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One year on Medium: a journalist’s perspective

One year on Medium: a journalist’s perspective

What pros should keep in mind when starting out on this exciting but challenging platform
Traditional journalists will not have an easy time making a living on Medium — and that’s an understatement. But keeping a few things in mind can help when starting out on the platform. (Image: Andrew Neel, Unsplash)


It’s hard to believe since it really, really doesn’t feel that way, but… yeah: today marks exactly one year since I started publishing on Medium — with this laughably long, epic 16-minute read nonetheless, which unbelievably almost 500 people have read so far (thank you people!). It took some days of deliberation back then, to be honest. On one hand, I liked this platform as a reader. A lot. So it would be nice to be a part of it. On the other, as a non-native English speaker, it meant that I would have to invest a not inconsiderable amount of time on this while carrying on with my day job and a few other projects. But the COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted much in my line of work, some things taken for granted seemed uncertain at the time, so I made my decision and went ahead with it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I subscribed to Medium and enrolled in its Partner Program feeling — foolishly, in retrospect — rather confident about the whole thing. After all, why not? I’ve worked as a journalist for more than 30 years now, I have published countless articles in many publications, my grasp of the English language is strong enough… all I’d have to do is write the best articles I can about stuff I know, just as I’ve always done, and money would just start coming my way, right? Right?

Wrong.

It quickly became apparent that not only were not things going to be that simple or easy but that I should probably prepare for failure. Medium’s way of attaching a monetary value to articles is completely different from how traditional media work: everybody is competing, in essence, for readers’ attention and time. Journalists working in newspapers, magazines and most content websites of various types are not just unfamiliar with this model and these metrics. They are totally unprepared for them.

Fellow traditional journalists, take out your pads, time to jog down some notes! Nah, just kidding, Medium bookmarking will probably suffice. (Image: David Travis, Unsplash)


So! Instead of writing about my “journey as a Medium writer” or report my earnings in charts and graphs, I thought I’d do something actually useful. I’m putting into words stuff that I did not know about Medium way back in August 2020, so fellow journalists — not aspiring writers, not content creators, but journalists in particular — will have a better idea of what to expect when starting out on the platform.

Yes, it’s ten things. No, it’s not a “these ten things” list, it just happened to round up to that number. I think. No matter, here they are!

Medium is not built with journalism in mind. It’s sad, but Dylan Hughes is right: demand for true journalism is low on Medium. Yes, I am aware of the fact that Medium strives to be a content source focused more on “thoughtful” stories — and it does provide many of those — rather than on “breaking” or even “investigative” stories. Fortunately, there’s much room for publishing commentary and analysis on news, products and services, which is what myself and others try to do, but even that does not seem to be in such high demand as other kinds of articles are. The way big publications work also means that stories can take a day or two to appear online, making news commentary or analysis considerably less impactful as a result.

Demand for true journalism — in the traditional sense of the word — is comparatively low on Medium, but maybe the service itself could do something about it in the future. It wouldn’t hurt traffic or engagement after all, would it? (Image: Markus Winkler, Unsplash)


Maybe Medium would consider creating a “Breaking” publication at some point? As a service, it would remain focused elsewhere anyway, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to offer a section where journalists can publish stories relatively quickly. It might even work as a starting point for other writers to pick up stories they like and comment upon with their own stories.

If money is what you’re after on Medium, then being a writer works out much better than being a journalist. This difference has always been important, but Medium makes it even more so. As journalists we are being paid for offering our take on things whether it’s a popular opinion or not: if it is quality work, properly researched and laid out, referenced and cross-checked, then it’s publishable. But it’s not written in order to be liked and be popular in the first place. That’s not what journalism is about.

Medium writers — regardless of what the term “writer” has come to mean nowadays — quickly realize that the stories most likely to make money for them are the ones that have the highest chance of proving popular. So stories are specifically written in ways that help them become popular — people writing them, then, are more like “content creators”, in the sense that this content is created, first and foremost, in order to make money. Journalists can be writers, of course, and vice versa. But it’s an important distinction, writing a piece to express an opinion versus writing a story in a specific way expecting profit from it. These are not mutually exclusive, but it’s not the same thing either. People with journalistic experience who start on Medium in order to make money should be aware of that.

