Problems in the Publication of In-Flight Magazines

Paradigm Communications Group, where I worked as an unpaid editorial intern for three months from 22 September to 18 December 2008, is a small publishing company headquartered in downtown Seattle that publishes the in-flight magazines for Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air. Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, while operated independently, are owned by the same parent company and together serve a little over 90 cities in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Alaska Airlines Magazine and Horizon Air Magazine, both monthly publications, have a combined potential readership of 2 million per month (i.e. the airlines board 2 million passengers per month).

While some larger airlines produce their own in-flight publications, many offer contracts to external companies. Publishing companies like Paradigm that produce in-flight magazines for airlines typically bid on the contracts and pay a set fee to the airlines for the exclusive circulation rights. The publisher then generates revenue almost exclusively from advertisers.1

Paradigm consists of an editorial staff of five, an art/design staff of four, and a small administrative staff (publishing, advertising, management), with all of the feature content written by freelance contributors, most of whom have long professional histories with the company. The two magazines, while both published by Paradigm, share content infrequently, and sharing is usually restricted to feature articles. Alaska Airlines Magazine is typically around 250 pages, while Horizon Air Magazine is around 100 pages.

The company operates mostly autonomously, with the editorial staff in infrequent contact with the airlines. The life of a typical feature story starts with one of the editors shopping story ideas to freelance writers or vice versa, with the editor keeping seasonal timing and the content of recent issues in mind, in order to avoid repetition. Once the story is in a more or less final form, it goes to the interns for fact-checking and to the art director for layout while the editor finishes editing. Once the editing and fact-checking are completed, it goes to an offsite copyeditor who gives it a final proofread before it goes to the first of several stages of printing.

I worked 20 hours each week, and my duties, in cooperation with the other two editorial interns, consisted primarily of fact-checking and writing short, non-feature content such as highlights of events and new tourist attractions local to cities serviced by the airlines. Fact-checking turned out to be a time-intensive and vital responsibility, especially for in-flight magazines, as the retraction/correction model is not viable since readers cannot be expected to see consecutive issues. Virtually every word in every article had to be verified to a reliable source: either some reference, an expert in the applicable field, or a primary source for quotes. The process for fact-checking involved first dividing the article into its constituent parts and deciding with whom to check each part, then calling or e-mailing all the relevant sources and reading the material verbatim. This was not, of course, in any altruistic adherence to some ideological Truth, but a pragmatic accountability practice, and our sources were often media relations personnel to whom we could, if necessary, simply pass the burden of accountability.

The short articles we were responsible for writing were usually on festivals, museum openings or new exhibits, wine tastings, theater, and other events targeted toward tourists. The editors would give us the names and dates of each of the events and we were responsible for researching, interviewing any relevant parties, and obtaining art to accompany each piece. These assignments were usually restricted to about 200 words.

In the course of writing these short articles, I often had a difficult time imagining my audience. There was a very particular voice that our editors encouraged us to use that was never made exactly explicit. The reasons for this particularity are readily apparent: a certain breadth of appeal reflective of the variety of passengers is necessary, i.e. it is more important to shallowly entertain the many than to deeply and exclusively entertain the few. Further, it is important to offend, or even provoke, as few and as little as possible. There was a fine line on subject matter and even wording on a subliminal level, e.g. one of my colleagues had to rewrite a description of an art piece that included “an explosion of feathers,” a seemingly benign phrase and devoid of any real morbidity, but which holds the potential to conjure mental images of airborne catastrophe. In this vein we were generally discouraged from writing anything having to do with death or violence, but writing about Lincoln’s assassination in a piece about the bicentennial celebration was acceptable on the grounds that it was ‘historical.’

A seemingly inherent tension here suggests itself: balancing this need for broad appeal with the goal of targeting a specific demographic. This targeting is necessary to attract advertisers, the in-flight magazines’ primary source of revenue. The target demographic is the business traveler, who is affluent enough to have the money to spend on the advertised products. Crispin Thurlow and Adam Jaworski, in their 2003 article, “Communicating a global reach: Inflight (sic) magazines as a globalizing genre in tourism,” resolve this tension: “The promise made by inflight magazines… is an opportunity to buy into a way of life and a lifestyle which is… international, fashionable, and sophisticated.”2 i.e. to serve their target demographic with content while marketing the very lifestyle of the target demographic to those outside of it.

In large part, Thurlow and Jaworski describe the magazines with fair accuracy with their analysis of the genre of the in-flight magazine. Both Alaska Airlines Magazine and Horizon Air Magazine adhere quite closely to the fairly uniform in-flight magazine model, positioned somewhere between travel, lifestyle, and business, with any content specific to flying or traveling couched within this context (in this way presenting the relevant flight-specific information as incidental to the travel/lifestyle/business content). All of the familiar markers of identification with the in-flight magazine genre are there: the format which includes feature articles, destination information, lifestyle and culture articles, and games; the distinctive destination route map; and the use of multiple languages (English and Spanish, here) in order to emphasize the international reach of the airlines. Within this framework of clear genre-identification, the magazines distinguish and localize themselves with emphases on specific aspects of the regional culture of Alaska, Western Canada, and the Pacific Northwest, with a good portion of the cover art devoted to mountain landscapes, Alaskan sled-dogs, moose, etc. and many of the feature stories highlighting local attractions.3

According to Leara Rhodes’ 1999 study on in-flight magazines, “A successful magazine is one with a specific market. A market is defined through its readers.”4 The strange dilemma of in-flight magazines in general is that while they have a guaranteed, though fixed, circulation, they cannot target a specific market the way regular magazines can (and must). While they can target a specific portion of the airlines’ passenger demographic, the global business traveler, there’s little they can do to expand their audience beyond a certain point since there is a strict upper limit to their readership, and, more to the point, the revenue is still ultimately generated by advertising, more profoundly than in regular magazines. And so the advertisers’ perception of how well an in-flight magazine is targeting a demographic is ultimately the most important measure. Advertisers, therefore, are ultimately the in-flight magazine’s audience, in this oblique way.

