Comics Journalism Hits the Tablets

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Symbolia is to journalism what the graphic novel is to literature. Credit: Symbolia

You've heard of comic books; you've heard of magazines. Now a new generation of journalists is merging the two to tell non-fiction stories about everything from environmental destruction in California and the mysteries of the Congo River to our gut's microbiome and an obscure psychedelic band from Zambia.

The merger has resulted in a new tablet-based magazine called Symbolia, which was launched this week. Unlike text-heavy narratives that readers may find in magazines such as the Atlantic or the New Yorker, this new digital experience tells stories in illustrated, interactive panels.

For example, one feature story — "Live Long, Die Quick" — opens with an illustration of Chinese microbiologist Zhao Liping wondering if tailoring his diet to the microbes in his stomach could help him loose weight.

The subsequent panels show that by eating Chinese yam and bitter lemon, Zhao can tweak his microbial makeup and slim down. There's animation, including wiggling microbes and tappable infographics, so the users can choose how deep they want to dive into the story.

Founded by Chicago-based journalist, media consultant and comic enthusiast Erin Polgreen, Symbolia is to journalism what the graphic novel is to literature.

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Traditional media such as newspapers and magazines continue to tailspin as they struggle for identity in the digital age. While Symbolia isn't seeking to replace the old guard, it recognizes that a fresh voice needs to be brought into the arena.

Symbolia started about three years ago when Polgreen said she began noticing a new crop of comics creators who were also doing journalism.

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"I was really into the work Sarah Glidden,Ted Rall and Matt Bors had been doing, specifically because they had been using Kickstarter to fund trips for non-fiction comics on conflict zones," Polgreen told Discovery News. "They had been quite successful."

Not only that, these non-fiction story tellers were flying completely under the radar of traditional news organizations.

And then one day, Polgreen said she had a "kapow moment."

"I was reading an issue of Wonder Woman, then I switched over to reading a magazine on my new iPad I got off of Craigslist," Polgreen said. "Everything just kind of clicked together, like picking a lock. That's our origin story, if you will."

Polgreen applied for and received a couple of grants — one from J-Lab and the McCormick Foundation's New Media Women Entrepreneurs program and the other from the International Women's Media Foundation — that helped transform her idea of into a fully-developed tablet magazine of illustrated journalism.

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Symbolia's first issue was launched on Monday, Dec. 3, and is available free, either as an interactive iPad app (an Android app may soon follow) or in PDF form. Starting in 2013, it will be published every other month and cost $11.99 for six issues.

Polgreen's goal up front is to use clever design, great color and visual narrative devices to talk about complicated issues. She says she wants to bring a fresh energy back into storytelling, one that isn't always evident with text-heavy content.

"Comics journalism represents not only this opportunity to be playful, fun and have a cozy hand-crafted feel to your product, but it's also this way to bring more people in. You bring in more visual learners — people who think about things or interact in different ways than someone who might read 10,000 words of text," Polgreen said.

She cites one of the most widely circulated newspapers in the United States as an example of how a more visual format can appeal to readers.

"When USA Today started out, people pooh-poohed that they had infographics and thought the paper was speaking down to the masses," Polgreen said. "But it's one of the papers that's still around. I don't think they're on fabulous financial footing but they broke the wave of varying design in news."

John Fennell, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who is heavily involved with the weekly, student-run Vox Magazine, said he thinks Symbolia could be another wave-breaker.

“We study news and magazine startups and try to understand what’s working and what’s not," he said. "I have to say, Symbolia is the freshest startup I’ve seen in a long time."

New magazines come into the fold all the time and it's a constant experiment within the industry to see which ones will stick, says Fennell.

“We’re in this cycle where we can pick up news anywhere and that’s why magazines like Newsweek have folded and Time is seeing some difficulties," he said. "So when you get something like” Symbolia, “where it’s a combination of something that no one’s ever done before, I think it’s worth paying attention to.”

Even with slick design, sharp reporting and engaging storytelling, Polgreen understands how difficult it is to remain profitable in today's media landscape. However, she believes her loyal audience — a Venn diagram of journalists, nerds, technologists and comic fans — will do more than just save the day.

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"One of the reasons I thought I could really make a go with Symbolia as an actual business venture is I've been watching web comics for the last 10 to 15 years grow into entities that actually support their creators full-time," Polgreen said.

Fennell agrees.

“All successful magazines have niche audiences. General-interest magazines just aren’t working anymore,” he said. With Symbolia, “here you have a built-in audience — a loyal audience — that likes graphics and knows the subject of graphic novels and literature.”

The magazine industry may be on shaky ground, but for Polgreen, this built-in audience is the cornerstone of what she hopes will be Symbolia's solid foundation.

"Comics fans are wonderfully supportive of the people and art that they love. There's a very strong emotional connection," she said. "It's my hope to bring in more people who read comics on a regular basis and help them engage more with news and what's happening in the world."