Medium's team, Miller was quickly sold on the idea. He eventually moved the website — founded on a shoestring in the late 2000s — to the platform.
In doing so, Miller joined a small but growing group of independent publishers who've seen their websites become revitalized by joining Medium. In recent months, as the company shed its publishing ambitions, Medium has launched a series of products aimed at luring news organizations away from industry-standard platforms such as WordPress with clean design, free hosting, no-hassle tech support and opportunities to monetize their audiences.
Here's what we heard from three independent publishers about transitioning to Medium, as well as the upsides and the downsides of that switch.
- Film School Rejects
Film School Rejects has its roots in the blogging culture that cropped up around movies in the beginning of the last decade. Miller, a film buff, was working at Best Buy and studying psychology at a community college in Ohio when he decided to start a website.
"I came up with the name, and it just started as a hobby," Miller said. "Eventually I figured out, 'maybe I can get into some movies for free,' which was pretty great."
The site gradually took off. He moved to Austin to take part in the city's blossoming film scene. He found two pro-bono writers, one in New York and one in Los Angeles, through a Craigslist ad. Eventually, the site made enough money for him to quit his "cushy" day job.
"Through 2013, we had two years of really significant growth, both in revenue and traffic," Miller said. "Our budgets got bigger, and we were able to expand the staff a little bit. We were able to expand what we paid per article — we tripled it. It really was the most prolific period of our time."
Gradually, the boom gave way to a bust. Traffic from Google ebbed. Competition increased. The use of ad-blockers increased, and staffers began leaving for other jobs. What began as a passion project began feeling like a job.
"It became something I could see myself waking up and not wanting to do," Miller said. "Which is silly, because I write about movies and television all day. I go see movies before they come out. I write about them. It's ridiculous to think about it as anything other than a blessing."
The switch to Medium, which came earlier this year, sparked many positive changes, he said.
First, and most importantly, it's helped improve the site's financial outlook. Medium has so far unveiled multiple ways to monetize readership: advertising, sponsorship and membership. Film School Rejects has taken advantage of all three, debuting a membership program, sponsorships and opting in to Medium's advertising network.
Although he declined to break out specific revenue numbers, Miller said that overall revenue is up. Film School Rejects now makes between 60 and 70 percent of its revenue from Promoted Stories, Medium's network of native advertisements. An additional 20 percent comes from sponsorships, including with the whiskey company Jameson and the online learning company MasterClass. Another 10 percent comes from memberships, which each bring in a minimum of $3 monthly.
More importantly, he said, the revenue is consistent. On the old site, there were some months when advertisers would pay tens of thousands of dollars for banner ads. There were some months when revenue slowed to a mere $1,200. By contrast, Medium has been able to project how much money its native advertising will bring in on a monthly basis, which has helped Miller plan.
"So we know if we sell a sponsorship, that's extra," Miller said. "That's more money I can put into content. And we have a good handle on where our budget should be going forward, which is often very tough because it would come and go, previously, in significant swings."
On top of that, Medium now takes care of the upkeep costs for the site: hosting, tech support and development of new products, he said. He no longer spends time on the phone working out IT problems or wastes money buying additional server capacity when traffic suddenly spikes. All that's allowed him to reinvest in the site, adding 10 weekly columns and a paywalled section that incentivizes membership.
Readership is another matter. Traffic has remained about the same since the switch, a fact Miller attributes to a few factors. Multi-page articles are now gone, which means longer articles that once garnered double or triple the clicks now only register a single pageview per visit. When the site first moved over, Miller noticed an initial dropoff in traffic he thinks probably arose from the site's new URL structure.
But the drop in raw pageviews caused by the pagination change has been replaced by referral traffic from the "Medium Network" a bump from crossover readership across Medium's loosely-affiliated websites.
"One of our concerns was: Is our traffic going to stay with us when we moved over?" Miller said. "And I think, for the most part, it did. There were some scary moments at first. It was like, 'Uh, this doesn't look like our old traffic."
Miller does miss one aspect of Wordpress, namely that it was eminently customizable. Before the switch, the staff could create custom projects, such as its movie review database. That didn't make the transition to Medium. But Miller says he doesn't have any other complaints.
"We've been really happy so far," he said. "And not just happy in a 'new car smell' kind of way," Miller said. "I feel less stress in my spine since we made the move to Medium, which is something I never thought I'd achieve."
And that's important, he said, "especially when you sit a lot in movies."
In March, Ben Wolford published what he thought was the last edition of Latterly, an online magazine he founded to provide social justice coverage from around the world.
