Platform independent applications
We work very hard at SCS at maintaining platform-independence in our applications, and we have a long history of this. Years ago, we delivered systems on DEC equipment running RSX, RSTS and VMS; HP equipment running MPE; and IBM equipment running MVS. More recently, we have delivered systems running under SCO Unix® and Linux. During the last 30 years, we have supported at least 40 different platform types and versions. We ported the advertising applications to various flavors of Windows as well (most recently Windows 7 and Windows 8 with touch), but only Layout-8000 has been requested on that platform. Our editorial and digital asset management products are Windows applications, although, even there, the image and story files may be archived on a Linux server.
Why do we remain platform-independent?
Most of the advertising front-end systems in the 1980s were completely bound to specific hardware and operating systems, and they paid the price when new options became available. Can you imagine rewriting an entire application written in DEC assembly language and tuned to a specific DEC operating system? It just didn’t happen! Systems written specifically for Tandem machines, IBM AS400s and HP3000s died out too. And - here’s the lesson in all of this - systems written specifically and exclusively for Windows and Oracle® will someday go too. It’s not that any of these environments were or are intrinsically bad (although some have been better than others); it’s just that they come in and out of favor. Why bind your applications so tightly to any one of them?
How do we stay platform-independent?
In the early history of our company, we did it by using the standard subsets of high-level languages (e.g. Pascal) rather than anybody’s assembly language or non-standard extensions to high-level languages. Then all we had to do was find a compiler for the language on a new platform and, perhaps, translate some control scripts. This seems so obvious now, but there were people who claimed that only with assembly language could you get the performance required for a large multi-user system. We always felt that the right algorithms and database design were much more important for good performance than any tweaking at the machine level, and we have never had performance issues. Over time we became convinced that the best way to keep ourselves platform independent was to create the set of development tools that we use now for all of the applications we build ourselves (i.e., the entire advertising system suite). Only the tools need to be ported to new platforms; every application written with the tools then moves without recoding. Not only platform changes but changes to the look and feel of every application are implemented by enhancements to the tools. Our WIMPS interface (windows, icons, menus, pointers and scroll bars) is now as pretty as anyone’s.
What are these tools?
We call them, collectively, Spice (the Dune books and movie were a big hit when a name was being chosen). They include a screen designer, relational database manager, text editor, composition engine, dialog manager, help manager, application code/formula language, XML processor, report writer and charting package. Back when this was a buzzword, we called Spice a 4th generation1 language. The term is used to refer to non-procedural (or declarative) high-level languages built around database systems. SQL, for example, is a 4th generation language (the first generation was machine language, the second was assembly language and the third included high level procedural languages like Pascal or C).
What is the underlying database?
We use a record manager called C-tree (developed by Faircom, www.faircom.com). We are free to modify the source code, and we have made some enhancements over the years. It provides an ODBC-compliant (Open Data Base Connectivity) interface to our databases, which allows any report writer or query language that is ODBC-compliant to read our Spice databases directly and independently. Crystal Reports® and Visual Basic®, for example, can access Spice’s ODBC-compliant databases. Spice also supports mirroring its databases with others like PostgreSQL. Our Spice report writer (SpiceRAQ) can give you access to all the data in a Spice database - as a printed report, a screen display or an exported text file. (This is in addition to all the standard and user-customizable reports that come with each application.) No one wants to feel that his or her enterprise data - an extremely valuable resource - could ever be held hostage by a vendor who uses a “proprietary” database package. Our customers have never been in this position. We have customers who send data to a “data warehouse” or interface to or from applications from other vendors; sometimes they create these interfaces themselves using the report writer tool and sometimes they ask us to help them do it. Our ODBC-compliant database interface tool makes data access easy for Crystal Reports experts.
What platform(s) do we use ourselves?
Linux is our primary development platform here at SCS. Many of us also have Windows PCs and/or Macs on our desks, but a lot of SCS staff get along just fine with a Linux desktop. We all have access to Linux servers to develop and/or test the SCS applications and to use some of our own in-house databases. We don’t feel the need to go completely “Microsoft-free,” but it would be possible. We have some customers who have made that a goal, and our applications could help them.
Why should you feel comfortable doing business with SCS even if we are “different”?
