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article imageSymbolia combines art and storytelling Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Feb 13, 2013 in Technology
Symbolia Magazine combines comics and text in digital form to present a new way of telling real-life stories. Its co-founder says Symbolia may not be the future of journalism, but it reflects where journalism is at right now.
“I have been working with comics and journalism for a large part of my career,” explains Chicago-based Erin Polgreen, “and I’ve always been a comics fan.”
The venture, launched in December, has close to 700 paid annual subscribers; at its launch late last year, roughly 7,000 users interacted with the 81-page debut issue as either a free PDF from the website, or as a free download from the iTunes App store.
Publishing on an iPad was something that hadn’t occurred to Polgreen until she purchased the popular tablet herself. “I went from reading a comic book to reading a magazine or photojournalism stuff started by folks I knew,” she recalls. “It was a moment where I where realized , this is something I can do, ‘I can make this happen.’.”
Symbolia is not the first venture to combine comics and journalism. Joe Sacco's Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde brought attention as well as acclaim to a hybrid few considered feasible in the past. Polgreen and co-founder Joyce Rice wanted to keep the connection to graphic arts alive in their venture, so they chose the name “Symbolia,” a graphics term that refers to depicting, in picture form, an idea or concept. “The most common example is a light bulb over a person’s head,” Polgreen says.
The ambitious first issue featured a theme of “How We Survive” and had fascinating, beautifully drawn and presented stories about rollerblading in Northern Iraq, undiscovered species, as well a compelling profile of the 1970s Zambian rock band Amanaz. The next issue, due out out shortly, is themed "We Don't Belong." Future topics Symbolia hope to tackle include work and crime.
“Basically we do themes that can be interpreted in a variety of ways,” Polgreen explains, “that are creative to work with. We do this partly because we want to present a cohesive package. Also, it increases the quality of the pitches we get.”
Interactive elements are added after illustrator and journalist work together on creating a piece. The stories -with additional elements like sound and video -undergo rigorous testing before a piece is finalized.
Susie Cagle s  Sea Change  was featured in Symbolia s first issue.
Susie Cagle's "Sea Change" was featured in Symbolia's first issue.
“We noticed in testing what people are clicking on and what they're not... too many bells and whistles overwhelm the consumer,” Polgreen explains. “It's about creating a streamlined story flow; multimedia elements add to the nature of the story but they're not the central thing.”
Symbolia came at an interesting time in the paid iPad-subscription news world. The Daily, News Corp’s iPad-only subscription service, ended on the very day Symbolia launched. Polgreen is nothing if not realistic about the nature of the digital news world of the 21st century.
“It's a challenging environment,” she admits. “I think there are folks who have blinders on... but I also think it's very, very difficult to survive and be a constant innovator in the news industry. There is something to be said for working with the community to create something they want to support. Symbolia has done a lot of research and a lot of strategy as to how to make things as share-able as possible.”
That community involvement, along with Symbolia having a low price point ($11.99 for six issues a year, or $1.99 an issue) and its low overhead (just Polgreen and Rice are full-time employees), are a recipe for possible long-term success, at least if Joshua Benton’s thoughts on iPad publishing are correct. The director of the highly respected Nieman Journalism Lab canvassed for online opinions about iPad publishing at the demise of The Daily last December, and published some of his findings, along with insightful takeaways.
"You can absolutely build a real online news organization on (large) revenue," Benton wrote. "You just can’t build one that has 200 staffers. Or 150 staffers. Or 100 staffers... (t)he number of people with tablets will keep growing; people’s comfort with paying for digital content will continue to increase; companies will get smarter about production efficiencies.”
Reuters’ finance blogger Felix Salmon had a different take. News apps, he wrote, “are unwieldy and clunky things... no one would dream of forcing people to download a whole website before they could view a single page.” Salmon also pointed to what he termed the “native architecture” of the iPad as being “severely constrained...If you’re publishing on the iPad, you’re basically a designer rather than a coder, and you’re far more limited in what you can do.”
“Everything from the New York Times paywall to Kickstarter are providing platforms for people to h...
“Everything from the New York Times paywall to Kickstarter are providing platforms for people to honestly talk about money they need to create works people love,” co-founder Erin Polgreen explains.
Polgreen is reserving judgement. “The truth is, the future is what we make it. There are many different voices about where journalism is going to be in five years.”
“For us, the iPad -and eventually when we’re able to do Android -represents a market where it's so easy to pay and support... news consumers understand more and more if you want quality work, you have to help. You have to support it. We're moving away from the 'everything is free on the internet, all the time' model.
At the publication's launch in December, Polgreen received many reactions, including a tweet calling it "the future of journalism.” Another tweet captured her attention, however. "It said, 'I love Symbolia, but it’s not the future of journalism; it's a manifestation of journalism, now'," she says. "I really like that sentiment... a lot, actually. Symbolia is a broad current of journalism. You just have to be ready to change.”
More about Journalism, Comics, Erin Polgreen, Symbolia, Graphics
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