Collaboration: Where journalism is really jumping

Content queen and media strategist Erin Polgreen shares tips for successful new media start-ups

When Joyce Rice and I first launched Symbolia, a digital magazine that mixes comic books and journalism, we had a great many things mapped out. We were strict in our foundation-building and planned every last detail. I had identified multiple revenue streams, target audiences, the works. Everything was planned to perfection. I believed that smart, hyper-detailed pre-launch planning would lead to immediate success – so much success that we would never have to plan again.

We had an extremely successful launch. We were covered in over 100 stories by media organisations around the world, built a good base of subscribers and were on our way to financial stability.

But I was wrong. The right business plan when you launch isn’t the right plan for six, eight or 12 months in, much less years. In truth, a successful media start-up must embrace flux and serendipity. Sometimes you have to improvise, to follow a hunch. This isn’t a sign of weakness – or that your original road map was incorrect. Improvisational and limber thinking is part of tomorrow’s media landscape. You don’t know the formula before you start. But you have to follow your leads.

Illustration by Andy Warner for Symbolia

Illustration by Andy Warner for Symbolia

Just before we went live, I read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, a book on a school of thought that eschews the concepts of big launches and instead focuses on testing and learning before doing with a capital “D”. I also learned about the design thinking process, a methodology for innovation developed at Stanford University’s d.school.

These two resources radically shifted the way I thought about business and editorial content because they both relied heavily on knowing the needs of a user as a means of developing a successful business.

It was a profound shift for me, to go from excessive planning to a “take any opportunity” mentality. For a lean media outlet to be successful, you need to know when to pivot or change strategy, sometimes dramatically, to pursue success. Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings, in other words. While Symbolia has never been on the ropes financially – we’re growing slowly but surely – we want to be sustainable faster.

One of my darlings was that carefully calibrated list of revenue streams. In my single-mindedness, I hadn’t thought about other, creative ways to use our true organisational assets to further journalism. Then these strange opportunities started to appear.

A funny thing happened after we launched. News organisations began approaching us to ask how we did it – “it” being produce works of journalism that used comics as a vehicle for story. These organisations asked how they could do something similar.

After a few conversations, in which I discussed our process at length and probably mumbled too much about the intricacies of working with artists, something clicked. Our editorial processes and ability to edit visual content was an asset that other organisations did not necessarily have. I decided that the next time someone asked me how we do what we do, I would tell them we were available for hire.

Collaborative content creation had never occurred to me as a revenue opportunity before.

Not only did I say yes to this opportunity, I went after it. To date, we have collaborated with Tumblr, Popular Science, American Public Media, Common Cause, and many other outlets and institutions. I am most proud of a recent collaboration on more than 50 pages of interactive comics that we produced for Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series that recently aired on the US Showtime cable network.

Now is the best time to be a maker and a journalist. Embrace the flexibility and be creative with it!

We’ve also recently teamed with Nieman Reports, a publication dedicated to the furthering and future of journalism at Harvard University, to tell the story of an unprecedented journalistic collaboration happening right now in Ukraine, the YanukovychLeaks.

Collaboration and consulting are now the lifeblood of our organisation; funds from these projects make up the bulk of our budget. There are so many benefits to collaborating. My favourite has to be that the audience always cross-pollinates. For organisations like Symbolia, it’s critical to expand our reach. Our content also tends to reach younger readers, which is a big asset for legacy media outlets. You also learn more about other organisations’ best practices and garner new perspectives in content creation.

Some collaborations are easy and others require a lot of work – some of it unexpected. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

Clarity of vision is critical. When a project begins, both organisations should be on the same page. Everything, from number of pages to expectations for each side, should be written out. Some sample items to work through as you craft a written agreement (and you need a written agreement!) include:

  • Set goals for the content. Who do you want it to reach? How will you engage that audience? What kind of story do you want to tell?
  • Map how you want to roll out the collaboration into the world.
  • Learn how the organisation you’re partnering with works. What happens with an average story or piece of multimedia content from pitch to publish? Ask the collaborator to explain it to you like you just graduated from journalism school. Every organisation does things differently, from fact checking to copy editing; you need to know about any possible hiccups.
  • Once you know how the organisation functions, find a point person – I like to think of them as an ambassador or editorial diplomat. Update that person religiously, because pre-planned benchmarks are your pal.
  • Plan to promote. As Symbolia moves forward, we’ll be expanding our repertoire to be more focused on content consulting for a wide array of organisations. We’ll be taking on larger projects for non-media brands, all of which will help underwrite the production of our own content. Not only that, but we’re just beginning to explore the benefits of translation, and have just published our first article in French. Now is the best time to be a maker and a journalist. Embrace the flexibility and be creative with it! Success means planning, yes. But sometimes you simply have to keep it loose and remain ready to pounce on opportunities. And if you’re interested in collaboration, please do give me a call.

Erin Polgreen is a US-based internationally recognised strategist who works at the intersection of audience engagement, news innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the founder of Symbolia: The Tablet Magazine of Illustrated Journalism