For one thing, we’ve been serving the newspaper business for a long time (for our company’s history, read “About SCS” on our web site. In fact, we’ve outlasted most of the newspaper vendors that were around when we started, even the industry leaders. I like to think that’s because we have been doing things right. (As a side note, we were founded one year before Oracle and just one year after Microsoft.) We’re not going away anytime soon, and even if we did, we have our application source code in escrow for our customers. We’re committed to the best algorithms that computer science, newspaper expertise and brainpower can provide. We have skilled programmers implementing these algorithms. Customers praise our support staff as the best anywhere. Our long-term technological vision, our dedicated and intelligent staff, our extensive experience in both computers and newspapers and our reliable support are just a few of the reasons to get your newspaper systems from SCS.
Paper checking is not fun. Just ask Bette Norris of the Business Office staff at the Moline (IL) Dispatch. It's a job she's done for years but now, thanks to a new application from Software Consulting Services, LLC of Nazareth PA, her days of manual paper checking are over.
Her new tool is called PaperCheckAdBoss™ or PCAB for short.
The Dispatch is a 40,000 circulation daily that is part of the Small Newspaper Group. Dale Attwood, Production Manager, and Scott Aswege, General Manager, shepherded PCAB from an SCS new product vision to a useful production tool.
Paper checking is a back room process designed to tie the advertising that's published to what's invoiced. Hand measuring and a visual comparison to ad manifests is the usual process. (Those newspapers who abandon paper checking often find their credit managers dealing with unpleasant, labor intensive billing disputes and lack of audit accountability.)
You might think with all the technology of a fully paginated newspaper like the Dispatch, spending over four hours per day measuring and marking off ads wouldn't be necessary. The Dispatch's advertising front-end and A/R is from Brainworks. A DPS system provides production ad management. SCS's Layout-8000™ is used for dummying all products with SCS's InLay™ doing the automatic interfacing to InDesign® which is used for pagination. Believe it or not, PCAB needs to unite all of these systems to do the back-to-front data analysis necessary for effective paper checking.
However, as Bette points out, without paper checking, advertisers find your errors and they typically don't like it when it happens. Bette reports that "We checked the paper both ways during all of April. The only time there was a difference in the result, PaperCheckAdBoss found an error we didn't."
PCAB (which she calls 'AdBoss') has made her paper checking task so much faster and easier. "Whenever there's a problem [with an ad size or placement] it tells me where to go look. I'm more confident that I'm sending out true statements to customers. Since May 1st I have depended on AdBoss 100%."
Prior to PCAB, Bette worked with another business office clerk, checking printed reports and newspaper pages back and forth. Now she can get images of pages as dummied by Layout-8000 and right next to them the pages exported from InDesign for pagination. Or, she can use a simple report which lists exceptions right at the top. A quick glance at the designated exceptions completes the verification. "I can quickly do it by myself," says Bette.
Bette explained that PCAB draws her attention only to ads with a problem, usually on the first run. The problem can be fixed and it never needs to be checked by a person again throughout the run of the ad. She is proud that they "balance to the penny" before bills go out.
In addition, the program produces reports by page and by publication of inches printed, inches scheduled and billed to customers, inches of scheduled in-house ads and inches of fillers added during dummying or pagination. This can be balanced to reports from their ad order entry system to produce better tracking of in-house ads and better figures for non-paid ads.
Scott noted that not only was a formerly 'not fun' job made easy, but there were net labor savings of over 20 hours per week. Dale reported that personnel have already been reassigned to cover work left open by departed employees without hiring new people.
The Business Office saves the checked report from PCAB so that Scott Aswege, the paper's General Manager, can go back at any time and look at it. In the past they kept the marked up papers as an audit trail for two months to handle any advertiser questions. Now they keep only the electronic copies of the PCAB discrepancy reports.
As a beta site customer, Dale worked closely with the SCS developer, Charles Finady, during the installation. Dale describes Charles as "very responsive, very professional and very helpful." [Editor's note: This is what we expect of all of our developers and support staff. Charles is an excellent example.]
A recent email from Dale said, "We just tested the saving function of the newest update from last night and it works PERFECTLY!!! Also adding the lineage and ad count to that report is awesome".