The magazine, which was launched in November 2014 as a crowdfunding project, features work from freelancers who tackle serious subjects: Human trafficking, refugee camps and kidnapping, to name a few. All the money from the initial crowdfunding campaign and an online subscription program went to writers, who reported on-the-ground pieces.
But there were problems. When Latterly redesigned its website, readership didn't always follow. When people's credit cards began expiring, or Latterly changed its payment system, subscriptions dropped off. Revenue from subscriptions, which hovered between $600 and $700 per month at its peak, was "flatlining."
So, after discussions with his chief operating officer in London, Wolford made the decision to shutter the magazine. It was bittersweet.
"In some sense, I felt like it was a completed thing," Wolford said. "It was a success because we'd brought these great pieces of journalism into the world. My wife came home after the goodbye email and she thought I was almost going to cry. Because it was really creative, and a lot of people loved it."
But, like Film School Rejects, Latterly got a second wind when it launched on Medium in May. Total pageviews, which previously hovered at roughly 3,000 monthly, are way up; in July, Latterly passed the 40,000 mark, and Wolford expected to eclipse that by a longshot in August.
The traffic growth, Wolford said, is directly attributable to Medium's network of recommendations. Other than rare occasions when Latterly's stories were aggregated by large news organizations, the site had relatively few breakout hits. And because it was only publishing about three stories per month, the site had scant opportunity to go viral.
That's changed with Medium, Wolford said. The Medium Network has kicked in to help his stories find broader readership — especially those that surface in the "editor's picks" section on Medium.
"You give your stories more of an opportunity to hit, basically," he said. "If you've got a really good story and Medium's curation team likes it, they'll recommend it. And a Medium staff recommendation puts it in front of thousands of people."
Memberships aren't yet up to the level they were previously, but they're getting there, Wolford said. Latterly is not part of Medium's Promoted Stories program, but the magazine has ideas for other revenue streams, including sponsorships.
"The goal now is don't run out of money, make as much as we can," Wolford said. "And when we do spend money, try to spend it on things that are going to contribute to growth."
- The Bold Italic
The Bold Italic was dead.
The quirky website was launched by Gannett in 2009 as an offbeat foray into local digital journalism. But by 2015, the website — which drew readers with its sweeping vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge (since removed) and stories about local dining and culture — was kaput.
It was unwelcome news for The Bold Italic's readers, which held a wake of sorts for the site on social media. But for Sunil Rajaraman, the founder of content marketing startup Scripted, it was also an opportunity.
"I caught wind of this and when one of my friends posted a note on Facebook saying it was shutting down, I followed up and asked 'well, what are they going to do with it?'" Rajaraman said. "I managed to finagle my way into a meeting with Gannett. And a few people and I just bid on the assets of The Bold Italic."
Rajaraman and company won the bid and took over where Gannett left off. Publication frequency went down — Rajaraman and his small team work part-time, with contributions from paid freelancers — and traffic also decreased. But the site was revived. And, earlier this year, it relaunched on Medium, like Latterly and Film School Rejects.
The invite came after Rajaraman wrote a post about leaving his job as a startup CEO that garnered more than 300 likes and 20 comments on Medium.
About a week later, Rajaraman was already prepared to switch from The Bold Italic's old Ruby on Rails CMS, which proved tricky for staffers.
"It was a bear to work with," Rajaraman said. "Just an absolute bear. And there were no full-time developers. So looking at the code, you were just interpreting what four or five contract developers were doing over the years."
Like Film School Rejects, The Bold Italic is part of Medium's native advertising network. It makes money through network advertising and direct sales, which the website keeps 100 percent of. Through a combination of these revenue streams, The Bold Italic is close to break-even and "has had profitable months," he said.
Rajaraman advises anyone considering the move to Medium to think about whether they're big enough to afford a sales team that can attract and keep national advertisers. That's one of the advantage Medium offers smaller publishers who don't have the kind of scale their larger competitors do, he said.
"Can you sell national ad campaigns on your own?" Rajaraman asked. "If the answer is yes — first of all, you're probably not a local publication, and your aspirations are much bigger. So go for it. Build on your own (sales team). But if you're like the thousands of other publications like The Bold Italic out there that have pretty significant traffic — hundreds of thousands of unique pageviews a month — it doesn't make economic sense for you to build out a national sales team."
Including The Bold Italic, there are 30 publishers in Medium's revenue beta program, Carlin said. There are five publishers in Medium's membership program, including Film School Rejects and Latterly. According to Medium's website, the company has received nearly 400 applications for the program, and Saul says it's still on the lookout for publishers who produce "engaging, high-quality content."
"There are many publishers out there who fit into that context," Carlin said. "Those are the ones we're reaching out to and speaking with and excited to build partnerships with."