Erin Polgreen on Symbolia, a tablet magazine of illustrated journalism

 Give us  a summary of who you are and what you do.

I am a strategist; I work with a variety of foundations and media organizations on audience engagement or digital innovation-focused projects. I’m also an entrepreneur, journalist and huge fan of comics — which might explain why I founded Symbolia, a forthcoming tablet magazine of illustrated journalism.

On Twitter, you describe yourself as a 24/7 LadyJournoprenuer, which sounds incredibly busy!

I’m spinning a lot of plates, but all of my work is very connected, be it studying audience engagement, creating a tablet magazine, or developing fellowships for emerging technologists. My life as a journalist and my life as an entrepreneur is very holistic. It’s busy, but it’s really, really fun.

Speaking of tablet magazines, tell me about the one you’re creating.

I came to the idea for Symbolia about two years ago while reading an issue of Wonder Woman on the ComiXology iPad app. I switched between the comic to an iPad-only magazine called Once. When I made that transition between apps, it was a real light bulb moment for me. I’ve been speaking about the integration of comics and journalism for a couple years, and suddenly saw the opportunity to develop something distinctly for the iPad that represented a new type of news.

Probably three months after that, I applied for grants from the International Women’s Media Foundation and J-Lab’s New Media Entrepreneurs program (a project of the McCormick Foundation), and was awarded both. The grants gave me the first round capital I needed to build Symbolia the right way. They’ve also given me great exposure, mentorship and access to a higher level of technology that would’ve out of reach for a long time if I had decided to bootstrap Symbolia from the very beginning.

I also went after grants because I really believe in paying creatives for their work.

What does Symbolia mean? 

Symbolia is an old term from the comics world. It references the use of a glyph or image to represent an idea or action–like a lightbulb as a visual equivalent of an idea. The term is really representative of what I want the magazine to be: a multi-sensory way of experiencing information.

What kind of stories will you focus on?

There will be a lot of internationally-based stories, as well as some travel and investigative pieces. Comics allow you to depict places where maybe you’re not allowed to bring recorded devices, transporting the reader into a place they wouldn’t normally be. I put out a call for pitches for stories that identifiy with specific people, places and moments in time back in May. I got over 80 pitches back, so we’ve got a lot of fun territory to cover.

How do people typically react when you tell them about Symbolia or share your passion for comics journalism?

People are very enthusiastic. The thing about Symbolia and comics journalism is that it plays really well on the web. If you think about Facebook or Pinterest — sites with images that contain multiple layers of information — images are received very well and are reshared quickly. If you can tie images and news consumption together, well, that’s really exciting to people.

What role do you think niché media like yours will play in the future of news?

I want the news to be more beautiful. I think a lot of the design work for contemporary news sites gravitate toward a cold and straight forward aesthetic. I think doing something that merges thoughtful illustrations and heavy emotions in an immersive way can be more effective than 5,000 words of text.

Where are you finding innovative ideas in storytelling?

The work RadioLab is doing with their app–making content accessible, remixable and relevant to their audience–is exciting.Pop-Up magazine is a great example of live news that is curated and focuses on community-building. I think we’ll be able to expect great things from NewsBound, which aims to simplify complicated stories.

When it comes to the future of news or information consumption, we need to be getting inspiration from many places, including product design, user experience design, and game theory.

What inspires you?

Great storytelling is really inspiring to me. I love curling up with a really good nonfiction essay and dissecting why it works. I find well-crafted tech really inspiring. I also love the care that goes into the production of news. Every time I go to a new journalism site or app, I’m constantly thinking about my experience as a user.

So, lets say starting tomorrow you can only get news from one website for the rest of your life, what’s it going to be?

The New York Times, because they consistently grow and change and try new things, but always stay true to their brand. You can rely on them to tell a good story.

Happiness is …

Bourbon and books.

(Kyle Ellis is a designer for CNN Digital in Atlanta.  Follow him on Twitter @kyleellis.)

About Kyle Ellis

is Director of Strategic Programs for SND, and a consultant for American City Business Journals.

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