Richard Cichelli, SCS President, says, "It has been a privilege to work with the staff at The Dispatch. These are the kind of customers that make it easy for us to continue writing and installing "smart" software to automate repetitive tasks for newspapers."
by Phil Curtolo
In the summer of 2016, Kapp Advertising, publishers of the Merchandiser, began installing advertising and production systems from SCS. They knew the systems would streamline their workflow, but never imagined how drastic the improvements would be.
The transition started with SCS/Track, which combines tools for controlling and monitoring ad workflow, building ads, facilitating web-based access for online proofing and the submission of ads and content, managing current and archived digital ad assets and user-definable reporting into a single system.
In the pre-SCS/Track world, the Merchandiser had 18 artists building ads across 3 shifts. This was done 24 hours a day, 6 days a week! The long hours don't do justice to how much effort was required to “track” an ad.
There were barely enough hours in the day to handle the volume of ads flowing in and out of the art department, and the entire process was manual. When an ad was booked, a physical ticket was moved from order entry to artists, where ads were manually created, sized and saved in Adobe InDesign. Any components from previously run ads had to be tracked down in e- mails or old ad folders. Completed ads then had to be manually converted to PDF one ad at a time. And on a nightly basis, all ad files would need to be manually backed up.
To make matters worse, according to Jane Means, Kapp’s General Manager, “Our regional offices booked ads all day long that were ready at 5:00 pm each day. At that time, we would have to have two people drive all those printed insertion orders and pieces of paper to the corporate plant to process in the graphics department.” Means continues, “Copy (and a lot of it) would not get in here until 7:00 in the evenings and we needed to have the ads ready the next morning. We needed artists working through the night.”
All that being said, it took a monumental effort by the talented staff at the Merchandiser to make all of this work, but Means and her team knew there had to be a better way. SCS proved to have a better way, and it started with SCS/Track. With SCS/Track connected to the Merchandiser’s advertising system, new orders are electronically created and assigned to artists in the system. “Once SCS/Track was in place, ads and copy are entered electronically throughout the day and, voila, the graphics department has everything they need to complete all ads, including those from the regional offices,” reports Means. “The new workflow is greatly appreciated by all departments.”
One such workflow improvement, per Angie DeAngelo, Macintosh Specialist & Trainer, was pick-up ads. Per DeAngelo, “When we pick up an entire ad, every single piece of artwork comes with the ad. Our graphic artists don’t have to spend time looking for that obscure piece of artwork that ran last time the ad ran. It’s all in one nice folder, automatically.”
DeAngelo continues, “Once an ad is Routed as Finished, the PDF is automatically exported to the proper folder. This used to be something we did by hand, one ad at a time. That has saved us much time and effort.”
What about that nightly backup process? “That is taken care of on SCS/Track’s end, and is done in the background,” says DeAngelo. “Plus, having two servers is comforting. If one goes down, the other one automatically takes over. No more worry over how to get our production back up and running.”
In the current art department, with SCS/Track in place, the same 18 artists now work Monday through Friday across 2 shifts. “SCS has been the reason we were able to move all our 3rd shift graphic personnel to 1st and 2nd shifts,” Means happily states. “They love sleeping when it’s dark and we love having all the work done by 11:00pm!”
In addition to SCS/Track, Kapp has also installed Layout-8000 and SCS/ClassPag to dummy and paginate ads on pages. Much like SCS/Track, these systems have significantly improved the workflow. What’s next for the Merchandiser and SCS? As Means puts it, “We look forward to more benefits as we develop our skills with SCS’s products.”
Originally published November 2017
by Richard J. Cichelli, President of SCS
Where are newspapers headed?
Newspapers are designed and manufactured. There was a time not that long ago prior to the rise of Google, when owning a newspaper was delightfully profitable. Now, not so much. This has led to the sale of independent newspapers to ever larger newspaper groups.
These newspaper corporations are looking for efficiencies in design and production. They consolidated IT services, picking common systems for use by their business units. They often co-located their computing technology to gain further cost reductions. Newspaper design centers (NDCs) were set up to create display ads. Ad building can be done with off-the-shelf commodity desktop graphic design tools, like Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, MultiAd Creator, etc. Often ad building was outsourced to services in low wage countries.
Centralized servers with databases were used for ad tracking and production workflow.
This roadmap will show how a well-engineered, server-based ad dummying system can play a pivotal role in improving the efficiency of a newspaper design center.
Spending too much time with dummies?
