Branson scoops Murdoch with digital magazine

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Virgin founder Richard Branson rolled out his iPad-only magazine Tuesday by declaring: “The future of publishing lies in apps not on shelves.”

Virgin Group head Richard Branson holds an Apple iPad as he stands outside New York City's flagship Apple store dressed in a newspaper suit November 30, 2010. Branson is announcing a multimedia magazine titled "Project" created specifically for the iPad. REUTERS/Mike Segar

But Project is actually the gadfly billionaire’s second stab at magazine moguldom. Forty-four years ago, when Branson was 16, he and a school chum launched Student. They hoped it would be a Rolling Stone for youth culture. It wasn’t.

“The world has moved on in many, many ways since Johnny (Gems) 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.

The first issue of Project has about 100 “pages” of content. But it will not be static content, said editor Anthony Noguera. “It will change daily, even hourly,” he added, with enabled links on each page.

Created by Virgin Group and U.K. publisher Seven Squared, Project is available for $2.99 per issue. The cover of the inaugural issue features Jeff Bridges, star of the upcoming “Tron: Legacy.”

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

It 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 a thousand 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.

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.

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 declined to give financial details, but he hoped “word of mouth” would help supplement 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 deflected questions about an iPad publishing war with Murdoch. But the fact that Branson got his tablet magazine to market ahead of The 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.”