How Medium’s Curation, Distribution and Paywall Systems Work for Writers

A detailed look at how Medium works, and some of the recent changes we’ve made

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At Medium, we are rapidly approaching the two year anniversary of the launch of , our subscription offering. Subscriptions are our primary source of revenue at Medium, and that revenue helps us fund great stories from talented writers.

Last April, our CEO Ev Williams published , where he outlined the two major keys to how the subscription business at Medium works:

  1. Put great stories behind the metered paywall.
  2. Help people find the great stories they care about.

Over the past year, we’ve been working on how we can find more great stories to put behind the metered paywall, and help more readers find and enjoy those great stories. Simply put, we’ve found that if we do both of those things well, our paying subscriber base grows. And a growing subscriber base helps us for readers — through our , our commissioning efforts, and our syndication partners.

In this post, we want to outline some key changes we’ve made to how Medium works and what they mean for writers. Before we get into what’s changed, here’s what’s not changing: Medium will remain the place that anyone can write and publish — openly and freely — on the web. We don’t charge for hosting, we never put ads on your content or share your data, and we will only put your story behind the Medium paywall if you choose to take advantage of Medium distribution beyond your followers.

There’s a lot more detail below, so here’s a summary:

  1. We curate every story we recommend to readers. In addition to distributing stories to writers’ and publications’ followers, we now have a team of curators who review and approve stories for recommendation on Medium through like , , . . . and even . We recommend stories to millions of Medium readers every day on our personalized home page, in our email digests, and in our mobile apps. Every one of those stories has been reviewed and approved by a curator.
  2. In time, most stories we recommend to readers will be part of Medium’s paywall. If you choose to have your story reviewed by a curator and recommended to Medium readers, your story will most likely be part of Medium’s metered paywall. We will give you, the writer, a link that you can share with an unlimited number of friends to let them bypass the metered paywall. And if you join Medium’s Partner Program, you can earn money from your story, based on engagement from paying Medium members.
  3. You can choose to participate in this system, on a per-story basis. Medium remains an open platform, and we recognize that many writers (for a variety of reasons) don’t want to have their stories be part of Medium’s metered paywall. So as a writer, you can choose at publish time whether or not you want to have your story reviewed by curators and recommended to readers through topics. If you choose not to be reviewed, your story will still be available to everyone on the web and will still be distributed to readers who follow you on Medium.

Over the past six months we’ve been beta testing this system with tens, then hundreds, then thousands of writers, and we will be rolling this system out to every writer on Medium over the coming week. For more details about how this system works, and some of the thinking behind it, read on.

We curate every story we recommend to readers

Medium exists to help readers discover great stories — smart thinking on things that matter. Medium shares stories with readers through two primary mechanisms: social following and personalized recommendations. Readers can follow authors and publications on Medium, and new stories from those authors and publications appear in the “New From Your Network” section on our homepage and in the app, and in the “From authors you follow” and “From publications you follow” sections in the Daily Digest.

But when it comes to personalized recommendations, we’ve learned that machines alone can’t identify and recommend quality writing. Machines need some help — from people with life experience and taste.

About our curators and our curation guidelines

Over the past year, we’ve grown a team of curators, who read and review thousands of stories a day. They identify quality stories and make sure that our personalization and recommendation system knows what each story is about. Every story that our recommendation system presents to readers on our home page, on our topic pages, in our Daily Digest and in our apps has been vetted by a curator, apart from stories shown to writers’ followers.

Curators use our to determine whether or not to approve a story to recommend to readers on Medium. The curators do not take claps or other popularity signals into account — just the work itself.

Topics power personalized recommendations

When a curator approves a story, they add that story to relevant topics, like Technology, Business, Culture, or Relationships. Topics help power personalization and recommendations on Medium. Readers can follow topics directly. We also learn what topics readers are interested in as they read more stories, which improves our ability to personalize a reader’s experience on Medium. You can see all of the topics that we’re currently curating stories into at , and we’re adding new topics all the time.