Dummying newspapers involves fitting rectangles onto bigger rectangles, i.e., taking the space for each display ad and allocating it to a position on the pages of an edition. Manual dummying looks like having fun playing Tetris. It is not that simple. There are many complex constraints involved in doing it well.
Manual processes don't scale. Critical expertise known only to certain individuals doesn't scale. What does scale is a server-based computing architecture providing a knowledge database and highly automated services.
Consider a design center serving a large newspaper group, say one with 100 publications produced daily. All these need to be dummied. One might expect that there are 25 layout operators working throughout the group designing these publications. Do the math. With each operator doing four products per day, that's two hours per product.
Instead of two hours per product per operator, with a well engineered dummying system, designing two products per hour per operator is an achievable goal. That's four times the productivity.
How can a newspaper design center achieve greater dummying productivity?
There are a number of issues that need to be considered in building a scalable, efficient dummying platform that can be deployed not just in one design center, but industry wide:
1) What services should be provided before, during and after dummying.
2) What site-specific expertise should be moved to the NDC and how.
3) What programming and deployment strategies are needed to make an appropriate system suitable for NDCs and an entire industry.
4) What innovative technologies are needed for task optimization.
What services should be provided before dummying?
To dummy a product one needs to know what the edition will look like and the set of ad insertions that will go in it. Insertion orders describe ads, or, more specifically, space requests. These come from a front-end advertising management system (AMS). AMSs support the sales, order entry and accounting functions.
Edition designs specify what the products are to look like. If you think of edition designs as being in Edition Design Files (EDF), there are likely to be many of them tailored to various publications. Edition designs have parts that are relatively constant for all editions of a product. There are also design constraints and policies that vary with each product, e.g., desired ad news ratios, the size of the sections and the paper as a whole.
An EDF can be thought of as a program or specification for combining the ads into a product. They are design templates.
One complexity in designing newspapers is that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between what is designed and what is printed on the press. Successful designing must accommodate products with multiple variants, called zones. These are best designed all at once, so that corresponding common pages line up. In contrast, what eventually goes on the press are complete zones, one at a time. They may include multiple designs, such as when a tab section is part of a broadsheet paper. Typically they have different column measures.
Press limitations, especially with regard to the color availability on older presses, are particularly difficult to deal with.
A dummied paper is a blueprint for the assembly of the product by the pagination system.
So dummying systems sit as middleware between front-end advertising and newsroom systems and back-end pagination systems.
To be suitable for design center (and industry-wide) deployment, the middleware needs to be able to accept insertion orders (preferably in near real time) from a multiplicity of business units and their individual systems, store them for retrieval, access them for extracting, transforming and loading into the dummying engine.
Technology that scales for NDC use offers support for multiple data protocols, including XML, JSON, CSV and fixed field for insertion orders.
Of course there are situations where front-ends do not supply appropriate ad attributes in their interface files. Some files lack essential information. Others present not attributes, but instructions, usually as text commands. Dealing with this automatically requires a named entity recognizer, one which can translate RHP, into a right hand page placement request attribute automatically. Further, the ability to programmatically examine ad images to find out if they are in color, have coupons, are reverse ads, are about selling tires, etc. can help bridge the gap.
Another way to supplement what AMSs provide is to use historic data. How this might be achieved will be discussed later.
There are several services that the middleware can provide which can help facilitate sales. One is to support premium space reservation management. Using this service allows sales reps to sell preferred locations to advertisers willing to pay extra for guaranteed space. Deploying this service on the internet allows sales reps to cross sell products for multiple business units.
Another is to help manage standby ads sales. Using this service allows sales reps to offer advertisers a lower cost way to have their ads run. Standby ads are run on a space available basis. Cross selling standby ads should also be possible. Running them instead of fillers is not just a new revenue source, but can allow making better looking pages.
When dealing with dozens of products, it is helpful for there to be a centralized set of applications that provide management reporting for both sales (ad request distribution reporting) and production (page tracking) to all staff via the internet. Well run newspapers have dummies everywhere.
Having a space inventory and standby ad support can accelerate sales.
The dummying system's middleware must provide facilities for automating both pre- and post-dummying tasks for NDCs.
Server-based technology easily out performs desktop solutions for these tasks.
What services should be provided during dummying?
