Interview: Symbolia Editor Erin Polgreen on Graphic Journalism for the TabletBy
Symbolia is a magazine of graphic journalism designed specifically for the tablet; the navigation and pageflow are completely different from anything found in a print magazine, and the use of the comics medium opens up new possibilities for nonfiction storytelling. The magazine launched late last year as an iPad app, which includes a free issue; the first issue is also available as a PDF. A yearly subscription costs $11.99, and single issues are available for $2.99 each in either format. I spoke to editor Erin Polgreen in December, shortly after the magazine launched, about the challenges of comics journalism on the tablet, the digital divide, and the future of Symbolia.
Good E-Reader: You have two things that are not traditional here, the medium of comics and the medium of tablets. Let’s start with comics: Why do you think that’s a good medium for journalism?
Erin Polgreen: Comics work well for journalism because they are able to convey multiple complicated layers of information in a package that is a little bit easier to digest than, say, a series of very, very intense photographs from a war zone or an article of 10,000 words. What comics can do is condense and organize complex data so it is more immediate as well as more personal. Comics scholar Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, talks about the way cartoon imagery resonates. His theory is the simpler an image is, the more we can break down a piece into its core visual parts, the easier it is to identify with the image on the page and to place yourself in the situation. Comics mixed with journalism are able to present compelling personal stories that are accessible to many people.
How does comics journalism differ from traditional print journalism?
It is an opportunity to experiment with dynamic storytelling and create something that has a very intimate, handcrafted feel. One of the things I was adamant about when Joyce and I were starting to build Symbolia was to avoid any sort of trend toward overly sleek web design.
Much like the great literary journalists of our time had a signature style and a signature voice, comics create these very visually branded pieces that allow readers to immediately get a sense for what the emotional content is and what sort of factual content they can draw from it, and they engage with it on a much deeper level.
What sort of challenges does comics journalism present to you as an editor?
We work with many, many different types of contributors and creators. We will partner journalists with cartoonists who have no reporting experience; we will assign stories out to folks who are backpack journalists—they will do it all and illustrate it too. Susie Cagle is an example of that.
The challenge can be encouraging someone who is not a multimedia journalist to think in a nonlinear way about storytelling and also to think about the visual. If you are a journalist with no experience with comics, we will partner you with a cartoonist, but we encourage the cartoonist to go along with the journalist for reporting. They strategize how the piece will look.
We have a five step process that moves the story from accepted pitch to publication. At the very beginning of the assignment, we have a conversation about how the story will look from the beginning: If you want animation, what you will need, if you want to do audio, what equipment do you need to have crisp audio. So that can be kind of challenging. The other piece is thinking visually. If you are interviewing somebody who has crazy bouncy curls and they have a huge smile, they are very excited about what they are telling you, you might use adjectives to describe that, and in a comic where it comes across visually, it might be redundant to put a narrative box underneath that to describe those same things.
I tell our contributors every story must be timely but not time sensitive. It needs to have a global resonance, there need to be issues everyone can understand or connect with, and it needs to be centered with a specific place or environment or an individual—that “Put a face on it” thing is very important.
And what does the digital medium add? What does the tablet add that a website doesn’t?
For me, the tablet adds a turbo charge to the actual experience of reading a comic or a handheld magazine. With a tablet, you are able to engage many senses and many different types of learners in the actual app. For example, by having people manipulate the text on the page so it flows upward like a river in a piece about the lower Congo river, that becomes a sub-metaphor that makes the piece more heartfelt to the person reading it.
With the web, a lot of it is scrolling and spacebarring and using a keyboard, but there is not a lot of hand-to-object interaction. That is the wonder of the tablet: There is something about the touch screen that can be so intuitive and so gripping that it helps create better storytelling—but you have to strategize for it and you have to figure out what your users are expecting. We make usability testing part of production; we put it in the hands of people who don’t use iPads that often and see how they interact with it before we take the issue live.
How do you think the use of comics and digital media affects the audience? Who does it bring in, and do you worry some potential readers will be left out because they are on the wrong side of the digital divide?
As a news organization we have two responsibilities. One is to get our product out into as many hands as possible, and the other is to help support our contributors, the folks who are actually helping create the concept. For me, experimenting on the tablet is fantastic, but you mention the digital divide—that is a very real thing. For a small startup organization, it is a bad decision for us to not make our content as available as possible, so we also made the plain PDF subscription available for folks who are interested but don’t have a tablet. The rate of sales over the past four days is about 50-50. That was a very intentional move on our part to allow folks to access this content across many devices. It sounds antiquated, but it’s also being realistic.
