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How Delta Sky magazine connects its readers with “places that are flying under the radar”

Travel writing is often considered a trophy career or the stuff day-job daydreams are made of, but for Sarah Elbert, editor-in-chief of Delta Sky magazine, it’s everyday reality. With an audience of 6.3 million a month, Delta Air Lines’ lifestyle magazine is one of the world’s most-read in-flight publications, and the readership numbers are actually growing despite the print publishing industry’s decline.

“Honestly, it’s interesting that Sky’s readership has grown, because the number of passengers hasn’t grown that much,” says Elbert, on the phone from Minneapolis. “There are more things competing for passengers’ time now—they can use their phones at all times, and Delta provides free in-flight texting and entertainment. Because of these factors, we were concerned our readership might decline, but that hasn’t been the case.”

What are the key factors, then, for Sky’s continual growth and runway success? The short answer is quality content centered around compelling, uplifting human-interest stories. In Elbert’s words, “We don’t think people want to be depressed when they’re flying.” She and her team of editors and photographers—not to mention leading travel writers—focus on producing what Elbert terms “the city magazine for the world.”

Delta Sky May cover

The May 2018 edition of Delta Sky

Elbert and her team often think about the endless possibilities for expanding the magazine’s editorial into more digital and video content—and they’re not alone. “Everyone’s thinking about it,” Elbert says, referring to fellow leading airline magazines, such as United’s Hemispheres and Southwest Airlines’s The Magazine. Integrating Sky editorial content into the Delta trip-planning experience is top of mind as well, but the challenge is presenting it in a way that also stimulates buying traction. “Every company is struggling with this—it’s always a sensitive process of figuring how much communication is too much,” she says. “How do we cut through the noise? We all have very full inboxes.”

Elbert has 20-plus years of journalism experience at companies including The New York Times, the Associated Press, and MSP Communications, where she’s worked for 12 years. MSP is the agency that Delta Air Lines has contracted for nearly 10 years to produce Sky (MSP also creates content for other Fortune 500 companies like General Mills and 3M). She’s essentially serving two clients: Delta Air Lines and the airline’s flyers, but with a healthy amount of editorial freedom. “We’re really lucky that Delta allows us to be independent; they know that if Sky comes off as heavy marketing, people aren’t going to read the magazine,” she says.

Sarah Elbert, editor-in-chief of Delta Sky

Sarah Elbert has steadily moved up the ranks over the last decade at Delta Sky, which began publishing in 2009. Before becoming editor in chief in November 2017, she served as executive editor and deputy editor.

In this interview, Elbert explains Delta Sky’s approach to producing stories, the interplay between print and digital, and connecting travelers with content they can’t help but pay attention to—whether they’re in the air or on the ground.

Parse.ly: Personally, I’m a more focused reader when I’m on the airplane—do you think people’s attention spans are longer when they’re sitting in a confined space?
Sarah Elbert: I do think people’s attention spans are a little longer on the plane than they are on the ground—they’re a more captive audience, so to speak. But we are competing with the in-flight entertainment and smartphones, too, so we have to work for our readership. That means both fun, service-type content—with our own authentic voice—as well as more in-depth coverage of personalities and business trends. We’re not out to be really serious and bring the weight of the world to our readers, but we do present business and travel content that most people find interesting and enlightening.

Who is Delta Sky’s target reader, or are there several “target” readers?
We’ve focused more in the past year or two on millennials—Delta is focused not only on serving its loyal, established customers but also on building loyalty among younger travelers. We want to target people who are rising in their careers and are establishing a favorite airline. And it seems to be working: Sky’s readership among 22- to 44-year-olds has grown 32% in the past year. We’re finding that people are also spending more time with the magazine. As for a target reader, I’m not necessarily trying to cater to “Mark, a 27-year-old” or a specific profile. At the end of the day, we create content that we would like to read, and so far that approach has worked well, too.

Do you tend to visualize a particular reader in your mind?
Not so much. With 6 million-plus readers, everyone is so different. Our ratio of male to female readers is right around 50/50, and we tend to have a well-educated demographic. It’s fun to have all these readers. Most of the feedback we receive is anecdotal, by talking to people and receiving emails and letters from readers. We also pay attention to people reading the magazine when we fly Delta, which is interesting. We do informal research and talk with people we’re sitting next to. It’s not a deliberate thing or formal focus group.

To what do you attribute the growth in Delta Sky’s readership?
Both Delta customers and Sky readers are very loyal for a number of reasons. Once people take the time to read Sky and realize it’s truly a consumer magazine that could share space on the newsstand with the best of them—of course, I’m biased—they look forward to reading it. We hear from business travelers that they wish it was more frequent than monthly because of the quality content.

What did you learn from the Delta Sky readership survey you conducted?
Our readers like celebrities on the cover, and they like travel stories. When we pick celebrities for the cover, it’s not only because they have a particular project, but also because there’s an element of their career that’s particularly interesting or unexpected.

July 2017 Delta Sky cover

The July 2017 edition of Delta Sky

How do you go about deciding what kinds of content will go into each issue of Sky?
First we look at cities and destinations that Delta would like us to feature. Fortunately, just about every destination has amazing aspects to it, and the airline’s reach is very broad, especially when you factor in all of its partner airlines around the world. Once we target those destinations that Delta is interested in, we figure out how to cover those locations and how they fit into the magazine. Then we look at what we’ve already covered in the last year and what’s bubbling up, what we’re hearing about from travelers and writers, what people are really excited about. That goes for business trends and personalities, as well. We might hear a nugget about some e-scooter company and that leads to a larger story about the industry as a whole—a topic that’s of interest to business readers and travelers who might want to use the scooters on their next trip. Overall, our editorial process is organic, but we do plan some of our bigger features up to a year in advance; whereas, a lot of the front-of-book pieces are planned just a few months out so that we can be nimble.

