Rupert goes on a mini magazine adventure

News Magazines Ltd is Murdoch's latest british media project. Camilla Rhodes, who is leading the venture, tells Ian Burrell how she plans to outwit her rivals by being fleet of foot
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The Independent Online

Camilla Rhodes welcomes you to News Magazines Ltd, the latest publishing venture established by Keith Rupert Murdoch.

Rhodes is a businesswoman of immense experience, steeped in the ways and workings of News International. So what are the watchwords of this new enterprise? "Small", "cheap", "minnow", "low cost" are hardly the phrases one might have expected to hear in relation to Murdoch's assault on the British magazine sector but, nonetheless, these are some of the signature terms of this fledgling venture.

Camilla Rhodes is a savvy operator, a former managing director of The Sun and News of the World and before that the MD of The Times and The Sunday Times. She thus chooses her words with care. She has staked a lot on this project, the perceived wisdom of which she outlined to Murdoch in a personal presentation.

"We have got to make this work. We have got to make the magazines financially sound," she says, emphatically. "We are not vanity publishers by any means, never will be. We are in the business of making money and building readerships."

Rhodes was given the green light for News Magazines only last September and already she has a title on the newsstands (the "real life" publication Love It! launched last Tuesday). It is not uncommon for publishers to take two years to get a new magazine on to the streets. "In a very short space of time we found premises, pulled together a team of people, concepts for the magazines, bought paper, etc, etc. It has been a bit of a roller coaster these past few weeks," she says.

The move from Wapping into the fancy environs of Chelsea's Kings Road is significant. "Psychologically it's good for the team to be in an agreeable part of town, close to their clients and suppliers," she says. "There's a tremendous buzz and excitement."

That said, the entrance to News Magazines is little more than a pile of rubble and visitors and staff are required to access the building via a back door opposite a Peabody Housing Trust estate. Chelsea was chosen, rather than the Soho, Oxford Street and Bankside locations of other British publishing houses, "because it was cheap", says Rhodes.

Asked if she and her teams are working to tight budgets, she responds instantly: "Very much so, absolutely." If staff at News Magazines are given the impression that their operation is not awash with the riches of a global media empire, then Camilla Rhodes will not be complaining.

"We are a very, very small start-up company," she says. "We are low-cost publishers and I think it's really important that you create a separate environment away from a big company culture. It's quite easy for a little minnow to get crushed within a much bigger operation."

Considering her own high-ranking status at NI, Rhodes is making a bold move, although she points out that she was involved in the 1985 UK launch of Elle. "This is a huge challenge but also a massive opportunity because I'm very much used to working in big companies. I must be one of the luckiest people on this earth to have been given something to start from scratch but with that wonderful safety net of News Corporation. Having said that, if I don't make this work I will be asking you for my bus fare home."

Conversely if the venture succeeds, it could warp-speed her career to even great heights. Following her successful presentation at Wapping, Murdoch will be watching developments with interest and is expected to visit the Chelsea site in due course. "Mr Murdoch is always extremely interested in looking at different ways we can build our brands and create new opportunities," Rhodes observes, with suitable deference.

She had best not entertain the News Corp chief in her office, which staff have dubbed The Morgue, due to its austerity. "It's very cold and very small, just the size of a dead body ... but I hope it's not mine," laughs Rhodes. "I've got the smallest office in the place but that's OK because I prefer to be out on the floor."

Rhodes wants her magazine division to be flexible and on its toes, drawing on the fast-moving culture of a newspaper business but not getting bogged down in the machinations of a worldwide enterprise. "My vision for the company is that we are fleet-footed. I don't know whether that's down to my newspaper background but I'm used to turning things round with very short notice. This magazine is an example of how quickly we've been able to build a vision and deliver it."

Love It! (the brand echoesThe Sun's catchphrase "We Love It") opened with much promotion in the Currant Bun, some corking real-life exclusives such as "Lust: My dwarf hubby's BIG in bed" and an agony aunt column from Cilla Black. Rhodes says: "There seems to be a huge appetite for real-life editorial, hence more newspapers covering that type of story each day." The rapid emergence of the magazine has taken rivals by surprise, she claims. Rhodes wants new staff to inherit the "quick and nimble" newspaper culture that she says is "in my blood". She says: "I just think it's a mindset and if you want to do it, you can do it."

Next month the new division will launch its second publication, Inside Out, a monthly interiors magazine carrying The Sunday Times logo but having a broader readership than John Witherow's newspaper. "All the research suggested that The Sunday Times logo was a distinct advantage which just goes to show the importance and power of The Sunday Times brand."

In the autumn she will make a foray into the women's weekly market with her third launch of the year. Her cautious responses give the impression it will not be primarily concerned with celebrity-based editorial. "There will be elements of celebrity in there, as you tend to find with most women's magazines now. But it's early days yet," she says.

Rhodes, who is working alongside editorial director Judy McGuire and reports to NI executive chairman Les Hinton, describes reports that her division has eight titles in the pipeline as "total rubbish".

Nevertheless, she is enthusiastic about the opportunities involved in moving from the tough newspaper market to a British magazine sector that is going through a golden age. "It has just exploded. There seems to be an endless appetite for more visual and written entertainment," she says.

She claims that NI produces excellent content in its newspapers and the time is right to take that content on to a new platform. "Couple that with the firepower of News International and its brands and the cross-promotional capabilities we have at our disposal and in my mind it's a no-brainer," she says.

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