“Housty, print brand with digital presence, or online media brand with a print magazine?”

Each month we pose a question to the amazing Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, and magazine consultant extraordinaire, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question came from Sean Wood, CEO of Positive News.

Housty, we have a problem

“Housty, if you wanted to launch a successful new title in 2021, would you opt for a print magazine brand with a digital presence, or an online media brand that published a print magazine?”

It’s easy to look at that question and think, ‘What’s the difference?’.

But I actually think there’s a huge difference between a print brand with a digital presence and a digital brand with a print presence.

Look at The Week or Delayed Gratification. Those titles are very clearly print led. Their revenue is overwhelmingly print, heavily subscription based, and overwhelmingly dependent on a unique print proposition.

The Week, just like it says on the tin, delivers a carefully curated weekly news digest that people read, cover to cover, to feel like they finished the news. It promises all the facts you need to reflect on the last seven days and prepare for what’s coming next.

DG provides a much broader view of world events, but gives readers the permission to take their time. Within a luxurious aesthetic it revisits the last three months to offer in-depth, independent journalism in an increasingly frantic world. It says it’s OK to be last to the news, because you’ll understand everything better if you slow down.

An information firehose

Compare either of those with media business news site Digiday. It’s an information firehose, pumping out multiple stories every single day. The editors and writers at Digiday work hard to cover the waterfront in a busy industry news cycle, but they leave it to the reader to decide what stories they want to read because they know no one is ever going to read everything.

Before anyone reaches for their green pen of complaint, I know you can do slow, and curated and finishable in digital. Just like print can be quick or comprehensive.

But when Digiday’s magazine launched in 2016, then editor in chief Brian Morrisey told FIPP that the print publication was an opportunity to look at issues in depth. “Magazines are a great way to go deeper on certain stories and trends. They’re also a wonderful tangible expression of a brand, presenting what it values in a thoughtful way.”

Inspired to shop

Brand values drive many digital-to-print offerings. Porter magazine brings online retailer Net a Porter’s high-fashion ecommerce offering into the real world for readers. As a consequence, 85% of the website’s top customers are inspired to shop after reading an issue of the magazine, visit the website for longer and spend 125% more.

The obvious moral of the story is that print and digital are not, and should not, be mutually exclusive. Print-led publications have important digital footprints; The Week uses The Week Unwrapped podcast to give a voice to its editors and to surface underreported stories; DG keeps its quarterly print audience engaged with a weekly newsletter and has taken its real-world events and training courses online.

When Digiday launched its print magazine, the team described themselves as ‘optimistic realists’, believing in ‘the power of strong, differentiated brands that create lasting connections with audiences’. Their point was that connections can happen anywhere.

I absolutely agree, but I would also argue that it is crucial to focus first on what will work best for your audience, just as Digiday, DG, The Week and Net a Porter have all done. Build success first and then create complementary channels.

So returning to the original question, the answer to ‘Print first or digital first?’ depends on what your audience will value most.

  • Do they want their content fast or slow?
  • Do they want a publication with visible edges or a boundless information resource?
  • Do they want curation or do they want coverage?
  • Do they want inspiration or transaction?
  • Do they want something to keep on a shelf or are bookmarks and social shares enough?

How you answer these questions will let you know whether to lead with print or digital, but rest assured, you will end up doing both.


Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, and a freelance writer.

Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.