You can’t hope for many “evergreen” stories on Medium if you are a journalist. This is, of course, not Medium’s fault at all, it’s just the nature of this profession and the way stories make money over time on any platform. What journalists do is mostly report on or comment on stuff that just happened or is currently happening: their work has, by definition, a certain lifespan and reader interest follows that. So each story’s stats — and earnings — follow the same trajectory: there’s an initial spike of views, it may last for a few days, for a couple of weeks even if it’s quite important, but then views take a nosedive as this story’s subject is not in the limelight anymore.

On a fundamental level, journalistic work and “evergreen stories” are not really compatible — a fact that makes it harder for journalists to earn money passively over time. (Image: Anna Auza, Unsplash)


What many successful writers do on Medium instead is publish “evergreen” content: good stories that give advice, provide guidance, offer tips etc. on a variety of subjects not directly related to spectacular developments or fast-moving trends. Those stories may not “explode” at first, but they continue attracting views — and earnings — over time as interest in those does not wane that easily. By writing many such stories one could at some point create a revenue stream that’s more dependable than publishing news articles and commentary hoping that they become viral (they rarely do). Publishing “evergreen” stories is a smart strategy that works well on Medium. Journalists can try their hand on more generic stories not exclusively tied to current affairs, yes. But it’s not the same thing, so they should be aware of that.

If you are not “social enough” on Medium, you’re not helping your case. Sad but true. If you are the kind of person that never understood the mentality of “likes for likes” on social media, deeming it fake and ultimately unhelpful for everyone, you’re in for a surprise: “claps for claps” and “follows for follows” is a thing on Medium and so is “networking” with the “PR” sense of the word (not just the “we’re all in this together” sense of the word which is obviously worthy as well as useful). You may have to make a choice early on: dedicate a bit of time every day “networking”, if it’s something you can do without feeling uncomfortable and untrue to yourself or use that time to write more? Some networking will occur organically over time anyway, but actively pursuing it will help (especially at first). Journalists should keep that in mind.

You should engage with your readers, even if it’s not always pleasant. Traditional journalists are usually not doing this nowadays — or it’s something that they used to do in the past until the trolls made them throw their hands up in the air at some point — but it’s something that you definitely should be doing on Medium. Engaging shows that you respect the people that invested the time to read your piece, it shows you understand that you can’t always be right and that you are open to debate, it shows that you accept being part of a community that likes to share opinions totally different to your own.

Long gone are the days that journalists could not or would not engage with their readers. The Web is not a passive piece of paper. On Medium it makes sense to engage, so do it. (Image: Absolutvision, Unsplash)


Will there be people not interested in actual debate? Yeap. Will some trolls come around from time to time? Sure. But a lot of people are actually interested in exchanging opinions in a constructive way, so it’s worthwhile and important to engage, even if only for them. This is the Web, after all, not some passive piece of paper.

It’s nice to be able to write about everything, but Medium readers do seem to appreciate niche writers. It’s something traditional journalists take for granted because, well, in our line of work it’s a given: you simply can’t be an expert on many subjects. There is just not enough time to follow everyday developments in so many fields closely enough so that you can write about them from a position of authority. You can only pick a few areas of expertise that you are very good at and try to become the best at those: this is how you get recognized and this is how you get paid.

On Medium people think that writing about many subjects is very important as it increases their chances of earning more (presumably because they can submit stories to many different publications). But, at least in my experience so far, readers also like to read the work of writers who specialize in just a few areas of expertise. Their focus is something that adds weight to their choice of topics and arguments. They usually know what they’re talking about. Readers like that and journalists should strive to attract those readers on Medium.

