Publishers are using Medium to entice readers and try new types of content

When Washington Post writer Geoff Edgers wrote an article about tracking down a lost violin in March this year, he took to Medium, home to long-form essays and think pieces, to explain the reporting process behind the final feature. 

While the Post article was the finished product, the Medium article outlined Edgers’ first tip-off, the 75 interviews he conducted and how he uncovered a concert listing from 1980. “There are these feature stories that are hard to know if you’re going to be interested in just by the headline,” said Jessica Stahl, editor for social, search and communities at The Washington Post. “We posted this behind-the-scenes piece to Medium because the community is interested in really going deep on how the journalism was accomplished,” she added.

The Medium article for Edgers’ piece, “The Violin Thief” was “the perfect symbiosis between the idea of a reporter notebook and a long feature piece that you had to sell people on,” according to Stahl.

The Washington Post has been posting content to Medium for over a year but has been more actively exploring what works well on the platform and how it can be of value to the publisher for the past 12 months. It has posted a mix of content that has appeared elsewhere online (often tech-focused or more in-depth analysis), as well as more human-led stories and behind-the-scenes coverage from reporters.

Anyone can publish for free to Medium — some chose to publish there only — but the platform has been slow to offer routes to monetize for publishers. Its Promoted Stories feature is still in beta, and the platform couldn’t share details on how well it’s performing. Time Inc.’s Fortune has moved its contributor network to Medium, but Time Inc.’s Money, as well as The Atlantic Media’s National Journal, have all said they’d post original content to Medium but haven’t done so yet.

The Economist has, though. Since last week, it has been posting long-form articles every three or four days that have previously appeared in its end-of-year addition. These cover topics like history and nature, ranging from the New York flower business to the decline of golf. It will also publish a selection of essays that are due to come out in print at the end of the month.

Alongside these pieces, The Economist plans to publish more photo essays that tie in with features published in print and content from reporters, called correspondents’ notebooks, which include behind-the-scenes content on why reporters have chosen these particular subjects and other notes on their reporting. “That’s a very different type of journalism to what we usually do,” said Adam Smith, deputy community editor at The Economist.

Last week, it published an article on the hardest language to learn, which appeared in the 2009 end-of-year edition. The article has had more than 20 times the average number of reads than The Economist has seen on its previous Medium posts, plus around 450 recommendations and 20 comments. Previous pieces from The Economist on Medium have had around 50 recommendations.

“Medium is clearly an interesting but small, piece of real estate,” said Smith. “Partly it’s because it doesn’t have this overly complicated, jazzy navigation or loads of ads. It’s uncluttered and focused on the words, the ideas, so it attracts people interested in arguing about ideas. That makes it right for us.”

The caliber of comments is higher on Medium, as a result. For an article on low-skilled migrants depressing wages for everyone, people in the comments took aim at the methodology of the reporting, and the journalist who wrote the story jumped in to respond. “Because it’s a narrow Medium landscape, I can suggest to the journalists that they hop into the comments, and it’s not implied they have to do that on all our other platforms,” said Smith.

Posting to Medium gives readers a taste of what subscription publisher content is like. Even though it won’t necessarily drive huge traffic — in June, the platform said it had over 30 million monthly users, not a patch on Facebook’s 1.79 billion — but it’s always additional readers, people who wouldn’t have seen the content on The Washington Post’s site, according to Stahl.

Now to reach additional audiences, The Washington Post’s Historically Black project, initially user-generated content posted to Tumblr, then a podcast series, and a number of on-site articles, is being posted to Medium in different formats, like this post on key quotes from the podcast series.

And without being able to promise publishers that Medium readers will become subscribers, Medium continues to push out products that make life easier for publishers, like newsletter sign-ups and simple editing tools, to entice more to post more content so it to grow its monthly numbers.

“It’s showing it understands that if publishers are working in this space, it needs to create more ways for them to get value out of the platform,” said Stahl.

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