The New York Review of Magazines

Friendlier Skies

By Jeff Dooley

In November 2006, Adam Pitluk, who is now the executive editor of American Way magazine, went into a job interview with Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine. He sat across from his interviewer, Jay Heinrichs, Spirit’s editorial director. Heinrichs presented Pitluk with a hypothetical: If you could have any job in all of media, what would it be? Pitluk looked Heinrichs in the eye and told him with a straight face that his dream job was to become the editor of an in-flight magazine. “And he laughed,” Pitluk remembers.

Heinrichs can’t recall the interview three-and-a-half years later, but he has a good idea of what it was about Pitluk’s comment that made him chuckle. “It is kinda funny,” Heinrichs says. “You don’t expect that people would dream as small children of becoming editors of in-flight magazines.” At least at the time of Pitluk’s job interview, in-flights were hardly seen as the pinnacle of magazine journalism. In fact, it’s probably not a stretch to say that they were about as appreciated as the barf bags with which they shared seatback pocket space. It was hard not to feel bad for your fellow passenger who forgot to bring reading materials and was left to flip through features like “5 Things to Do in Akron, Ohio.”

But these days, a few of these magazines are trying to change the way you think about in-flights. And why not? At a time of great uncertainty for the magazine industry, in-flights have some good things going for them. There are some 15 in-flight magazines currently attached to U.S.-based carriers, as well as countless titles for international and foreign airlines. The big five “legacy” carriers (United, American, Continental, Delta and U.S. Airways) are among them, as well as Southwest, another major
airline. Almost all of the work is outsourced (except at American Airlines, which has an in-house division) to custom publishing companies, many of which produce several different in-flights. The magazines enjoy the advantage of having distribution and circulation costs taken care of, and they can claim readership numbers that would make even the largest of newsstand titles jealous: anywhere from 3 million to 7 million readers every month (readership figures are drawn from surveys; airlines have many more passengers who don’t read the magazines). To make the deal even sweeter, many of these readers, particularly business travelers and vacationers with expendable income, are part of demographics that are very desirable to advertisers.

So, several of these magazines are looking to make the most of these advantages by offering something new and improved — a product that no longer settles for providing travel tips and being a voice box for its airline, but instead produces a level of journalism that can start nipping at the heels of the major newsstand magazines. The in-flights, you might say, are ready for takeoff.

To get to the editorial offices of United Airlines magazine Hemispheres, you have to travel to a sleepy stretch of Jay Street in Brooklyn, just two blocks from the East River and one block from the Manhattan Bridge. Once inside the building, you take the elevator up two floors, make a right at “Cha Cha’s House of Ill Repute” day care center, then proceed to the nondescript door at the end of the narrow hallway. The Time-Life building, it is not.

The office space is divided down the middle by white bookshelves stuffed full of back issues. On the left sit the staffs of Go and MyMidwest, two other in-flight magazines (for AirTran Airways and Midwest Airlines), produced by Ink Publishing. Ink is an international company based in the United Kingdom that produces more in-flight magazines than any other publishing house (29 in total), including titles for Jazeera Airways, Ryanair and VivaAerobus. To the right of the bookshelves, next to a pair of black leather couches and a small white table, the Hemispheres staff does its work.

Here you find Aaron Gell, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, working at his desk. Gell was the executive editor of off-beat culture magazine Radar when it folded in October of 2008, during “the beginning of the end of magazines,” as he puts it. A short man with dark hair, a dark brown beard and deep blue eyes, Gell has written cover stories and profiled the likes of Shannen Doherty, Shakira, Mark Wahlberg and Beyoncé. His “work-has-appeared-in” list includes Vanity Fair, New York and GQ.

Across from Gell sits Mike Guy, Hemispheres’ executive editor. Guy has been an editor at Rolling Stone and Details, and after his editorship had a writing contract with Rolling Stone that expired “right about the same time everything went downhill in the industry,” he says. He is tall and slender, with a cheery disposition and left-swooping, long-sideburned dirty-blond hair. Guy and Gell were both out of work when they responded to an ad on a media website seeking editors for Hemispheres. Some 2,000 people applied, and both Gell and Guy were invited to interview with Michael Keating, Ink’s executive creative director. Going into the meeting, neither had particularly high expectations of what the job would be like, but that soon changed. “I came away from the meeting thinking, ‘Hey, this could actually be fun,’” Gell says.

The fun part was being given the task of rethinking and relaunching Hemispheres. Keating wanted it to break away from the tired in-flight magazine formula and engage the passengers United Airlines was trying to target: higher-educated, higher-income travelers. That meant throwing out the vapid wine and golf columns, and becoming more discriminating about what constitutes a good travel feature. Their new editorial rule: “A place is not a story.”

The changes have been noticeable. The November 2009 issue featured a pair of well-written essays, one on the indie kids-movie trend, written by a veteran film critic, Gene Seymour; and the other, by Jason Gay (a former Rolling Stone editor and current correspondent for GQ), about his nostalgia for the days when the football team at his alma mater — the University of Wisconsin — was terrible. That issue’s lead story, written by New York Times contributing writer Edward Lewine and illustrated by the artist Kako, took a close look at what the Acai berry craze is doing to the Amazon rainforest. The December issue had an engaging story on female boxers training for the 2012 Olympics, and in April, Hemispheres rolled out an interesting article about a naval hospital ship that aided victims of the earthquake in Haiti. The quality of the writing, art and photography is a cut above what most people have come to expect from an in-flight magazine.

