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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

NewCo Shift launches on Medium, bets on a new kind of publishing platform

April 18, 2016 | By Theresa Cramer – Independent Journalist @Cramerstrasse

John Battelle and Brian Monahan started NewCo a couple of years ago as an events business to shine a light on for-profit companies trying “to make the world a better place.” They believe deeply that the business world is changing, and that it is no longer enough to simply make money for shareholders. Today’s businesses—and, more importantly, the businesses of tomorrow—have to take their employees, consumers, and communities into consideration. Monahan, the chief evangelist, says, he and Battelle realized, “the movement around for-profit businesses trying to solve meaningful problems…deserved an editorial voice.” Now the team has launched NewCo Shift as its editorial wing, on Medium for Publishers.

When Medium—founded by Ev Williams of Twitter—announced its new offering for publishers on April 5, it launched with 12 publisher partners, including The Awl, Electric Literature, and, of course, NewCo Shift. According to Medium’s announcement, “This week we are rolling out new branding tools that will allow publications to customize color, layout, and navigation.” The buzz was immediate. For instance, Wired declared, “Medium Takes Aim at WordPress with a New Way To Power Websites.” Others wondered if abandoning standalone sites and throwing in with Medium’s platform was wise.

Unlike many of the other publishers joining Medium, NewCo did not have much of an editorial presence before the launch. Other than a few blog posts, Monahan says, “The website is more about supporting the events business. It’s not a true editorial presence.” So NewCo Shift did not have to worry about migrating old content (though Medium has built an app to help with migration). And even more importantly, he sees benefits to signing on with this new breed of publishing platform.

The platform
“It seemed like the right fit for us where we are in our life-cycle,” says Monahan. “Publishing on the open web is noisy and it can be hard to fuel discoverability and build community.” The walled-gardens of social media platforms didn’t quite fit either, but Monahan describes Medium as a “true platform.”

When it comes to Medium’s audience hard numbers are tough to come by. In 2015, Medium said it had 25 million monthly unique visitors, while ComScore put that number around 2 million. But founder Williams makes it clear that the company values “TTR” (total time reading) above all else—putting the emphasis on attention metrics, and not just site visits.

Hayley Nelson, general manager of media and product development at NewCo, says the decision to go with Medium was two-fold: “First and foremost were the audience, and the built-in network potential. As we ramp up our publishing efforts, Medium pushes our stories automatically to the network,” she says. “We have a great shot at getting our stories in front of more users by having the greater network of Medium users recommend or share our pieces. It’s like having a store front at the mall, where you get foot traffic, and having a store in the middle of nowhere. It’s a lot easier to get business if you are at the mall!”

Second is the tool itself. She says she’s never seen a faster or easier way to publish content. For a small start-up, this eliminates the need for a team to support the CMS or user interface and experience. “Medium takes all of that guess work out of the equation, with a truly elegant execution that incorporates best-in-class UX thinking about user engagement.”

The business
While NewCo Shift may not be a traditional publisher, the company is still concerned about monetization. Medium anticipated this partner priority, and launched with two ways to make money. Publishers can either host promoted stories from brand partners on their sites, or ask readers to sign up for a membership. Either way, Medium will share in that revenue. However, there is some room for publishers to get creative with their own monetization ideas. NewCo Shift has a “Presenting Sponsor”—which, at the time of launch was Adobe—who gets prominent placement on the masthead of the publication.

“We do intend to sell advertising,” says Monahan. “But right now, the focus is getting the site going.”

The choice to publish via Medium helps companies like NewCo focus on content creation, but it also limits what they can do. Currently, Medium is a closed system so they do not allow outside developers to contribute code or plug-ins. That means that there are many desirable features that won’t be developed until Medium prioritizes them.  Nelson says that while it may limit functionality, including tools that help with marketing, email promotion and traffic analysis which are available for WordPress and other systems. However, she believes that Medium’s approach “ensures a high level of quality and a product that is extremely consistent.”

The mindset
In a time when many CMSs seem to be getting more complicated, offering ever-more tools and functionality, some will find the simplicity of Medium to be a breath of fresh air. Nelson says that, “compared to the content management systems that some large, legacy publishers use, it is night and day.” She describes the Medium offering as light and utilitarian with a focus on essential functionality.

“Legacy CMS systems typically have terrible UX for the writers and editors who work in the system. They can be extremely painful and time consuming to use. Medium gives back hours in the day when it comes to efficiency,” says Nelson. Nonetheless, Medium will not likely be replacing legacy CMSs just yet, but Nelson thinks the platform has a place in the strategies of established publishers.

She says it makes sense for any publisher “to build community around an element of their coverage. It may not make sense as a replacement for them, but rather, as a complement.” She notes that many publishers are already experimenting with sharing content through Medium—often as a way to reach new audiences.

Ultimately, Medium may prove to be the starter-CMS of choice for many new and small publishers. What may be most interesting, however, is to see if Medium for Publishers grows alongside its users’ needs (i.e. content personalization, A/B testing, etc.), or if the publisher partners will need to upgrade to a more traditional CMS when their needs evolve with reader expectations.

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