Richard Branson on Rivalry with Rupert Murdoch: 'It's Not a War'

Richard Branson
Richard Branson
 Robert Prezioso/Getty Images

Virgin founder Richard Branson rolled out his monthly culture magazine Project today by declaring: "The future of publishing lies in apps not on shelves."

But the magazine for the iPad is actually the gadfly billionaire's second stab at magazine moguldom. Forty-four years ago, when Branson was 16, he and a school chum Johnny Gems, launched Student. Branson hoped it would be a Rolling Stone for youth culture.

It wasn't.

"The world has moved on in many, many ways since Johnny and myself launched Student," said Branson.

But he has equally high hopes for Project.

"It's the first truly digital magazine about creative people for creative people," Branson told reporters gathered at a press conference at Manhattan's Crosby Street Hotel on Tuesday morning.

Created by Virgin Group and U.K. publisher Seven Squared, Project is available for $2.99 per issue. The executive team includes Branson's daughter Holly Branson (special projects manager at Virgin Group), Giovanni Donaldson (founder of Virgin Digital Publishing) and editor Anthony Noguera and art director Che Storey, both formerly of Arena.

The inaugural issue features Jeff Bridges, star of the upcoming Tron: Legacy, Oscar-winner and at 60, Hollywood's elder statesman of cool.

"We didn't just want celebrities and rock and roll," said Branson, "though we will manage to fit a fair amount of that in."

The first issue of Project has about 100 "pages" of content. But it will not be static content, said Noguera.

"It will change daily, even hourly" with enabled links on each page. The magazine has brought several high-profile writers onboard as editors at large. Christopher Tennant penned the Bridges profile. Future issues will encourage crowd sourcing and contributions from users, an idea that Branson said he put down on "scribble note" when he was brainstorming Student magazine nearly half-a-century ago.

"We want to open source as much as possible," he said.

The magazine has four key editorial pillars: design, entertainment, technology and entrepreneurs. The first issue also features pieces on author Rachel Botsman, chef Rene Redzepi, game developer Yamauchi Kazanori and Soho House entrepreneur Nick Jones. Inaugural advertisers include Lexus, American Express, Panasonic, Ford UK, Ford Canada and Kronenbourg 1664. Editorial and advertising content will be interactive, naturally.

"You can actually make advertising really good fun to delve into," noted Branson. "I think from an advertisers point of view, it's going to make advertising 1000 times more effective than it was in the past."

The Bridges story includes an audio slide show of the actor reminiscing about various directors he's worked with. And a story about Jaguar lets users hear the engine and watch video of the car in action.

Unlike Rupert Murdoch's tablet newspaper The Daily, which has amassed a staff of 100 and is spending $30 million on its launch, Project's staff will stay lean with about 20 employees working out of the magazine's U.K. offices. Branson would not offer a dollar figure on how much money he is pouring into Project, but he noted that he was hopeful that "word of mouth" would help ameliorate the limited marketing budget.

"If our team has done the job right, and I think they have, bloggers will do the work for us," he said. "We definitely haven't got a Rupert Murdoch-size advertising budget."

Branson deftly deflected questions about an iPad publishing war between him and Murdoch. But the fact that Branson got his tablet magazine to market ahead of Daily, which is set to launch early next year and cost .99 cents a week, speaks volumes.

"I've read quite a bit about a battle I've launched with a certain newspaper man," quipped Branson. "It's not a battle. It's not a war. It's all about competition. And a fair amount of competition doesn't hurt anyone."

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