How do you define quality content?
Stories that don’t underestimate their readers. We allow our writers to have their own voice and we don’t dumb-down the content. For travel stories, it’s about finding the most alluring places to visit and bringing new elements of these destinations to life—whether it’s an adventure angle in Iceland or an urban tour of Seoul. And finding people who are just doing really cool, innovative things. We recently featured Hugh Herr, the head of the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab, who produces prosthetic limbs using cutting-edge technology. These kinds of stories make the reader want to find out more. It’s about stoking their curiosity and engagement with the world.

Delta Sky June 2018

“5 Minutes with Hugh Herr” in the June 2018 edition of Delta Sky

What are your most popular types of content, and how do you know this?
People love “1 City 5 Ways,” which divides a city into five itineraries and includes ideas about where to stay, where to eat, where to visit and shop, etc. The cover feature tends to be well-read, as well as departments such as “What’s In My Bag” and “Pop Biz.” Our feedback is, for now, anecdotal.

How heavy is the focus on your website?
We’re in the process of revamping our website, and we also have our digital magazine, delta.com/skymagazine. Right now the print magazine is the driver of Sky’s content, but we do produce Sky Extras to enhance the online content, to “surprise and delight” as much as we can. And hopefully as we expand our website—focusing mostly on travel content in that realm—it will add to the traveler experience, no matter where she is in her travel journey: planning, experiencing, sharing, reliving. The content’s all there—we have hundreds of writers all over the world producing fantastic content.

Sky captured Questlove’s cover shoot in this video.

Do you produce video content in addition to print content?
We do some video content—mostly related to cover shoots and behind-the-scenes stories, like our video of Questlove playing the drums all over New York City. We haven’t done any standalone travel programming, but we are exploring the possibility. There’s a lot of good travel content out there, and we want to do something unique. If you are going to watch something on the plane, what do you want it to be? You have to be deliberate about it.

What is your vision for Delta Sky moving forward?
We’re going to keep telling compelling stories and introducing our readers to interesting, vibrant places and people around the world. We would love to see a more robust digital presence and produce more video. This is an ongoing discussion around here, just as it is for most inflights magazines. Delta is understandably protective of its website as a consumer site, and we don’t want to jeopardize that. We believe complementary travel content only enhances the consumer experience.

We’re going to keep telling compelling stories and introducing our readers to interesting, vibrant places and people around the world. —Sarah Elbert, editor-in-chief of Delta Sky magazine

You have 20-plus years of journalism experience and cut your teeth working as a journalist for the New York Times and the Associated Press. How do you think about journalism today?
Journalism is more important today than it’s ever been—at least in our lifetimes. Truth is truth, and fact is fact. As trust in journalism has eroded among some people in the past decade, it’s really incumbent upon us to earn and maintain our readers’ respect and trust. And so many outlets are doing that better than ever.

As editors of Sky, our job is bringing the world to our readers. And I personally believe that people who travel and have a wider perspective of the world are more empathetic; they have a more nuanced take on current events. It’s important for us humans to get out of our daily bubbles. We don’t produce hard news, and we’re not on the front lines of what’s happening in immigration or environmental issues today, but we love to introduce readers to different places and cultures. And sometimes, new cocktails or resorts! We’re very inclusive.

Where do you think the field of journalism is headed?
The world today is driving many outlets to be better, more creative and resourceful in telling the stories that need to be told. I’m so impressed with what The New York Times has done over the past year or two—digital subscriptions have reached $1 billion, which is amazing. They’ve evolved with the times—no pun intended—to bring storytelling to life for those who get their news online as well as for people who get their daily newspaper on the driveway. And the Times’ The Daily podcast adds to the coverage—it’s not redundant.

An area for growth in journalism is custom content that’s trusted, reliable and builds a brand in a subtle way. People—especially younger audiences—are more likely trust a brand if they feel like they care about people’s experiences and are making the world around them a better place. Delta realizes this and has specific marketing goals to achieve with Sky. Our job is to make that as seamless as possible and weave it into content that stands up on its own.

Do you think your background in hard news is unusual for your role as a travel and lifestyle editor?
Somewhat, yes. At my company, we start with a good basis for creating content—it’s about storytelling. The ultimate testament is that readership keeps going up; it’s higher than it’s ever been at 6.3 million readers a month.

When you fly Delta, do you ever introduce yourself to passengers and say, “Hi, I’m the editor-in-chief of Delta Sky magazine?”
No, I don’t introduce myself, but if someone sitting next to me asks what I do, it’s kind of fun to talk about. It was cute: I was recently sitting next to a couple in their ’60s and talking with them about my job. As we were getting off the plane, the wife leaned over and said, “We’re so proud of you.”

How much do you travel?
I wish I could travel more! I travel several times a year for Sky, not including travel to Atlanta to meet with Delta. Having two young kids makes getting away more challenging, but as they get older, I’ll likely do more. In my job, it’s important to travel, to see the world as our readers are seeing it, and to go to various conferences and connect with other editors and writers. We’re always learning!