January 20, 2015

Early in November, Lauren Cusick, a former defense attorney, was listening to Serial. In one episode, a juror explained that a defendant’s choice not to testify contributed to a guilty verdict. In response, Cusick wrote a thoughtful, persuasive essay about a defendant’s invocation of Fifth Amendment rights and posted it on Medium.

Cusick, who now lives in Japan, has a personal blog, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. She chose Medium, she said, because she had friends who used it to write about their areas of expertise and it seemed more professional than emotional outbursts on Facebook or Twitter’s noise. Plus, the barrier to entry was nil.

“I used their formatting tools, which were super easy,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to be able to able to use pull-quotes. It looked like a real magazine article.”

Submitting a story to Medium is quite simple. (Screenshot from Medium's site)

Submitting a story to Medium is quite simple. (Screenshot from Medium’s site)

Her essay was added to the “For the Love of Podcast” collection on Medium, and, as of early December, had generated nearly 1,700 views and 905 reads, according to Medium’s analytics. The read ratio – the percentage of people who read the article all the way through – was 54 percent.

Cusick’s piece may not have attracted a ton of attention, but such is the fate of most of the content published by unknown writers on platforms like Medium, Creatavist, Gawker’s Kinja, or Buzzfeed Community. The publisher gets free or low-cost content and the writer gets a content management system that lends their words a professional veneer.

Not all platishers have the same model, of course. The Atavist licenses its publishing platform, Creatavist, to paying customers. Legacy magazines like Esquire and online publications like Tablet use Creatavist to present stories in an immersive digital format without having to hire a Snow Crash-like team of developers. Gawker’s “Recruits” program” compensates select Kinja contributors and uses the platform as a talent source.

But except for better interfaces and the advanced sharing tools of social media, many of these platishers — the portmanteau of the publisher-platform hybrid – institutionalize a two-tiered system of content creators. The majority is content created by people like Cusick. They have something to say and no big outlet of their own, so they utilize the tools these platishers provide. That’s exactly what appealed to Cusick. “I wasn’t interested in going through everything you need to go through to publish those thoughts,” she said.

The “everything you need to do” is the familiar editorial structure: Pitch, report, write, revise. And the big difference between that approach and Cusick’s is that writers who work within the traditional framework are the ones who get paid.

Medium’s director of content, Kate Lee, contends that amateur writers are attracted to platforms like Medium because they look and work better than a Tumblr or a WordPress blog and offer the potential of a larger audience. “For a non-professional, they can write something and it really looks good. It doesn’t look amateur. It looks professional. That’s an appeal,” she said. “There’s a potential to reach an audience that might not be coming to their individual website.”

Creatavist serves both individuals and publications, but for now the onus is on users to promote their own work, co-founder Evan Ratliff said. “There are a lot of individuals using it you wouldn’t come across unless you were sort of specifically in their world and they link to something. For individuals, it’s more about: You can make the thing you want to make and then share it with everyone,” he explained.

“The kind of place where our platform lives is a place in which you can design things to be your own,” he said. “And that’s very conducive to all the news organizations, or non-profits, using it to do their highly-designed storytelling, because you can make something look really beautiful.”

Amateur writers who aspire to earn money for their work writing can use tools like Medium or Kinja to attract the attention of an editor – the kind that pays. Ratliff said good content – often utilizing original reporting  – still breaks through. “I’m amazed at the extent things get surfaced in my world from publications and places that I don’t know, I’ve never heard of,” he said. “When Ferguson happened, there became go-to people doing stories on that. And so, now I follow those people. That’s the kind of thing that I would say, “Oh, I wonder if we could get that person to do a longer piece,” sort of on that or something else.”

At Medium, Kate Lee recruits writers for Medium much the same way she sought clients as an agent. “I very much utilize the skills that I developed when I was an agent, which is spotting talents, working with writers, … identifying what’s happening, who would be appropriate to write something based on what’s happening in the news,” she said.

Assigned pieces come with a price tag. In a 2013 Medium post, Kate Lee wrote that some contributors were paid competitive rates and solicited pitches “from experienced professional magazine writers for reported features and investigative articles.” Paid assignments, at Medium, the Atavist, and elsewhere come not only with compensation, but with editorial and promotional services as well.

The open-access allows anyone to publish, but it doesn’t allow everyone to flourish. Certainly there are success stories, like Gawker’s “Fittish” site that came out of the Recruits program, or the Dinovember post on Medium that spawned a book deal. But the look and feel of an accessible platform that puts your words next to the pros has its own appeal.

“I could imagine using it again,” said Cusick of her experience with Medium. “I was very drawn to having an outlet. I do have a lot of opinions.”

Aileen Gallagher teaches magazine journalism at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

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