One of my recent weekend projects was moving the majority of my content from Medium to Substack. Here’s why I did it and how I achieved it.
Easing Away From Medium
The seeds of this move were sown some time last year, when Medium made a bunch of algorithmic and user interface changes that weren’t writer-friendly.
As a result it got harder to find content from people I followed, and they found it harder to find my content. That wasn’t helped by Medium encouraging me to change my username (I changed from shurleyhall to sharonhurleyhall so people would stop calling me ‘Shirley’), without saying that it would break every link to my previous handle. They claimed not to be able to fix that, when I know all it would have taken was another line in their .htaccess file.
In addition, my earnings from the Medium Partner Program tanked. Admittedly, the pennies were just a ‘nice to have’ for me as I’ve never earned anywhere near enough from Medium to consider it a real income stream. But it was covering my membership, and I was starting to get close to some better numbers. It wasn’t to be, though; the algorithms soon took care of that.
Having been around for a while, I knew that all this added up to what we should all know: that for most sites (especially “free” social media sites) we are the product. And that means we have to look out for ourselves. That goes double if you’re a Black writer or a writer covering anti-racism, because I haven’t yet found an algorithmically-driven platform that gives this type of content the visibility it deserves.
What set the seal on it for me were a couple of cases of plagiarism, and the ongoing content scraping that plagues Medium. I’m kind of sick of seeing my Medium content pop up translated into a language I can’t understand, and I’m also getting tired of filing DMCA takedown notices for that content.
Why I Chose Substack
In the end I decided it was time to put my content somewhere where there was less scraping and plagiarism but which would retain the advantage of minimal maintenance, which was one of the reasons I originally liked Medium. Between friends and family, I already have a dozen WordPress sites to maintain, and though it’s my blogging platform of choice, I didn’t feel like adding another one.
For similar reasons, I didn’t want to set up another email list. I wanted somewhere where I could put my existing content, and maybe add new content later. So I went with Substack where I’ve been hosting my anti-racism newsletter since August 2020. It’s been a pretty pleasant experience so far.
Using WordPress to Help With the Move
It turns out that moving your content from Medium to Substack isn’t totally straightforward, and why would it be, as they are rival platforms? But I knew I could import from WordPress to Substack, and that I could export from Medium to WordPress, so I wasn’t too worried. I needed a guide, though, to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and I found an excellent one by Hans Desjarlais of Themely.
I won’t rehash the guide here, but suffice it to say I started by following the steps. First, I exported my Medium content to a zip file, which had an HTML file for each post. Then I set up a free blog on WordPress.com. Then I imported the Medium content to the WordPress blog.
If you’re simply moving to WordPress, you can follow the rest of Themely’s guide. But since I was headed to Substack, I had a few more things to do.
Cleaning Up the Content
First, I had a look through the imported content, and deleted some stuff I didn’t want to add to Substack. That included one co-written article, as I didn’t have my co-author’s permission to publish elsewhere, and a few articles that I’d recently submitted to Medium publications.
Though I own the copyright to my articles on Medium, and have the right to put them anywhere I please, I thought it was only fair to let the publications enjoy solo access for a while. Once they’ve been up there for a month or so, I’ll probably go back and copy them into the Substack site.
Once that was done, it was back to Themely’s guide to follow the WordPress export process. This is straightforward, but note that you’ll have to publish the blog to be able to export it. If I were doing this again, I’d set the blog to private before publishing, to reduce the likelihood of duplicate content, but it didn’t turn out to be a big deal in the end.
Once you export, you get another zip file. Unzip it to find the XML file that contains all your content. This is the file you’ll need to import to Substack.
Strange but Smooth - Importing to Substack
The Substack process is a little weird, in that it asks you to input an import URL. I used the URL of the temporary WP blog, though it failed to grab the content from there.
Once it’s done that you can navigate to the XML file and import from there. I found it worked seamlessly to import about 500 posts. It brought the post images, too, and the initial result was quite attractive, except for the following things:
When you write content on Medium, you can embed URLs pretty easily. Clearly, those don’t work on other platforms. My content has the embed code and link wherever I put it, so that will be a cleanup job at some point.
The deck heads and photo credits appear next to the thumbnail as part of the post description. Not the prettiest, but also not a dealbreaker.
And, of course, internal links point to Medium content. Again, that’s something I’ll clean up over time.
Doing a Digital Cleanup
When I was sure the content had imported, I went back and deleted the temporary WordPress blog. If I’d been thinking straight, I’d have deleted all the posts first, as they say content may remain live for up to 30 days. However, when I checked back a few days later, the blog was gone. Then I went to Medium and deleted hundreds of articles, moving from nearly 600 articles with them to under 100.
I haven’t left Medium. I just plan to use it differently from now on, and publish on my own platform first. This is good practice for any creator.
Will Substack be my newsletter’s home for life? Who knows? Anyone who’s been around for a while knows that platforms come and go, and also change their terms of service when it suits them. Right now, Substack offers the minimalism that I want, and full ownership of my content, so I’ll stick with it for now. Ask me again in a couple of years, and the answer may well be different.
P.S. Though I had my reasons for going with Substack, the first thing I checked when starting my first newsletter there was that I’d be able to export both my content and subscriber list. If you want to know why, please read this excellent guide from Jennifer Mattern of All Freelance Writing: Revenue Sharing 2.0 (& Why it Still Sucks for Writers).
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.