The New York Review of Magazines » Jeff Dooley The New York Review of Magazines Mon, 28 Jun 2010 15:19:22 +0000 en hourly 1 Friendlier Skies Wed, 12 May 2010 15:01:51 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley 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.

]]> 0
Anatomy of a Feature Story Wed, 12 May 2010 04:04:18 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley New York's Robert Kolker breaks down how he reported his feature on Captain Sully.]]> By Jeff Dooley

With blogs, news websites and cable TV jumping on and taking ownership of major news stories just seconds after they break, weekly magazines face a new challenge: They must craft creative and original takes on these stories in order to have a place in the conversation. “You either need proprietary sourcing or you need a proprietary idea,” says Robert Kolker, a contributing editor for New York magazine. When editor-in-chief Adam Moss tapped Kolker to cover Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s miracle landing on the Hudson, Kolker knew that the former requirement was out of the question — Sully was saving himself for 60 Minutes. So Kolker, Moss and deputy editor Jon Gluck got to work on creating a new idea. Kolker takes us through the process.

1) Follow the News
“The crash happened on a Thursday, and the three of us met in Adam’s office the following morning at 11. We agreed that the survivor stories were all starting to blend together — it was such a short flight that everyone’s story was pretty much the same. So, we decided we would try to write something about the pilot.”

2) Dig for Details
“Adam said that something on the cable coverage struck him, about how Sully was an old-school pilot, that he was flying by hand, and that that type of flying was a dying art. Jon suggested that we could also include a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment re-creation of the flight, explaining what went right. So I got cracking on both of those.”

3) Choose Your Angle
“I’d been around the block enough times to know that the group that would talk would be the pilots’ union. I got in touch with two different pilots who had flown the same type of plane and the same route a million times, and I had them take me through things second-by-second. Then I found an article in which an official read through the flight transcript, including time signatures. It wasn’t really noticed in the mass of coverage following the crash, but I used that along with the pilots’ interviews to create the chronological spine of the story. That’s where I got Sully saying, ‘My aircraft,’ which became the headline.”

4) Get Lucky
“The thought was that we could close the story on the following Thursday, so it would come out 10 days after the crash. But then the situation with Caroline Kennedy and New York’s governor, David Paterson, about who was going to be appointed senator, was imploding, and my colleague Chris Smith was preparing a cover story on it that had exclusive material. So they made the decision to bump my story a week. That gave me an extra week to tease out the story even further, and then what happened was that Sully had made himself such a precious resource out there that he was becoming this folk hero, and it became clearer, especially in New York, that this guy had really pulled off a miracle. So they decided to put my story on the cover. It was really just a result of luck and happenstance.”

]]> 0
Fast Company Mon, 03 May 2010 20:35:16 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley Fast Company]]> By Jeff Dooley

Circulation: 723,230
Date of Birth: 1995
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $4.99

For Fast Company, the premise is simple: We’re the coolest business magazine you’ll ever read.

In fact, calling it a business magazine might not do it justice. It’s an ideas magazine, really, a place to celebrate innovation, a place, as the magazine’s website tagline reads, “Where ideas and people meet.”

Fast Company is a departure from its business mag competition in the same way it encourages its readers to stray from conventional business wisdom. It is loaded with full pages of colorful portrait photography, tightly written profiles and sidebars on leading innovators and eye-catching covers featuring charming young businesspeople (good luck finding any gray hairs on the heads of their cover subjects).

It’s more Wired than it is BusinessWeek. More big ideas than stock quotes. It’s for Don Draper, not Gordon Gekko.