Changing expectations was also Delta’s goal when it rebuilt its Sky magazine from the ground up in April 2009. MSP Communications and Pace Communications (whose current clients include Spirit and U.S. Airways magazines) competed for the right to produce Sky. The team at MSP, including executive editor Sarah Elbert, put together a complete, fully-bound prototype, with a revamped look and new vision, and won the contract. “This is a brand new magazine,” Elbert says. “We wanted to redefine it, to move it past the stale reputation it had in the past.”

The upgrade is most apparent in the magazine’s art and page design, with shorter items and charts calculated to pull in readers who are just flipping through the pages. In the features section, there’s a new emphasis on timely issues and newsmakers. A recent issue contained a section on the White House that included interviews with several top staffers and President Barack Obama himself (though it’s worth noting that the interviews consisted of mostly softball questions pitched via e-mail; they weren’t exactly grilling the president on healthcare policy).

Sky’s offices are located in Minnesota, and while the members of the editorial staff don’t have resumes to match those of Gell and Guy at Hemispheres, they do strive to pull in top freelance talent. They signed up New York Times media columnist David Carr to interview Anderson Cooper for their January issue, and they offer a competitive freelance rate starting at $1.75 a word (Hemispheres offers $1 a word, sometimes less).

The plan is simple: Produce a better magazine, and the readers and advertising dollars will follow. While it’s too early to tell whether this new approach is paying dividends for Sky and Hemispheres, anecdotal evidence — such as reader letters — seems to indicate that people are enjoying the improvements. The editors at Sky quite literally see their magazine as competition to the newsstand titles — they’ve begun circulating for-sale copies in certain markets.

In at least one editor’s opinion, the changes being attempted by some of these magazines are nothing new. “In-flights have been trying to change people’s opinions of in-flights since the Wright Brothers,” says Spirit’s Heinrichs. “I think a lot of the in-flight magazines think they’re breaking new ground just by not running the reviews of resorts that read the same all the time, and articles on how the trendy drink of the year is sake.” He continues: “Don’t get me wrong, they can have some great stuff, but there are limitations.” Working within these boundaries is a challenge this new wave of editors has embraced however, to improve the overall quality of their publications.

“At its core, this isn’t really a revolutionary idea,” Pitluk says. “We’re just trying to make people more interested in reading our magazines.” Pitluk took over the top spot at American Way in October 2008 following a reshuffling at American Airlines’ custom-publishing unit. American Way is the only in-flight that publishes twice-monthly, and Pitluk has moved from having celebrity covers every issue to having them every other issue — with travel-related covers in between — in order to avoid the perception that the magazine is trying to “out-People People magazine.” Michael Woody, art and editorial director at American’s publishing unit, says he has been particularly impressed by Pitluk’s ability to take the results of reader surveys, gain an understanding of the types of people who are reading the magazine and apply it to the editorial pages.

All in-flights have to accept their airlines’ involvement in editorial decisions as part of the business relationship. Ultimately a publication has to satisfy its airline. The extent of this commitment varies, but the process typically includes meetings with airline officials who may critique the magazine. In-flight editors know they need to stay away from any material that may be offensive or strongly negative, and they certainly will not print anything that reflects poorly on the airline industry. They are well-aware of who pays the bills.

Lunchtime for Gell and Guy does not include meals at trendy restaurants charged to the company expense account. On this particular day, they’re at a sandwich shop with Layla Schlack, a Hemispheres senior editor, and Erin Giunta, the photo editor. They discuss the differences between working for an in-flight versus working at other magazines. “I think everybody’s really happy here,” Guy says. “And that’s in an industry that’s just historically fraught with misery and, what’s the word? Backbiting?” The consensus at the table is that a small staff size helps. Like most in-flights, Hemispheres has fewer than 10 full-timers, making their closing nights a far cry from the hair-pulling marathon sessions that Gell and Guy have experienced at larger magazines. Despite the prestige and excitement those jobs may have provided, both men are content to work at a very different kind of magazine during these perilous times in journalism.

“It’s true that, at the moment, people at newsstand titles are scared to death,” Gell says. “We have this cushion in terms of our distribution — we’re not worried about newsstand sales. That makes it a lot more fun, and I think at a magazine where people aren’t having fun, it’s really reflected in the content. There are areas where you can still have fun as a journalist. This was a place where I wouldn’t have expected to have fun, but it’s turned out to be that way.”

As Gell pushes a small, white bowl of unfinished French fries toward the center of the table, Guy picks up the thought where his boss left off: “It’s hard to find the intersection of earning a living wage and doing what you want to do,” he says. “And I thinkthis is one of the few places where you can have that right now.” He pauses for a moment, then begins to grow animated, a grin forming on his lips. “We actually do pay a dollar a word. We actually do pay people reliably. We have 7 million readers,” he says, his volume rising, his smile widening, “It’s the perfect storm!”

The staff of Hemispheres bursts into laughter. And why not? The idea that people might have fun while working at an in-flight magazine doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.

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