Dummying newspapers on an industrial scale is neither an art nor a craft. It requires a multi-product view and all the automation that computer aided design technology can bring to the task.
One of the things you do when designing a newspaper is placing display ads. In fact, it is usually what you do first when designing an edition. Sell ad space, tightly fit the rectangles onto pages and use the left over space for news: "All the news that fits, they print."
You could use Tetris as a model for an ad dummying system, but as many newspapers have found, systems based on this model don't easily scale to the needs of NDCs. There efficiency concerns are paramount.
Manual dummying may be fun for operators, but it falls short if you are trying to save labor costs. It does have one advantage over smarter technologies. Take such a system out of the box and you can immediately dummy with it as you would with an electronic pencil, just like you did with a graphite one. However, having a person do something a machine can do better dehumanizes the person.
Being able to dummy multiple products at once yields more flexible production timing. (No more waiting for something for one product, just start working on another concurrently.) With this comes better workflow automation. Dummying is on the critical path to pagination. Anything that improves its efficiency, improves overall production efficiency.
Automatic dummying is key to efficient design.
What is automated dummying?
Let's say you have a list of ad records and a set of page thumbnails. You drag and drop an ad onto a page. Instead of requiring you to re-position the already placed ads to accommodate the added one, the software rearranges them automatically. That's part of auto-dummying.
There may be a style requested for the page. A pyramid toward the edge means that the ads are arranged in stair step fashion. Bigger ads will be in the bottom outside corners, smaller ones on top. (It's not good form to bury an ad under others. They should touch news as well.) Ads will align with columns and should not span the tops of multiple ads. Besides pyramid styles, there are thousands of others made up of combinations of style factors.
Designing an entire product requires scaling up from individual pages to an entire edition. One good strategy is to deal with sets of pages by their content. Advertisers may request that their ads be put on sports, business, main news, etc. pages. Such requests correspond to the editorial "desks". Advertisers wish their ads to be among certain news content. Similarly, they often prefer that ads with products like theirs be away from their ads. (I.e., "Don't put another's tire ad on a page with my tire ad.")
So dummying the sports pages together might be a good strategy. To minimize the cases where advertisers don't get their requested placement, it is useful to dummy the most restrictive situations before others. This is called targeted dummying.
Think of an edition with 40 pages and 200 ads. (You wish.) Misplace 10 percent of the ads. How many pages are you likely to have made a mess of? Not 4, i.e., 10 percent of 40. The probable answer is at least 20 pages, every page where an ad was misplaced. You might as well do it manually.
Computer scientists would think of dummying as solving an instance of the difficult problem of 2-dimensional bin packing.
Are there other constraints? Many. To take a description of a press and compute the color availability is called press impositioning. Like other parts of the dummying problem, this, too, is a difficult NP-Hard problem. NP-Hard means non-deterministic polynomial-time hard problems. These have the highest level of computational complexity. They are, by definition, some of the most difficult to solve.
Is doing impositions automatically important? The layout person calls the pressroom foreman and says "I'm designing a 40 page paper with 12 full-page color ads. Where can I run them?" The answer requires very specialized knowledge. (Even the units where inks are to used in the sequence of press runs.) If this expertise is only in the head (as it often is) of the press room foreman, this is not a good thing. Consider that he or she might be the union representative. BTW - Presses run at night and dummying is usually done during the day shift. You could end up paying considerable overtime to cover both.
Artificial intelligence technology can come to the rescue.
Artificial intelligence and newspaper design
It was recently reported that a way one could understand artificial intelligence (AI) was to look at Google's auto-completion of queries. I've been an AI researcher since the late sixties, when I was heavily involved in writing chess programs. Auto-completion? Really?
I query Google with "Van" and it auto-completes "Vanguard login". I'm not surprised, since I type "Van" nearly once every day. But then I tried to give the auto-complete analogy the benefit of the doubt. So auto-completion looks like recording behavior (a user's query set), matching a new query to partial strings of the stored set of queries and then predicting the new query. Well, it's almost this. It needs one more operation for the AI part. One needs to improve its predicting performance over time. To do this, add the eventual new query to the query set, weight its importance and use that knowledge to predict the next similar query. (In the early seventies, pre-Alta Vista, a smart new information retrieval system predicted a query of "porn" when the query entered was unintelligible or empty.)
