The recent folding of The Daily, News Corp’s much-ballyhooed tablet newspaper, proved one thing: a lumbering daily operation isn’t going to make sense for a news app anytime soon. But part of The Daily's downfall had to do with the company behind it, one for whom the idea of a tablet newspaper was an especially narrow one: A huge staff, covering all conceivable topics, presented in as flashy a way as possible with plenty of whiz-bang interaction. From the beginning, it was hard to see how it would work. The true future of publishing, it’s becoming clear, will likely look a good deal different from anything we’re used to seeing in print—websites and apps that are lean, flexible, and focused. And, perhaps, even apps that give us the news as comics.
That’s the idea behind Symbolia, a new iPad magazine that specializes in illustrated journalism. The plan is to put out six issues annually, each with a handful of unique news features by different illustrators. It’s essentially taking two media that have been the iPad’s bread and butter from the start—comics and magazines—and mashing them up into something totally new.
Erin Polgreen, the founder and editor of Symbolia, had seen potential for comics journalism even before Apple’s tablet arrived. "A couple years ago, I noticed a new crop of non-fiction comics creators emerging," she says. "I saw a tremendous opportunity for news organizations to better engage their audiences by bringing comics into the reporting process … comics make it possible for readers to personally connect with complicated issues. As a comics reader, you’re using different mechanisms for processing information."
In the midst of presenting the idea at conferences, doing training workshops, and trying to place illustrators at media outlets, Polgreen got her first iPad, and after seamlessly switching between a digital edition of Wonder Woman and an issue of Once Magazine, she says, the idea hit her like a bolt. "I saw incredible potential, and immediately started sketching out my vision for what would become Symbolia."
The preview issue, now available, includes five lushly illustrated stories, covering diverse current events topics, from water pollution in California to the psych rock scene in Zambia. Each is presented by its own author or authors, with a slightly different aesthetic style and its own unique sensibility. The effect is instantly noticeable. Whereas other magazines, even today, are bound by a sort of overarching voice, Symbolia can accommodate many voices and visual styles—to its great benefit.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the experience is an incoherent one. The app’s straightforward presentation and navigation make it an easy read, especially compared to some of the early, discombobulated digital efforts from many big-name print magazines. And Polgreen says she works like any other editor to ensure that the quality is consistently high, helping creators "holistically craft a story from pitch to thumbnail sketch to finished interactive content."
Of course, producing quality illustrated journalism isn’t exactly as easy as churning out news copy. "I knew going in that comics take a longer time to create," Polgreen says, "so I wanted to build something that the audience could savor, something that has a literary, hand-crafted feel." And while comics-as-news might not be for everybody, it will definitely appeal to some, and if there’s anything new publishers can learn from The Daily, it’s that it’s probably wiser to target one subset of tablet readers than trying to satisfy them all.
Download Symbolia in the App Store—annual subscriptions, with six issues, go for $12; individual issues go for $3.