At 30 years old, Erin Polgreen is among many noteworthy entrepreneurs in the journalism landscape who are striking out on their own. She also really enjoys a good bourbon and will talk in depth about the merits of top-shelf brands, and the drawbacks of mid-level brands that really aren’t that good but get consumers to think they are. When not discussing the finer points of distilled spirits, she’s making a name for Symbolia magazine, a high-level illustrated journalism venture that launched in late 2012. It debuted as an iPad offering, but readers can subscribe to and download a straight PDF. Android and Kindle versions are planned, too. Her path to this point wasn’t as straight as you’d think, having studied perhaps the ultimate in liberal arts — feminist literary criticism — at Cottey College, a small private women’s school in Missouri. She ultimately finished college at Webster University in St. Louis and spent most of her 20s at progressive Chicago news magazine In These Times. After a stint with the Media Consortium, which funds independent journalism projects, she began consulting fulltime and eventually co-founded Symbolia with her business partner, Joyce Rice.
What’s the Symbolia elevator pitch?
My general elevator pitch is Symbolia uses comic book formats to tell non-fiction and reported stories from around the world.
Why Symbolia, why now?
Comics journalism itself has been around for a long time. People have been using illustration as part of the news for years and years. It’s only recently that technology has connected everything and made Symbolia possible. And there’s the other end, like the sheer quality of images on the iPad.
You started with the help of a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, but there’s of course a subscription model. How confident are you that you can be self-sustaining?
We raised $34,000 from McCormick (Foundation) and the other $20,000 from IWMF. Any journalism organization that uses just one stream of revenue will get into trouble really quick. We’ll develop a product that meets the user’s needs. Membership is in our future, advertising is in our future, consulting is in our future. Sponsored content is in our future.
And what tells you that people will pay for illustrated journalism? Does it take some convincing to show people why it’s worth the cost of admission?
I did some market research of competitors, which is other news apps like magazines and sci-fi storytelling. We based our pricing structure around what people were already paying. In terms of selling people on the fact that they’re interested in it, there’s been a market for collectors of comics for some time.
You started with an iPad-only format, and also offer a PDF download (though it’s not interactive). What’s the timeline for expanding to Android, Kindle and e-book platforms?
Because we’re a global audience, we really ignore Android at our own peril. We hope to be on Android in the summer, and Kindle and e-books in a few weeks.
What about the Web experience? Right now there’s no way to read it directly from the website or browser. Do you have any plans to make a robust Web experience?
One of the things I’m really committed to with Symbolia is communicating the costs of something that is beautiful and valuable to our readers. We’re very interested in partnerships with other organizations to host content online or to syndicate content out. But right now that’s not what we’re going for.
So if journalists want to expand their illustrated journalism skill set, where should they start?
If anyone wants to tell a multimedia story, there are books to read. (I recommend) Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” I highly recommend you find a partner. There are a lot of illustrators out there interested in illustrated storytelling.
Where did the Symbolia idea come from? Was it some great “a-ha” moment? Has it been stewing for years?
It was in fact an “a-ha” moment. I was just approaching this from a standpoint of I like this so much and tried to convince others to take it on. Then I got my first iPad. All of the lights went on. I was like, “Oh, my god, I can do this. This is something I can do.” Within six months I had enough money raised to get it off the ground. We launched in December of last year, the one-year anniversary of transitioning out of my old job.
But I recognize that we’re an experiment, and we’re looking at many ways to bring in money for our product and that we don’t move too fast to suddenly have too much overhead that we can’t cover it.
Is there room for expansion, not for you, but for all news outlets to expand into this area? Can you do “breaking” or daily news in illustrated format? Will we see CNN or the AP doing it?
I think that would be something that would be a fun gimmick if there was the right illustrator to respond to daily events. But I definitely see more growth in the longform, thoughtful piece that you get to chew on for a while.
Your first issue’s theme was “How we survive.” so,you’re stranded on a desert island with only one item to keep you from going insane. What is it, other than Quill magazine, of course? Book? Drawing pad? Anderson Cooper?
A briefcase with a bottle of really great bourbon and a notebook. I especially love single-barrel Four Roses (bourbon).