The feedback loop is the machine learning behavior. Machine learning is a sub-field of AI. When you appreciate this you realize that with AI you aren't really building smart machines, just machines that exhibit smart behavior.
Why did the dummying algorithm/heuristic end up placing an ad where it did? Having a full trace offers a better understanding of the dummying logic.
AI techniques can help with both getting ad attributes and selecting templates. As operators dummy products, either manually or automatically, recording both the decisions and the context in which they are made becomes part of the growing knowledge base of dummying preferences. As new products are dummied, what happened with them is used to adjust derived preferences. This feedback loop becomes a tool for predicting dummying decisions. In short, it gets smarter.
How smart? As the knowledge base grows, manually-made designs are compared to automated ones computed in the background. Automated design can be trusted to take over when the differences are found not to matter.
Having a dummying knowledge base eases the transition from manual business unit based dummying to NDC automated dummying. The local expertise about advertiser's style preferences, etc. is saved in the system. This achieves an important corporate goal of making specialized expertise widely available.
Systems that support automated dummying are expert systems. Expert systems are another sub-branch of AI.
Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence (GOFAI).
Dummying display ads, paginating classified sections, designing news layouts and computing press impositions are examples of applied GOFAI. As with chess programming, getting results in well less than a second makes for a good interactive user experience. The common challenge is to examine a large set of possibilities by trial and error searching quickly and effectively. This is called backtracking. Even the most pleasing screen layouts of page thumbnails can be found by backtrack search.
Some newspapers have very explicit styles. Perhaps they want page A3 to have three 2 column by 6 inch high ads across the bottom with a column of one column ads stacking up the right edge. It helps to have a pattern language (or domain specific language) for specifying such patterns. The dummying routines have to sort through the possibilities to make such special shapes.
There are no shortage of interesting problems to solve when doing computer aided design of newspapers.
What services should be provided after dummying?
The results of the dummying process are exported to the pagination subsystem. Commodity desktop applications such as QuarkXPress and Adobe's InDesign are well suited for newspaper assembly. The dummying system provides the geometry in machine readable form and interfaces to these products to construct the framework for the print edition.
Layout staff are designers, not paginators. Design isn't construction, nor should it be thought of as such. Layout staff need to be aware of both the advertisers' and editorial department's needs and the publisher's policies. If they do more than sketch, they do too much. The interface technology should map the design into pagination construction instructions. Columns, which are counted for dummying, are mapped into measured positions for pagination. (Sometimes newspapers change their column measure. Such as when doing a web reduction. This should be the concern of the interface, not the designers.)
While there are popular commodity and proprietary tools for newspaper pagination, new free open source technology may soon challenge them. Scribus is the current leader FOSS for print publication pagination. For developers wishing to automate and optimize newspaper pagination, Scribus offers numerous advantages. Python is its scripting language and its internal document format is plain text in XML. It is wide open for programming.
Interfaces should be available for all pagination platforms.
The output files from dummying systems drive other production subsystems such as those for managing tearsheets, paper checking, design approvals and the monitoring of the production of ads, pages, operator and system performance, etc.
Many key performance indicators are best computed from the data produced within the dummying system.
Programming and deployment strategies which support NDCs.
Inventing software technology is fun. Invention alone isn't sufficient to sustain a business. That requires innovation. Innovation is where invention yields revenue. Revenue only comes with deployment. The goal is to deploy durable technology that allows the fun to continue.
Faster is better than slower. Small, compartmentalized, incremental releases are better than big, infrequent ones. Some systems architectures favor speed while others do not.
Which do you think is more agile? An architecture built around a monolithic database that holds everything you might know about an ad or advertiser, or one that is built to provide microservices that know exactly what each needs to know to deliver a particular service?
A microservice architecture allows capabilities to be delivered and debugged quickly. Supporting a microservice architecture requires an enterprise service bus, something that securely supports the transfer of data among services. A side benefit of such architecture is that the services, being independent, can be deployed on multiple smaller, less expensive hardware platforms. Roll-outs can be done in chunks for both services and equipment.
A microservice architecture allows customers to enable services as they are ready for them. Developers can get new releases into customer sites faster. It's a better way to manage a growing, complex, evolving system. And it is the key to providing new value for customer support payments.
