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Feb 7, 2024, 2:08pm EST

What Medium’s CEO has learned about technology and journalism

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The Scene

Amid turmoil in the media industry, online publishing platform Medium expects to post its first profit around the middle of this year.

The turnaround follows an overhaul of its recommendations system to move away from promoting clickbait, instead focusing on personal experiences that don’t come from the professional creator economy.

But other challenges loom. AI-generated content is proliferating on Medium, and it is fighting to squeeze companies like OpenAI for adequate compensation for using content published on the platform to train large language models.


In an edited conversation, we talked to Medium CEO Tony Stubblebine, who was the platform’s largest publishing partner through his Better Humans outlet before being tapped to run it in 2022. He replaced Evan Williams, whom he knew from their days of working together at Odeo, which later became Twitter, and was previously CEO of performance platform Coach.me.

Stubblebine laid out how Medium turned itself around, what he thinks of the media layoffs, and whether AI-generated content is any good.

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The View From Tony Stubblebine

Q: How did you shift from a loss to a profit?


A: We did have a Goldilocks problem. We tried it too high and too low. We spent a lot of money bringing on our own journalists. The impulse was obvious. If you take the logic of a subscription, it’s got to be of a high enough quality that people would pay for it. When you bring in a bunch of journalists, it goes against what makes blogging great — that you get to hear personal experiences rather than reported experiences. And the economics just didn’t work at all because it’s expensive to write about things that you don’t already know. That’s why journalists have to be paid a lot to get a high quality piece up. The reporting is really time intensive.

Q: You think we get paid a lot?

A: Per piece, it’s expensive. And yes, I’m aware the media business is constantly in distress.


Q: Do you feel guilty turning a profit in 2024 when everyone is getting laid off?

A: It is very counter-narrative even just for our own history to be doing well, and everyone else is struggling, including across tech if you’re not in AI. And this is already baked into the current growth trajectory.

We got rid of what we called “owned and operated publications,” and just leaned into what was on the platform, what we were recommending on the platform. The end result was we just paid for a lot of clickbait and content that otherwise wouldn’t even exist on the internet. That was exactly the wrong way.

The Goldilocks place is that we had to redo our recommendations in a way that would work for content that people find valuable, and put topic experts in the loop. So they’re out there just spotting people, whether they have an audience or not.

The thing that people find valuable is authentic personal experiences from people who know what they’re talking about. And those people tend not to be in the creator economy. The whole idea that you have to build an audience to be heard is sort of at odds with the people that are living a life worth talking about.

In order to spot those people, you have to create a custom system that’s not gameable in the way that the creator economy tends to game platforms.

Q: How do you get those experts to write?

A: The killer feature for them is distribution. Medium recommends stories about 8 billion times every month. And a lot of our job is [determining] what stories are in those recommendations. We had a lot of these authors already, and you can just see their behavior changes when their rewards change. They write once. No one reads it. You don’t hear from them again. They write once. They get distribution. They stay. I think we had been driving these people off the platform by giving all of our distribution and all of our money to creators who probably should be on other other tools anyway.

Q: And you pay them, right?

A: We do, but there’s a really important difference. The creator is trying to make a living, so they’re asking for almost a salary. Someone just writing that personal experience, it’s more like an honorarium. We started paying rewards on a per article basis, rather than a per author basis. And that works for this target.

Q: What’s the most people get paid for an article?

A: It could be above $10,000. It could be thousands of dollars if it hits.

Q: What’s the biggest hit of the year? Is it intellectual content or is it about Taylor Swift?

A: It’s intellectual. The top top story last quarter was one that would be hard to replicate. It was Barack Obama writing about Palestine, and he had more than a million views. The second most popular article was from the creators of the JavaScript framework, Angular. Here’s someone who really understands their topic. And it’s really going to resonate with people who care about that topic. I don’t use that JavaScript framework, so it doesn’t matter to me. But if it does matter, it’s really going to matter. And one of the other big pieces that blew up, but it blew up in a very niche way, was a group of philosophers responding to an open letter about Palestine. It’s a niche group of people in a very [specific] fight, but you’re hearing from the people who are actually in it. Medium is at its best as this incredible bundle of niches.

Q: I’ve been reading about how the internet is dying. The methods of distribution have changed. Social media, SEO, it’s not what it used to be. How do you get distribution?

A: I love that question. It’s almost like an opportunity, even though everyone will also experience it as headwinds. And the great thing about running a blogging platform is that people share what they write. Even if they’re just sharing it with their friends. The platforms where they did share might have shifted a lot. It’s still the case that if you write something that’s important to you, then you’ll do the work of sharing it. And that ends up benefiting everyone. All of those authors are working to bring readers, and that helps other people in the channels that they use change over time.

Q: Are people coming to Medium and just searching around?

A: Search, read more, recommendations, emails, all of that. That’s the fundamental currency for incentivizing people to write, and write more. Our fundamental job is to make the platform work to keep those network effects going. Because as you say, they’re disappearing from other places.

Q: Last year, you decided not to allow AI to crawl and use content for training. Has your opinion changed? One way to look at the Times lawsuit is it’s a contract negotiation that has now spilled into court.

A: It’s a contract negotiation, absolutely. And that’s why it’s been hard to get a coalition going. I think there’s a huge moral criticism of the AI companies, that they put all the content creators in a position where, in order to start the contract negotiation, they had to fight. There was a different way to do it, which was to get all this stuff negotiated before you trained. Our authors feel very deeply that it’s just fundamentally unfair.