Launched in 1995 by two former Harvard Business Review editors, Alan Webber and Bill Taylor, Fast Company originally had a focus on technology and a target audience of younger entrepreneurs. The same is true today, although lately it has forcused more on sustainability issues (the magazine itself is printed on recycled paper), and it is certainly not above tinkering with the formula during a time in which the business community and our economy are going through significant transitional periods. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the feature article “Switch: Don’t Solve Problems — Copy Success” (excerpted from a book by Chip Heath and Dan Heath) ran in the same issue in which the magazine unveiled a minor redesign and a new front-of-book section called “The Goods” (a celebration of pointless gadgets for the people who love them). With things being what they are right now, Fast Company has adopted a bit of a “we’re all in this together” tone. The magazine reads like one big self-help pep talk to the business world: The rules have changed, companies need to evolve and here are the ideas and people that will show you how.

The editors’ viewpoint is always to look forward and never backward, exemplified by two of its prominent front-of-book sections, “Now” and “Next.” The magazine does feel a little frothy at times; stories like “Can this dude make Microsoft look cool?” and “Ashton Kutcher is taking over the media world. Really” have a way of doing that. But that doesn’t mean it is a lightweight. The writing is consistently good and the magazine has drawn the praise of critics. Last year, Fast Company netted two ASME award nominations. One was in the general excellence category (of magazines with circulations of 500,000 to 1 million), alongside fellow nominees The Economist, GQ, Runner’s World and the eventual winner, Wired. The other was for “China Storms Africa,” a story by Richard Behar, which landed in the reporting category with two GQ stories, a New Yorker piece and the winning entry from The New York Times Magazine. Business mag competitors Fortune and Forbes received zero nominations, while BusinessWeek tied Fast Company with two.

Though critical acclaim doesn’t necessarily lead to steady profit streams for business magazines (see: Condé Nast Portfolio), it does suggest a validation of Fast Company’s premise. Its focus on innovation, flexibility and sustainability isn’t one that only businesspeople can learn from and appreciate — it can appeal to all of us.

After all, who couldn’t use a few more good ideas?

]]> 0
Dooley’s Reading List: Boxing and Reality TV Wed, 21 Apr 2010 07:03:11 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley By Jeff Dooley

Here’s what I’m reading this week:

Andrew Corsello has a tremendous profile of boxer Manny Pacquiao in the April issue of GQ.

One of the publications featured in my soon-to-be-released feature on in-flight magazines, American Way, has a story on New York’s Reality TV school.

Wired talks to Gregg Nations — the man responsible for keeping all the many, many facts straight, and the continuity preserved on ABC’s Lost.

]]> 0
Dooley’s Reading List: NYC’s Meat King and the Anatomy of an At-Bat Fri, 02 Apr 2010 07:37:42 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley By Jeff Dooley

Here’s what I’m reading this week:

New York has a great piece on NYC’s best meat supplier, Pat LaFrieda.

ESPN The Magazine’s Buster Olney dissects the psychology of a baseball at-bat.

United Airlines’ in-flight magazine, Hemispheres (I’m writing about them as part of my feature on in-flights for NYRM) has a really well-done story about the Comfort, a Navy hospital ship that traveled to Haiti to aid people injured during the earthquake.

]]> 0
Dooley’s Reading List: Wall Street and Subway Deaths Fri, 26 Mar 2010 05:44:17 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley By Jeff Dooley

Fast Company (which happens to be the subject of my magazine review in the New York Review of Magazines), recently released its annual list of Most Innovative Companies, and Facebook is number one.

An interesting piece in New York on the impact that subway casualties have on the people driving the trains.

In case you haven’t already seen it, Vanity Fair has an excerpt from Michael Lewis’ book about Michael Burry, the visionary who made money off of the stock market collapse.

]]> 0
Dooley’s Reading List: Oscars and College Basketball Fri, 12 Mar 2010 05:39:30 +0000 Jeffrey Dooley By Jeff Dooley

Here’s what I’m reading this week:

In the March issue of GQ, Chuck Klosterman profiles the return of indie-rock band Pavement, after their decade-long hiatus.

Newsweek holds its annual Oscar roundtable.

Sports Illustrated’s Kelli Anderson tells the story of Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds and Texas’ Damion James.

]]> 0