What is even stranger about this is that, as Thurlow and Jaworski point out, “a large proportion of inflight magazine content is devoted to advertising… not unlike other types of magazines…”5 This is one way, they argue, that in-flight magazines market and brand themselves, targeting a “specific ideological position,”6 one that caters to an upscale, cosmopolitan, global traveler. In-flight magazines, then, ultimately market themselves to advertisers with their advertising content (in significant proportion), in effect simply holding up a mirror to advertisers and charging them for it.

But this is not the only weird and oblique layer of mediation that obfuscates a clear idea of the ideal voice with which to write. Our short articles were also supposed to promote destination cities served by the airlines, but without seeming too promotional. In this aspect, the in-flight magazine wants to look as much like a traditional magazine as possible, but the source of conflict here is that a traditional travel magazine does not have a vested interest in promotion (except perhaps to promote travel in general), while the in-flight magazine does. And since the reader must to some degree expect or suspect promotion from an in-flight magazine because of its close relationship with the airline, the in-flight magazine, in order to maintain its ideological position as a travel/lifestyle/business magazine, must be hypersensitive to its use of language. “That sounds too much like ad copy,” and “That sounds too much like press release copy,” are examples of common editorial criticism. We were, in short, supposed to write promotional material disguised as not promotional material, targeted at what we think the advertisers think are the prime demographic of the airlines’ ridership.

This was never explicated, of course, and largely manifested as gentle, but sometimes confusing and frustrating editorial direction, and the resulting prose was usually somewhat bland, restrained, and dissonant.

It seems unlikely that this quality of offering will be able to sustain its peculiar reflective relationship with advertisers, especially in the face of all of the other media offerings that are slowly encroaching onto the attention space of the captive audience of airline passengers. While in-flight magazines in the recent past enjoyed all of the captive attention of passengers or shared it with a single specific movie broadcast to all the passengers on a flight at a single specific time, most airlines now already offer a wide and widening variety of entertainment options, including multiple channels of each of several different media, to include: music; on-demand broadcast and cable television programming and news; movies; and games; while at the same time personal electronics are becoming more portable, more affordable, and more ubiquitous, with portable DVD players, e-book readers, laptops, and netbooks gaining in popularity. Delta Airlines even began offering broadband Wi-Fi access on select flights in August 2008 on a per flight fee basis,7 a vastly more straightforward revenue model than that of in-flight magazines.

Each of these media offerings leverages technology to solve the problem of the inefficiency of broadcast, i.e. they are able to target more accurately the variety of different demographics that make up the ridership of airlines, and they consequently do not have to deal with the peculiarities that in-flight magazines do. The current arrangement that in-flight magazines have with advertisers is a fragile one, an artifact of the very specific circumstances of airline travel. As these circumstances erode, advertisers will flee. Print newspapers are already facing this, with the medium’s broadcast monopoly on readership giving way to the efficiencies of the internet. Ultimately both of these media rely on the exploitation of inefficiencies in getting content from providers to consumers, inefficiencies that have turned out to be temporary.

The dissonance I experienced while trying to identify a voice in which to write for the in-flight magazines was the result of trying to target an audience that was a level of abstraction farther than normal, while simultaneously trying to remain as sensitively benign as possible. This particular generic niche was in turn the result of the specific circumstances of the captive audience and near monopoly that in-flight magazines enjoyed until recently, and one that I cannot imagine surviving much longer.

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Delta to Offer Wi-Fi on U.S. Flights.” New York Times, 5 August 2008.

Rhodes, Leara. “Inflight Magazines: Changing How Travelers Read.” Journal of Magazine & New Media Research, (Fall 1999).

Thurlow, Crispin and Adam Jaworski. “Communicating a global reach: Inflight magazines as a globalizing genre in tourism.” Journal of Sociolinguistics. 7/4 (2003), 579–606.

Works Consulted

Adey, Peter, Lucy Budd, and Phil Hubbard. “Flying lessons: exploring the social and cultural geographies of global air travel.” Progress in Human Geography. 31/6 (2007), 773–791.

Lindsay, Greg. “Bored at 40,000 feet.” Designing Magazines: Inside Periodical Design, Redesign, and Branding. Allworth

Communications, Inc., 2008. 133–35.

Govil, Nitin. “Something spatial in the air: In-flight entertainment and the topographies of modern air travel.” MediaSpace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age, Routledge 2004.

Notes

  1. Rhodes, Leara, "Inflight Magazines: Changing How Travelers Read," Journal of Magazine & New Media Research, (Fall 1999).
  2. Thurlow, Crispin and Adam Jaworski, "Communicating a global reach: Inflight magazines as a globalizing genre in tourism," Journal of Sociolinguistics, 7/4 (2003), 601.
  3. Ibid., 585.
  4. Rhodes.
  5. Thurlow, 595.
  6. Ibid, 599.
  7. Associated Press, "Delta to Offer Wi-Fi on U.S. Flights," New York Times, 5 August 2008.