SCS is a leader in providing applications used in newspaper design centers. These are used by 5 of the top 10 largest newspaper companies through out their 560 business units. These alone have over 12.5 million subscribers. SCS's installed user base of newspapers is over twice this large.
Originally published 01/26/2017
by W. ERIC SCHULT
For many chain newspapers, it’s been a central focus for the past half-decade or so to centralize or regionalize operations so that precious resources can be redirected to content generation, audience building, and other key priorities important to a rapidly evolving industry. That effort has driven giants like Gannett and Lee Enterprises, among others, to standardize on Software Consulting Service’s Layout-8000™ to handle the task of dummying their daily and non-daily print products.
Gannett, in particular, is seen as a pioneer in consolidation and centralization, having elected in 2010 to standardize its content management system across the chain, according to Jarod Pollock, who manages publishing and knowledge management solutions for the chain. That decision precipitated a broader effort to standardize on an ad dummying solution, as well.
“The decision to move to a centralized ad dummying system was not initially in scope for this project,” he said, but “we soon realized that managing feeds from multiple layout systems [to the chain’s chosen content management solution, CCI’s NewsGate] would be expensive and very difficult to support. There were a variety of systems used across Gannett for ad dummying and Layout-8000 was not in the majority.”
“They had 13 dailies at the time that were using Layout 8000,” according to Phil Curtolo, SCS’s director of sales. The majority of its papers were using one of two or more other solutions that were not ideally suited for Gannett’s consolidation goals. One, for example, was a desktop application, and another was a module tied to a legacy order entry system. Layout-8000, by contrast, “was the only one that was basically ready, right out of the box, to host all of the papers in a centralized environment,” Curtolo said.
“SCS quickly stood out as a company that was in alignment with the direction we wanted to go,” Pollock acknowledged. “[The vendor’s] willingness to provide a high-quality solution based on Gannett’s requirements as well as a financially competitive bid for licensing, support and services” were key factors in the chain’s decision.
Pollock described the shift as a “group effort by many at Gannett,” including: Stacey Martin, director of publishing and knowledge management solutions; Wayne Peragallo, vice president of information technology; Alan Bruce, director of information technology, midwest region; Jim Dundas, Lora Hamlin, Denise Harris and Claire Harris, technical analysts at various Gannett papers (Asbury Park, Rochester, Port Huron and Nashville, respectively); as well as Pollock, himself, among others.
Pollock explained how the implementation of centralized ad dummying was accomplished at Gannett. “The … centralized layout environment mimics our design structure,” with five regional Design Studios across the country – in Asbury Park, Des Moines, Louisville, Nashville, and Phoenix – and “five unique Layout-8000 systems hosting each Design Studio’s publications.”
“We have nearly 100 properties using the centralized layout system,” Pollock said, which would be 100% if not for the recent purchase of the Journal Media Group. Gannett now has 14 more markets it plans to add to the system beginning in July, with completion slated for the end of the year.
“We started the conversions conservatively and built momentum once we had a few completed,” Pollock said. “There were times when we had five different properties at different stages of the conversion simultaneously.” All of that was being done concurrently with Gannett’s rollout of NewsGate as its content management system.
“We’ve added about 20-25 new pubs onto the environment since they went live with the initial 82 dailies,” Curtolo said. “We’ve done it without batting an eye. They do it themselves, for the most part. It’s been great!”
Gannett, Pollock said, provides “first-level support” for Layout-8000 issues to all its properties, but he acknowledged that the company still occasionally leans on SCS for “tougher issues and bug reports.”
“When we do contact SCS for help, [the vendor is] always very responsive and professional. The issues are tracked in an incident management system and we are automatically notified quickly of any status change or a suggestive course of action. This is impressive, since the issues on which we have sought SCS’s help are usually fairly complex.”
The partnership with Gannett has helped SCS make Layout-8000 that much better a product, according to Curtolo. “Along the way, we improved [Layout-8000] an awful lot with input from Gannett,” he said. For example: “There was always a limitation on the number of paper, edition and group codes that could be used. You could have up to 99 of each.” While that would be sufficient for almost any other customer, Gannett had considerably different needs. “What we ended up doing with Gannett is we started implementing non-numeric codes for papers and editions. It’s at a point now where we can have 9,981 unique newspapers set up inside a single instance of Layout-8000. That was huge for Gannett. It lets them not only accommodate what they had at the time – which was 83 dailies – but also allowed them to grow as they acquired new pubs, which they’ve done quite a bit over the last two years or so.”
