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Local news publishing on Medium: Exploring pros & cons

by: Amy Gahran |

Sometimes, the effort and expense of running a website can hinder the work of informing and engaging communities. Third-party publishing platforms such as Medium offer some solutions to these hassles, with tradeoffs.

The recent relaunch of The Bold Italic, a popular local news and culture publication serving San Francisco, happened on Medium.com. In April 2015 the site was abruptly shuttered by its original owner, Gannett. TBI's new owners (the cofounder of a tech startup, and a tech writer) resumed publishing in August 2015. But not on TBI's original website. They moved the website's domain and content over to Medium, a free publishing platform created in 2012 by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams.

In their announcement of this partnership, TBI's editors noted: "In an age when more and more indie publishers are folding due to costs and basic economics, we want to find a way to keep The Bold Italic alive no matter what. Medium affords us that opportunity by giving us an amazing infrastructure to keep TBI going."

Medium is different from other popular platforms such as Wordpress.com or Squarespace, which are primarily web-hosted content management systems. For instance, Medium deeply integrates with Twitter -- not surprising, given its founder's ties to the social media giant. Also, Medium has a core focus on the mobile experience, with a popular app and notably slick and clean mobile web presentation. And finally, Medium has fostered a vibrant community of readers and publishers, similar in some ways to the Huffington Post and Tumblr.

Close interaction between publishers and readers is supported through Medium features such as in-line comments, private messages to publishers, and letters (alerts from publishers delivered to users' Medium inboxes).

Meanwhile, at Rutgers Univ. in N.J., Muckgers launched on Wordpress in 2013 -- but they're currently shifting all of their publishing to Medium. Joe Amditis, acting Associate Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, was involved with the launch of this venue for investigative campus journalism. The new Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab also launched recently on Medium, and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism also relies on this platform.

Also, Medium can be used for publishing collaborative projects between independent news outlets. For instance, the Dirty Little Secrets collaborative environmental reporting project, organized by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, was published as a packaged on Medium. Individual stories were also published on the websites of the news outlets that produced them.

On June 29, another collaborative reporting project will leverage Medium. Several Bay Area news outlets, as well as local residents, will contribute content via Medium to a day of coordinated coverage on homelessness in San Francisco.

Foundations and other organizations that support local news outlets are also starting to experiment with publishing on Medium, especially for reports. In March, the Knight Foundation published its first Medium report on virtual reality, followed by a report on mobile-first news.

Alejandro De Onis, director of digital strategy and design for Knight, explained that as Knight works to segment its audiences, it has found Medium to be especially useful in reaching tech-savvy readers.

"I look at Medium as a platform for thought leadership; it's not where we do regular day to day blogging," said De Onis. "We find it useful to publish there about trends in the field, and observations on developments in areas that we fund."

Among the advantages of Medium, Amditis noted, "Medium is incredibly simple to use, one of the most self explanatory and accessible publishing platforms -- and I've used a lot of platforms," he said. "Every publisher has its own space on Medium, and contributors can access that space with relative ease, via their own Medium user accounts. But the biggest advantage is the built-in audience. Medium has a big network which local publishers might not otherwise have easy access to. You can subscribe not just to publications, but to users, topics, and interests -- which strongly supports content discovery."

Medium's mobile-friendliness and Twitter ties are other significant advantages over what most publishers can accomplish with their own websites. Any Medium account can create multiple publications,

Medium analytics show publishers not just which articles were read, but averages for how many readers read how much of specific articles or pages. Statistics on recommendations to other Medium readers, or shares to social media, are also useful to publishers. At this point Medium analytics do not integrate with Google Analytics, but Medium is eyeing that possibility.

But there are tradeoffs with Medium that local publishers, especially for-profit ad-supported venues, must weigh. Chiefly, Medium currently does not support display advertising -- a key source of revenue for many independent local publishers.

Also, so far, Medium has no easy way to connect with geographically defined audiences. The only way to geotag Medium stories is by using one of the limited number of tags allowed per story -- which was recently increased from three to five. However, tags are also the only way that publishers can denote sections of a publication, so the pressure to use tags effectively and efficiently presents a challenge to local news publishers.

Regarding revenue, Medium does currently support native advertising and sponsored content (an increasingly popular option for indie news publishers), through its revenue beta program. Medium publishers also can opt to charge a monthly membership fee for subscriber access to premium content.

"We're in early stages of building a better advertising product, one that's not destructive to the reading experience," said Keren Goldshlager, head of publisher development for Medium. "Here's how advertising works on Medium. First, we have a Promoted Stories product, which allows brands to distribute content across a network of Medium publications who have opted in. Those ads are sold by Medium's team. Second, publishers are free to sell their own sponsorships directly. This may be useful for local brands that are interested in connecting with a particular group of readers, and not the entire Medium network.

Last fall, Medium announced it has partnered with several publishers, including New York City publisher The Awl, to develop and test new tools to drive discussion and distribute content. And in January, new publisher tools were rolled out.

One of these new tools is the ability for publishers to connect their medium publication to a Twitter account. Then, any followers of that Twitter account who also have Medium accounts are automatically added as Twitter followers of that publication.

According to Goldshlager, Medium is currently working with publishers to enhance content discovery on the network, including better ways to localize and hypertarget publications. Announcements on this are expected in coming months, watch the Medium blog.

Given constraints on advertising on Medium publications, a good bet for Medium publishing projects might be content that does not depend on ad revenue -- such as grant-funded or crowdfunded special reporting projects.

News outlets that are also exploring opportunities to publish and sell e-books, guides, or reports on local issues might consider Medium as a venue to disseminate teasers for this content -- something that many book authors are already doing. This platform is free, and expected to remain so for the foreseeable future, Goldshlager said. Therefore, experimentation could begin with a low investment of time and effort, and leverage the publisher's existing Twitter following.

Whether on Medium or other third-party publishing platforms, increasingly such choices can expand what local independent publishers can do with limited resources. Finding a small project to start with, such as republishing evergreen content on a new platform and comparing its performance to that of your website, may reveal opportunities that don't involve ongoing investment and effort in infrastructure.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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