There was no consent, no credit, no compensation. And that’s very different from Google, where we’re all happy with the exchange of value. Google crawls our content and sends traffic in exchange. With OpenAI, there’s not a single value you get back from having them trained on your content. It’s natural for people to opt out. There’s no reason for us to be here unless you want to come to the table and negotiate something.

I feel like there’s a competitive advantage coming, where some AI companies are going to do these deals and be able to train on better data. All that stuff can be really valuable to an AI company as they compete amongst themselves.

Q: What should you get?

A: A reason for Medium to be in the conversation is that we actually can represent the UCG [user-generated content] world because it’s already in our model to pass that money back. Whereas, if Reddit were to do this deal, they’d just keep all the money for themselves. Our negotiation is as a service for the authors. We’ll do the negotiation, we’ll take a cut for lawyers, and send the whole thing back to the authors.

We see how far away the authors are emotionally from wanting this money, because it’s not that much. What’s been put on the table is pennies per piece. It’s not going to matter. There isn’t a number that people will pay to make it matter. An AI company CEO (and I refuse to name which one, but you could guess) did offer us a low single digit millions of dollars, and our authors shrugged at it. It’s not nearly enough.

Q: You don’t think you could just keep it?

A: This company, when it’s run right, is win-win-win for all the stakeholders. So that type of thinking — “I could go sell data out from under the readers or out from under the authors” — it’s not necessary for Medium to succeed. If I think the other way, passing this money on to the authors builds trust.

Q: Are you seeing AI-generated content on the platform?

A: That’s the worst part of it. It’s not just that there’s no exchange of value. It’s a huge cost now. Spam got cheaper. Every couple of weeks, we test the latest AI detection tools. None of them are good enough for platform use. But the good news is that humans spot this stuff pretty easily.

But even if they’re misidentifying shitty writing with AI writing, it doesn’t matter. The whole point of having humans look at it is to find the stuff worth recommending. And this is one of the side benefits of putting humans in the loop of recommendations again. This is not why we did it — we did it because we think human expertise and human curation is really valuable. But as soon as the AI-generated content started showing up, it was the humans that spotted it immediately. So we have a lot of it on the platform, but for the most part, it stays out of the recommendations because it’s all trash.

Q: Is it just people trying to game the system and make easy money?

A: Yes, but they don’t make easy money. This is one of the ways that the creator economy went wrong. At the top end of the creative economy, it pulled people out of organizations that were already professional writers. That’s great for them. But the majority of it, and the reason we’re able to call it an economy, is because as an industry we’ve pitched a get-rich-quick scheme where anyone can just get rich by gaming the system.

There are a lot of problems with that, but one of them that people don’t talk about enough is that it’s a local maxima. You could grind $100 a month out of Medium with trash. It’s absolutely possible to do that. But why would you bother doing that when you could instead use writing to develop an expertise or mastery that people would pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for?

I had a tech writer complaining to me that their earnings [on Medium] had dropped from $175 to $75 a month. And I was like, you’re writing about emerging AI trends. You have this opportunity to be a recognized subject matter expert on a thing that people will pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars for and your goal is instead to protect $175 a month. You’re crazy. You’ve completely missed where the value is in writing.

Q: So the answer is just to make the writing better?

A: It sounds elitist, but if you write to impress someone important, a lot of times it opens doors. If you write for the lowest common denominator, you miss the opportunity to create real opportunities for yourself. The creator economy locked a lot of people into this passive income game that just doesn’t pay nearly as well as the other game, which is research something until you know more about it than anyone else, and then go get paid for that.

Q: What does that tell you about these layoffs in the media right now? Is it the wrong business model?

A: I’m pro-journalism, I think it’s really important that you have people shining a light on topics that otherwise wouldn’t have the light shone on them. Also, it’s a messy business. To be frank, it’s not my business. I’ve tried to get Medium out of competing. I want Medium to be a complement to the other great information sources on the internet. I want you to read something in The New York Times about Gaza, and then read more about it on Wikipedia. And then I want you to come to Medium and read about what it’s like to live in Gaza right now.

Q: We just saw Sports Illustrated finally bite the dust. Do athletes write on Medium?

A: Besides Colin Kaepernick being on the board? What I care about is going on in sports media right now, too. When the Tour de France is going on, I like hearing from George Hincapie. I don’t know how you feel about Lance Armstrong. You might not be able to listen to that podcast [I don’t], but he’s texting with people and telling you what they were actually thinking. He’s telling you from personal experience and they’ve kind of replaced a certain type of pundit journalism. I don’t want to hear what Stephen A. Smith thinks about basketball if there’s five different NBA player podcasts right now. It’s an upgrade overall. But I think it’s getting rebalanced. The wrong turn was probably the ad-driven attention economy. Those incentives are all wrong, and the pendulum is swinging away from that.

But athletes have The Players’ Tribune and The Athletic. And also, they’re better on video. The stuff that makes me feel like Medium is singing for big audiences is tech and self-improvement.

Q: Do you think you’ll ever pivot to video?

A: I just had a board meeting. We’ve got a five-year roadmap and it’s all text. There’s something inherently healthy about reading and writing. I’ve been trying to land this joke. It’s never worked. But there’s a reason that Homer didn’t write “TLDR: Odysseus had a hard time getting home.” There has to be a home for people who just love reading and writing more than anyone else. I think we can do that.

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