Are you going to move to other platforms?
We are starting on the iPad and iterating out to Android and hope to be available on Kindle Fire as well.
How do you find contributors?
They come to me. For the last several years I have been talking about comics journalism at venues like South x Southwest. I have been seeding this idea. Every time I talk about this, people come up to me and say “This is what I do.” There is an entire community out there.
When we first made our announcements, we put out an open call for pitches, and I mined the many journalism networks I am a part of and said “We are looking for stories that revolve around the theme of how we survive, but you need to think of it as visual content.” We got over 80 pitches for that issue, and since then people are still pitching. Anyone can pitch. As long as someone has a portfolio and I have a sense of their work, I am very comfortable taking cold pitches, and we seem to be getting a high quality set of cold pitches, which is rare. Part of it is because it is something that is so new that people want to try it.
Do you fact-check the stories?
Yes. Every reporter submits any audio or video. We ask for photos or sketches from the actual environment, and if it is a detailed interview with individuals, we ask for their contact information. So there is a copy editing and fact checking process that comes just before we go into the interactive stage.
One of the number one questions I always get when talking about comics and journalism is “Is it verifiable? What about objectivity?” People are suspect of comics or of art interpreting events because they think that puts more of a spin on it than a reporter writing prose. I think the spin is the experience the reporter had in crafting the story. They get a sense of that person, and I think that enhances it. You get a sense of who the person is in a way that is more transparent than what [appears] as straight objectivity.
Everything I do I come at because I envision this because I am a fan. I have loved comics and journalism for as long as I can remember. I’m constantly thinking of myself as a reader, the things I gravitate towards, the things I want to reread, how a story moves me and what are the nuts and bolts of how that story moves me, be it a comic or a long form reported piece, or a piece of video journalism. I really, really think that approach makes me a better editor.
In terms of my background, I have been working in journalism for 99% of my career. I started out with a political magazine in Chicago, In These Times, as an editorial intern, moved up to the role of associate publisher, and went on to an organization called The Media Consortium, where my job was to not only foster editorial collaborations among the 50 different media outlets from book publishers to documentary filmmakers to daily news organizations but also to help them strategize for the future and help them shift their planning so they were able to not get knocked on their heels by the internet, when the internet happened. At the end of , I became a consultant and strategist with a variety of media organizations and foundations, as well as putting Symbolia together. I worked at creating editorial collaborations that work across multiple levels. I know how to work the angles. That’s very, very helpful in creating content for Symbolia.
Are you concerned about archival issues—will people be able to read this ten years from now?
I think that’s definitely a great form of insurance. People are asking if they can buy print editions. That will be something that’s possible.
You are thinking of print?
It is not something that is completely off the table. It would be special editions, but it’s incredibly costly. People who love comics love collecting actual physical objects, but to do a print edition of our premiere issue, 81 pages, would cost as much as an annual subscription. But to do it for archival purposes, yeah. One of the things when I was doing research and thinking about creating a tablet magazine, I specifically looked into white label software solutions—we are using Mag Plus—because it is their job to keep the software moving forward so the burden of development is not on Symbolia. We have the burden of production, but we don’t necessarily have to make sure it works with every single line of code.
Do you plan on taking ads?
Absolutely. I am really trying to figure out how to do advertising that is not obnoxious to the consumer. One of the things I think is a really powerful possibility is working with publishers to publish actual teasers or excerpts of content they are about to put out in graphic novel format, making clear that it is sponsored content, but it’s something the audience is already looking for. If we can make it part of the app that they can easily purchase, an e-book or an app featuring work that they would love, I don’t see the conflict in that.
Newspapers and tablet magazines are dropping like flies these days. What about Symbolia gives you hope for the future of journalism?
The things that give me hope for the future of journalism are the experiments. They are the people who have an inkling of an idea or a trend or how something is going to change and how quickly they can build an experiment to test that assumption. I think the way technology is changing is making it possible for us to do things that are interesting and are accessible to more people at a lower cost and to be more nimble than other organizations in transcending that change or using industry changes to our advantage. Symbolia is very small and very lean, and we are a grand experiment. It’s very exciting, and I want it to work out. We are trying revenue streams and trying to make it so we can pay everyone equitably for working on this project, but it’s also an experiment and because we are so lean we can make changes very quickly if we see an opportunity that is a must do or a must go.
We are a startup organization and we are committed to paying creators. One thing folks need to know about the future of media and cool new things is that they have to be supported, so if people are able to subscribe, please do. We hope it’s not cost prohibitive, but if you want something groundbreaking and super cool, it can’t be free all the time.