Curated stories are eligible for featuring

Finally, when a story is approved by a curator, it becomes eligible for more prominent featuring by our editorial team across our site, our apps and in our emails, as well as by our social team on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. whose stories we love, and workshop that story with them, by giving it a copy edit, production support and custom artwork. We want great stories on Medium to shine and reach as many people as possible.

In time, most stories we recommend to readers will be part of Medium’s paywall

If you choose to have your story reviewed by a curator, and it is approved and then recommended to Medium readers, your story will most likely be part of Medium’s metered paywall.

How our metered paywall works

Even when a story is “behind the paywall,” the vast majority of people can read it for free. That’s because, like most paywalled sites, we give some stories away for free. Currently, it’s three per month, but we are always experimenting with different numbers of stories (and different ways of presenting the meter) to understand how it impacts how much people read, and our subscription business. When a reader encounters a story that is part of the metered paywall, we increment the number of “metered” stories they’ve read that month. And when that reader has read their allotment of free stories for the month, Medium will display the paywall and prompt them to become a member for $5 per month or $50 per year.

How distribution and recommendation from Medium helps writers

When our curators review and approve your story, they add it to relevant topics. Those topics help power our recommendation system. We deliver a personalized list of stories to millions of readers every day. And we are always working to improve our recommendation system and make it easier for readers to discover the stories they love.

Recently, we improved our feature to make it clear how many story views are being referred by Medium, versus how many views are being referred from external sources like Google, Facebook and Twitter. That way, as a writer you can see how Medium’s distribution is helping your story get read.

Stats on Medium

Bypassing the metered paywall with the Friend Link

We know that writers have different reasons and motivations for writing on Medium. And we’ve heard from many writers that they have friends, family, and social followings that they want to make sure can read their story without encountering the meter or the paywall. This is why we developed the . When you choose to have your story reviewed by curators, we will provide you a custom link for your story that you can share on social media or via email with as many people as you’d like. Anyone who clicks this Friend Link will never encounter the meter or the paywall on your story.

Earning money through the Medium Partner Program

We believe writers should be able to earn meaningful money for quality work. We developed the Medium Partner Program to pay self-published writers for stories that strike a chord with members. Any writer can join the Medium Partner Program. If you are enrolled, your story will be eligible to earn money as soon as it is published, regardless of whether it’s reviewed and approved by our curation team. You can learn more about the Partner Program at .

You can choose to participate in this system, on a per-story basis

We know that many writers, for different reasons, don’t want to have their stories be part of Medium’s metered paywall. And this may sound counter intuitive given our business model, but we want to empower writers to make that decision for themselves. As Ev wrote in The Medium Model, “we take pride that we offer a level playing field for diverse voices from everywhere to be heard.”

How you can participate

As a writer, you can choose at publish time whether or not you want to have your story reviewed by curators and recommended to readers through topics. Here’s what the option for that looks like, when you are publishing on desktop web:

If you’re in the Partner Program, this is the screen you’ll see when you choose to publish your story. If you aren’t enrolled in the Partner Program, you’ll see a slightly different message that doesn’t mention earning money.

What happens if you choose not to participate

If you choose not to participate, then your story will not be reviewed by a curator, be added to a topic for recommendation, or be part of the paywall. Your story will still be available to everyone on the web, discoverable by search engines, and shareable everywhere links can travel. Additionally, your story will be shared on your profile, and will be distributed to everyone that follows you on Medium.

That’s a lot of info! And you may still have questions. To help, we’ve put together a , and our has a lot more information about the mechanics of how writing (and reading) works on Medium. You can also respond below, and we’ll do our best to answer the questions that come up!

We’re constantly experimenting and improving our product for writers and readers to make Medium a vital place to read great stories, learn something new, and understand the world better. We’re inspired every day by the incredible stories that are shared here. Thank you.

Avid reader, long time blogger, art nerd, Swiftie. I work at Medium.