The Medium Model: Can Writers Live Large?

What comes next after unpaid microcontent? Try 4,700 words about foreskins, at about $3 a word. That, according to a source, is what Sloane Crosley supplied to a new project called Medium, from Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. Williams won’t pay you for a Tweet but, for now at least, he might pay you depending on who you are.

This moment of our disrupted future looks strangely like the vanished past, when "editors" paid "writers" for their "work" with "money." Medium, Williams has said, is “a system for reading and writing. A place where you can find and share knowledge, ideas, and stories—specifically, ones that need more than 140 characters and are not just for your friends.”

How do you get the sharing to start? Medium’s editors have been busy commissioning a bunch of stories, and some name-brand writers have taken them up on it. Felix Salmon recently wrote a piece about bitcoins for Medium, which picked up more than 150,000 page views. A book excerpt from Michael Pollan’s latest cropped up two weeks ago; a former spy is recapping The Americans.

If readers are paying attention to the buzzy stories, the theory goes, the unpaid users will follow the pros to the Medium platform, which has been described to us as a much neater, nicer WordPress. (Opening up a new publishing platform is not unlike the strategy behind Nick Denton's decision to move his professional Gawker Media sites to his newly launched, publicly available Kinja platform.) Medium is still in beta mode now, with logins provided by invitation only, but people who have used it say that the CMS is incredibly easy.

Williams has come up with successful products before: He co-founded Blogger, which he later sold to Google. Twitter is valued at around $10 billion and is expected to go public sometime next year.

Williams' commitment to publishing professional writing through Medium does seem sincere. Two months ago, Medium hired former Wired.com editor Evan Hansen as an editor for the site. Last month, Medium bought the long-form journalism startup Matter. With a staff emerging, and a well-respected publication on its roster, Williams dispatched his editorial director Kate Lee—the former literary agent famous for getting book deals for bloggers-—to go out and find some writers. Earlier this week, she said that Medium is looking to pay you, fellow writer. She wrote:

What we’ve been doing is paying some contributors at competitive freelance rates. As for why: Our goal is to make Medium the best platform possible for everyone to share great ideas or stories. This should certainly include those whose profession is doing so.

Lee is apparently working with a pretty nice editorial budget and the fees we’ve heard about so far are fairly competitive. A few contributors told us that they were getting 50 cents a word: a fairly standard freelance rate among established media outlets. And then there's Crosley's case. The author had written an article about circumcision for Playboy, a magazine-y tour of brises and the mohels who perform at them. Playboy killed it before it went to press, and the story found a home at Medium after Lee, one of Crosley's best friends, picked it up. Medium was delighted to have it.

And according to a source, the penis story of the year went for $15,000, a rate worthy of Conde Nast. Great news for the writing business, even if the principals don't want to discuss it. We emailed Crosley and Lee several times about the rate, and they didn’t respond. Gawker editor John Cook asked Crosley about her rate at the PEN Gala at the Museum of Natural History on Tuesday night. “I’m certainly not going to talk about that,” she said, before bolting.

Every year, there’s a new iteration of a new news outfit that can suddenly pay freelancers—The Daily! Gourmet Live!—and here’s the latest, with a good amount of cash on hand. Considering Williams’s fortune, the occasional $15,000 piece should be a drop in the bucket. And it suggests that the model Medium is turning to, at least for now, is a familiar one. It’s the blockbuster model. It’s the Vanity Fair model. A writerly rendering on circumcisions? Buzz! A respected business writer on a timely business topic? Buzz! Tina Brown would be proud.

[Image by Jim Cooke, source image via Shutterstock]