There’s no “silver bullet” when it comes to success on Medium. It’s not just how often you publish, it’s not just how good your headlines are, it’s not just about curation, it’s not just about large publications, it’s not just about writing about a wide variety of subjects, it’s not just about reader engagement. It’s all of those things put together and more. Some of those things may work on their own, but it won’t always be the same things that work for all stories. It’s an algorithm you can’t “game”, supported by curators who often handpick stories based on a variety of other factors. Accept it and just focus on producing your best work. There are no shortcuts, but publishing good stories consistently will yield results at some point.

Quality over quantity, yes, but you do have to publish regularly. Just like many other people, I wasted a not inconsiderable amount of time reading “how to make it” stories on Medium during the first six months or so — and this is the only piece of advice common between them that actually proved to be true (in my case at least). It’s all well and good, trying to only publish excellent stories on Medium, but if you do that e.g. four times a month, it’s not going to be enough. Many would argue that it’s preferable to churning out garbage four times a day and publishing it just to stick to an arbitrary schedule — journalists would not want to do that anyway — but there’s a balance between these extremes that everyone has to find for themselves.

How many quality stories a journalist can publish within a given timeframe depends on a number of factors, but Medium does like consistency. Strive to offer that. (Image: Markus Winkler, Unsplash)


I personally find that (depending on whether you treat Medium as a side hustle or your main gig) publishing once a day or five times a week allows for all published stories to be of acceptable quality or higher while offering to one’s readers a steady flow of interesting, strong content. Other journalists might be able to publish more quality stories in a day. It’s all good, as long as it is consistent.

You should not expect to make a living on Medium in the first 12 months or so. It may be possible… if you are extremely talented and publish every single day, I guess? But even if you are a veteran at writing it takes time to build your audience, it takes some time to be consistently accepted in large publications, it takes time to “get in sync” with the platform in general. It doesn’t have to do with the quality of your stories, it’s just a process you will have to go through. Some money you may make in the first year, yes. But it’s difficult to publish so many successful stories, so early on, that Medium becomes a healthy, steady source of income for you fast. Journalists thinking that they may find a full-time job on Medium in a few short weeks or months should definitely manage their expectations.

If you do put in the work, the ball will start rolling. It makes sense, of course, but it bears repeating because — as far as I can tell, at least — what Medium does reward is dedication. Personally speaking, I had published about 50 stories from August 5 2020 to February 28 2021 with some success, steady curation but pitiful earnings. I decided to take things seriously on March 1st and published 105 stories from that day to today (almost one every weekday or so). Well, not only did I start earning more, not only do I progressively earn more each month, but I even got the $500 bonus for June and July (which I honestly did not expect). This without having stories in big publications every time or even having a large following yet.

Long story short: Yes, it’s doable to make — some? decent? enough? — money as a traditional journalist on Medium. It’s just that the time and effort needed to get there seems like a lot at first. And it is. Discouragingly so. But it can be done and that is what fellow journalists should keep in mind.

Setting specific goals on Medium might not be the best advice to give, fellow journalist, but this is: focus on the quality of your work, be consistent, be patient and the ball will start rolling. It’s a matter of when rather than if. The only question is whether you can hold out for long enough, which each journalist has to answer for themselves. (Image: Markus Winkler, Unsplash)


What’s more, since this seems to be the $100.000 question these days, yes: I plan to keep writing on Medium after this first year. Definitely. I feel as if these 12 months have been experimental, the “beta phase” of my working on the platform so to speak. I am still learning every day, of course, but I can publish in a more confident, more effective way now. Others may need less time in order to adjust, others might need a bit more, it all depends — but most people will eventually get there by just keeping at it.

It might be hard for journalists — maybe harder than it should be — to succeed and make a living on this platform, but it’s also a meaningful pursuit. Being a part of a vibrant community of writers, many of which offer great content to read every week on so many different topics, is worth the effort. Nobody knows what tomorrow brings but, for the time being, Medium can work for journalists. Here’s hope that the two-year anniversary story comes to the same conclusion!

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