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[Review] Symbolia Magazine for iPad

[Review] Symbolia Magazine for iPad
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It’s hard to believe but the iPad has been with us for almost three years now. Back when Steve Jobs first took to the stage, sat down in a big comfy armchair, and pulled out the now iconic slate device, it was heralded by many as the saviour of the newspaper and magazine business. And yet here we are three years down the line and there has been remarkably little innovation in content publishing.

There are signs that might slowly be changing though, with innovative apps like The Magazine leading the way. And now in the same week the iPad-only newspaper The Daily announced it was closing, a new magazine called Symbolia has launched. Although not iPad-only (there’s a PDF option), it’s pretty clear that the target market is Apple tablet wielding customers.

Comic or Journal?

Symbolia’s big differentiator is that it combines long form reporting with comic style illustrations. If you’re wondering why nobody has tried this before, let me tell you it’s nothing to do with a lack of technology, it is simply that the format doesn’t work. Comic strips are fine for fictional storytelling, light entertainment, and even for educational uses in getting complicated concepts across in a simple and fun way. They are much less well suited to communicating hard journalism.

Great article, but where’s the rest?

A typical example of the problem is the story The Rollerbladers of Sulanmaniyah which is one of the five included in the initial sampler issue of Symbolia. It tells of a reporter’s trip to northern Iraq, and how different life there is to the war torn south. The reporting is good and the drawings great, but it leaves you wanting more. Reading the piece is like reading a teaser to a full in-depth article. I constantly found myself wanting more detail, and I wanted photos too.

When I read the line “Everywhere you look there are new neighbourhoods sprouting gaudy mansions made of concrete and glass”, I’d love to actually see some of these neighbourhoods rather than a black and white sketch in a tiny box. If this was almost any other magazine, there would be a lovely picture to bring the words to life. If it was a newspaper article, there would be more description to fill out the image in my mind. Symbolia’s comic strip is a compromise though, and it offers nothing new to compensate for what’s missing.

It’s not just the articles that are light-weight, the whole edition is. The freebie introductory issue runs to just five articles. Not bad, but it’s touted as being a double issue. That suggests subsequent issues will run to just two or three articles. At $11.99 a year for six issues, that’s a pretty high cost per article for such superficial reporting.

Technology

From a technology standpoint, Symbolia brings nothing new to the table. It’s based on the Mag+ publishing system so beloved of traditional magazines. That means gigantic files that take an age to download, as well as often confusing navigation and regular app crashes. Had they taken the opportunity to do something really different with the technology (like Marco Arment’s The Magazine), they could more easily have been forgiven for the content problems. After all, content is an easier issue to fix down the line.

Verdict

I really wanted to like Symbolia. Anything new in the iPad magazine space is interesting and is to be applauded. Somewhere in there is a good idea fighting to get out, but it’s certainly not there yet. If they can beef up the articles somehow, perhaps they can find an audience. As it stands though, the project looks more like an interesting experiment than a serious journal. Sadly, I can’t see it succeeding long term.