Start with Discourse, Not Metrics

Arikia Millikan, the founder of @LadyBits and an (now) ex-Collection Editor with the online site Medium resigned from the site this week. She wrote a powerful parting account of some of the challenges she faced, including an unpredictable payment system based on “clicks.”



Eris Biba, a former Wired magazine editor, also posted her frustration as a correspondent for the online tech magazine Medium Paid through a “clicks-for-pay” system. She described an experiment she had run. She appealed to readers to click more so she would be paid more. It worked. She got a lot of clicks. But it was not satisfying.

Medium Editor Evan Hansen has responded with a post of his own in Medium ( “It’s arguable whether the fault here is in how people were paid, how attention gets divvied up online, the proclivities of the Medium audience at this moment in time or a question of editorial judgment. It’s probably a mix of all four, and other more subtle things to boot,” he wrote and said Medium was shifting toward pay based on a new “total time reading” model (TTR). He suggests this new “metric” experiment “sets the stage for us to build durable business models, for writers as well as ourselves.”

This fascination with metrics to measure “engagement” reflects a similar emphasis found in the New York Times “innovation report” ( and in much of the preoccupation of the media industry as a whole with how to sustain a business model through strategic manipulation of audience interests.

For me, the approach to measuring audience interests (grounded in the search for successful business models) misses a deeper underlying demand from media users: the demand for a voice—for discourse.

Much has been written about engagement, discourse, connection, interaction, and audience participation. But such terms usually are couched in how to harness these principles for business purposes—the media business model.

Of course, there is every reason to want a successful business model that can sustain the activity of providing what readers want and need. The difficult is the starting point. Experiments like Medium and research like the NYT innovation report start from the wrong end. They start with business demands and try to figure out how to engage the audience/reader/user in order to meet those demands.

Human beings use media to get what they need and want. Writers from Heidegger to Gadamer, from Dewey to Rorty, from Hegel to Habermas have described how human beings use language, communication, and media. They describe how discourse changes understanding by confronting what we think we know with surprises—things we did not know. The result is a new way of understanding.

This is the kind of discourse that drives readers, users, and audiences to mediated communication. This is the “new” in “news.”

Finding articles, programs, and posts that can do that should be the goal. Such work is “creative.” It stars by understanding “curiosity.” It creates the successful business model from its own success with readers/users/audiences. This is the kind of “quality writing” that Eris Biba said should be rewarded. It is the kind “news story” that newspapers and magazines once paid handsomely to print. It’s the kind of creative programming that broadcasters and filmmakers hunt.

Begin with “discourse” rather than “metrics” if you want to create a successful media business model.

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