Symbolia: Process and challenge for the comics journalism startup

After a decade in news, Symbolia co-founder and publisher Erin Polgreen is adjusting to startup life. And, judging by the vigorous press coverage, it’s not all bad.

Plus, there’s the actual work, which is also nice.

“Operating as a start up is great because we can change course quickly if we need to,” says Polgreen, who launched Symbolia last week. “There’s not a lot of weight or infrastructure holding us back.”

That ability to change course means that Polgreen and her team can get things done quickly, but could also wait a few months to push out the first issue of Symbolia in order to fine tune the user experience. The result: one of the signature pieces of the first issue, “Secret Species of the Congo,” got an upgrade that better merges the audio and visual elements.

Under normal circumstances, creating a piece for Symbolia is a multi-step process. Once Polgreen receives a pitch, she considers whether or not it fits within the Symbolia model (a timely, but not necessarily time sensitive, issue that encompasses a general issue within the story of a more specific person or place). Once accepted, Polgreen assigns it to a reporter who ideally reports the story alongside an artist, who takes notes and reference photographs with the goal of keeping the art true to life.

Both parties return to Polgreen with thumbnails and a rough script for the piece. In exchange, Polgreen gives valuable feedback about the narrative flow and illustrative overlap.

“I ask my artists to be as representational as possible without losing their signature style,” says Polgreen. “We are not creating caricatures we are representing individuals.”

The writer and the artist employ the critiques and come back with a more polished version that then goes through a line editing and fact checking process.

The final stage of constructing a story is incorporating the interactive elements. According to Polgreen, this is where her co-creator and creative director Joyce Rice comes in. The interactive aspect must fall within the look and feel of Symbolia, a very specific vision that Rice has developed — ideally using audio, music, and animation to help tell the story.

The real challenge, though, is finding the fiscal resources to fund the project. Charging $2.99 per issue and $11.99 for six issues will not cover all of the costs of such an ambitious endeavor.

Polgreen is constantly brainstorming ways to build Symbolia’s revenue streams — maybe creating membership programs or offering paid training with Symbolia contributors.

Though comics-as-journalism is not an entirely unique idea, Polgreen hopes that Symbolia changes how the news industry and relates to its readers.

“I hope it encourages news organizations to think more creatively about bringing illustrators and designers into the story creation process. I hope it encourages them to think more about the reader experience,” she says.

Thinking about the reader experience, according to Polgreen, requires editors putting themselves in the position of the reader when they are looking at these pieces. How can we make it more appealing? What are the pressure points that turn a reader off?

Polgreen’s advocacy for the more illustration in the newsroom looks to be well received, if positive feedback and press coverage are any indication.

“To practice what I’ve been preaching and seeing that it’s received so well is really exciting to me.”

The second issue of Symbolia is currently undergoing its usability testing. If the magazine continues to do well over the next few issues, Polgreen says they will consider publishing monthly, instead of bimonthly. She already has plans to begin fundraising for monthly rollout in March of next year.

Polgreen also says that expansion from iPad to Android could be a future possibility, as she wants Symbolia to be as democratic and accessible as possible.

But Symbolia needs time to grow before that can happen.

About the author

Hilary Sharp

Undergraduate Fellow

Latest Posts

  • Prototyping Augmented Reality

    Something that really frustrates me is that, while I’m excited about the potential AR has for storytelling, I don’t feel like I have really great AR experiences that I can point people to. We know that AR is great for taking a selfie with a Pikachu and it’s pretty good at measuring spaces (as long as your room is really well lit and your phone is fully charged) but beyond that, we’re really still figuring...

    Continue Reading

  • Capturing the Soundfield: Recording Ambisonics for VR

    When building experiences in virtual reality we’re confronted with the challenge of mimicking how sounds hit us in the real world from all directions. One useful tool for us to attempt this mimicry is called a soundfield microphone. We tested one of these microphones to explore how audio plays into building immersive experiences for virtual reality. Approaching ambisonics with the soundfield microphone has become popular in development for VR particularly for 360 videos. With it,...

    Continue Reading

  • How to translate live-spoken human words into computer “truth”

    Our Knight Lab team spent three months in Winter 2018 exploring how to combine various technologies to capture, interpret, and fact check live broadcasts from television news stations, using Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant device as a low-friction way to initiate the process. The ultimate goal was to build an Alexa skill that could be its own form of live, automated fact-checking: cross-referencing a statement from a politician or otherwise newsworthy figure against previously fact-checked statements......

    Continue Reading

  • Northwestern is hiring a CS + Journalism professor

    Work with us at the intersection of media, technology and design.

    Are you interested in working with journalism and computer science students to build innovative media tools, products and apps? Would you like to teach the next generation of media innovators? Do you have a track record building technologies for journalists, publishers, storytellers or media consumers? Northwestern University is recruiting for an assistant or associate professor for computer science AND journalism, who will share an appointment in the Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School...

    Continue Reading

  • Introducing StorylineJS

    Today we're excited to release a new tool for storytellers.

    StorylineJS makes it easy to tell the story behind a dataset, without the need for programming or data visualization expertise. Just upload your data to Google Sheets, add two columns, and fill in the story on the rows you want to highlight. Set a few configuration options and you have an annotated chart, ready to embed on your website. (And did we mention, it looks great on phones?) As with all of our tools, simplicity...

    Continue Reading

  • Join us in October: NU hosts the Computation + Journalism 2017 symposium

    An exciting lineup of researchers, technologists and journalists will convene in October for Computation + Journalism Symposium 2017 at Northwestern University. Register now and book your hotel rooms for the event, which will take place on Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14 in Evanston, IL. Hotel room blocks near campus are filling up fast! Speakers will include: Ashwin Ram, who heads research and development for Amazon’s Alexa artificial intelligence (AI) agent, which powers the...

    Continue Reading

Storytelling Tools

We build easy-to-use tools that can help you tell better stories.

View More