Knight Center
Knight Center


From Funny Pages to Front Page: an interview with the founders of Symbolia

05-14_jr-headshot05-17_ep-headshotSymbolia co-founders Joyce Rice (above) and Erin Polgreen by Joyce Rice

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…comics journalism?

Newspapers and magazines have been using infographics and visualizations to supplement stories for years but few major publications have experimented with comics to tell a story in lieu of text. Comics journalism, as envisioned by the co-founders of Symbolia, “the tablet magazine of illustrated journalism,” Erin Polgreen and Joyce Rice, seeks to merge engaging illustration and multimedia with reporting to reach new audiences.

“We see so much written word now, I feel like [comics journalism] allows the story to incorporate other media, the written word, and audio to make for a more intimate experience,” Rice said.

Symbolia launched its inaugural issue on Dec. 3 for iPad and PDF. Soon it will be available on Android devices and other e-readers.

Polgreen, editor and publisher, and Rice, creative director, spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about Symbolia’s launch and how they plan to take comics from the Funny Pages to the Front Page.

Polgreen and Rice met volunteering at a bike rehabilitation organization in Chicago called Working Bikes. Over games of Scrabble and book clubs their friendship developed and they realized they shared passion for comics.

Rice first started drafting comics for her high school newspaper and went on to work in digital publishing while drawing her own autobiographical comic, Bird Wizards.

Despite her love for everything from superhero comics to “really trippy indie stuff,” Polgreen admitted she has never drawn a comic. That didn’t stop her from thinking about how the medium could shake up publishing and non-fiction storytelling.

“There is this new generation of web savvy comic creators doing nonfiction work. People like Wendy MacNaughton, Susie Cagle and Sarah Glidden; young people who were using the power of illustration and capitalizing on social media to move their stuff forward." Polgreen said, speaking about her inspiration for illustrated journalism.

She started organizing panels at Online News Association and SXSW Interactive, among others, to bring together comic creators and reporters to talk about the utility of illustration in the newsroom. Polgreen identified audience engagement, a more democratic format for readers and driving social sharing as some of the main contributions people could expect from comics journalism.

SaltonSea13Page from "Sea Change," reported and illustrated by Susie Cagle

Reporting with comics

Comics journalism shares the same medium as Batman and Peanuts but that does not mean it cannot handle quantitative, serious subjects. “Sea Change,” a piece from Susie Cagle in the inaugural issue, tells the story of the Salton Sea’s slow slide toward environmental catastrophe through numbers and infographics as well as personal stories and audio clips.

The comics journalism reporting process shares many similarities with narrative journalism, combining intensive reporting with character-driven stories and close attention to scene. But where New Journalism captured an expression on someone’s face with words, comics journalism achieves it with ink and brushes.

Polgreen and Rice said when they started accepting pitches for Symbolia a majority of them dealt with international stories. "We weren't expecting Symbolia to be an international publication but the number of pitches we have gotten that are looking at international issues and reports from the field seemed like an amazing benefit to us." One up-coming story, "Lolo's Story," features a Mexican family separated by deportation.

The magazine accepts pitches from contributors here.

After the pitch is accepted, Polgreen and Rice work with the reporter and illustrator to identify which elements in the story would be most interesting to readers. They encourage their comics creators to go into the field together, taking photos and sketching scenes, looking for key images, sounds and characters. "Collaborating is more important than just the visual aspect," Rice said.

Polgreen also noted that comics journalism can provide entrée for journalists seeking access to reticent sources. "Comics can go where recording devices can't. You can get a lot more access from people in uncomfortable situations. They're more intrigued by people drawing than putting a 50 lb. camera in their face," she said.

After the reporting and fact checking process is complete, Rice works closely with the team to shape the final presentation. To understand how readers might navigate the story, Rice and Polgreen put drafts of the piece in the hands of friends or relatives who are unfamiliar with tablets so see how they would interact with the story. Sometimes the user experience is very different than the creators anticipate and the comic has to be reorganized.

Symbolia as a news start-up

The irony that Symbolia launched the same day as The Daily, the first tablet exclusive publication, announced its closing was not lost on Polgreen and Rice.

“We’re a very different publication,” Polgreen said, noting they started Symbolia with $34,000 in grants and a staff of two: she and Rice. “I think the news industry could learn a lot from the lean start-up movement.”

Many media watchers criticized The Daily for locking its content in the tablet platform and not allowing users to easily share their stories on social media.

amanazExcerpt from "Ask Me About Psych Rock in Zambia," illustration by Damien Scogin

"Discoverability and community building can be a real challenge on the tablet,” Polgreen observed. “Apple's Newsstand is an interesting development for publishers but it can also be extremely difficult to get people to have conversations around your work. We try to make social sharing very easy."

That’s one of the reasons why they decided to run a PDF version of the magazine along with the iPad launch. "News organizations need to think really hard about experimenting on new devices that are very expensive,” Polgreen said, arguing that the PDF allows the magazine to be “platform agnostic” and accessible to more people.  

"Things are so different now,” Rice said, “Older publications that don't adapt to social media and think critically about how to access their readership are going to have a lot of trouble."

Symbolia is a for-profit venture. Polgreen outlined their revenue streams as a mixture of subscriptions and memberships. She also said the magazine would also experiment with sponsored content from other non-fiction comic creators, linking readers to sellers online.

In the next installment…

Polgreen and Rice said they hoped to see a wider adoption of comics-as-journalism in newsrooms over the coming years. They are already planning to organize workshops to connect reporters and illustrators to encourage more comics journalism projects.

Symbolia’s launch was widely celebrated by media and news watchers but the form faces obstacles to wider acceptance. Rice told the Knight Center that people think comics—regardless of the topics—are silly, expecting a gag at the end. But she’s bullish about its potential to break through this stereotype, “I’d like to see comics journalism become a sister to long-form, written journalism.”  


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