Pollock acknowledged the “mutual respect between Gannett and SCS,” noting: “[SCS takes] note of functionality requests we make, and these are often incorporated into future releases.”
There were, according to Pollock, “many things we learned and many things that we did right” that may be instructive to other chains that have similar consolidation goals.
“We embraced the need for standards and we found out early on that getting users to buy-in to these standards was easier than getting them to change their legacy system workflow,” he said. “Fortunately, Layout-8000 offered enough flexibility to standardize the integration to the production and pagination system even if the data coming from the ad billing system was non-standard. Early on, we ran into issues with users not being used to sharing a system with so many properties. Users would make changes for their site and not realize that it also had an impact on other sites. We have had our bumps, but all things considered, it went as smoothly as we could have hoped.”
Pollock discussed the importance of forming a “core team at the beginning … to help develop standards,” and having the team revisit those standards often. The chain even wrote a terminology guide so its different properties, using various terms to describe the same thing, could learn to speak a common language. Communicating with the user community, he said, is also key – keeping the users informed about new functionality, bug fixes, and best practices, and interacting with the community with tools like Yammer, email, SharePoint, OneNote and live demos. The company also found it valuable to form an admin team “that is a mixture of power users, support analysts, infrastructure and technical analysts” and have them meet to discuss issues and other topics on a regular basis.
“Obviously, there were some drawbacks to moving to a consolidated ad dummying system,” Pollock said. “Local sites were set in their ways and we knew that getting buy-in from the user community would be key to a successful project.” It was a tall order to train users on the new content management system and layout system in the same 8-week launch cycle, he acknowledged, but “our hands-on training program and extensive documentation library gave our users the tools necessary to be successful.”
Even as the chain on-boards the former JMG papers into the centralized system, progress continues to expand the level of centralization beyond systems architecture, standardized software, and common SOP’s across the chain. “We have begun to centralize the ad layout for our properties,” Pollock said. “Asbury Park is furthest along with all the properties in New Jersey, New York and various others being completed out of the same location.” The dummying of papers, then, becomes a service that the regional Design Centers perform for the individual papers across the chain.
Richard Cichelli, co-owner of SCS, said in a recent Editor & Publisher (Sept. 2015) article that helping chains with centralization goals has been a key focus of SCS in recent years. “We wanted to make this kind of work environment easier, because we were getting business from Tribune, Gannett, Lee, Sandusky … and so forth, that were consolidating these sites,” he said. “We scale to the high end with these design centers and it’s because of that that we have so much traction in this area.”
Originally published 06/27/2016
by Anthony Salamone
LOWER NAZARETH TOWNSHIP – Software Consulting Services has been selling computer systems to newspapers of all sizes for more than 30 years.
The Lower Nazareth Township company has contracts with more than 1,500 publishing companies in 19 countries, including Gannett, Advance Publications and The Morning Call corporate parent Tribune Publishing.
"Nobody has ever failed to publish because of us. I'm very proud of that," said Martha Cichelli, who founded the company 40 years ago.
But like most long-lasting small businesses, it's SCS's adaptability to other businesses that has helped keep the company operating. Now that adaptability has helped SCS land a software contract that will help people learn about the White House.
On March 1, the White House Historical Association in Washington launched a digital library with the help of SCS that provides students, educators, scholars and others around the world a free online archive offering "unprecedented opportunities" for distance learning about the White House.
SCS is a U.S. reseller of the Norwegian made software, Fotoware, used in the digital library.
"We worked closely with SCS, as the designated reseller of Fotoware in the United States, on the development and deployment of our digital library," said Stephanie Tuszynski, digital librarian at the association, a nonprofit founded in 1961 by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to boost understanding of the historic mansion. "We appreciated the dedication and engagement of the SCS team on this robust and complex project."
Cichelli's husband, co-owner Richard Cichelli, said while SCS' software is typically used internally by companies, the association contract is "something we have done that you can see directly."
In its infancy, SCS' first newspaper product was a software tool that helped newspapers lay out advertisements on their pages, saving time and employee costs by eliminating manual layout. How the company evolved into that is an interesting story, sort of a play on the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention."
In the mid-1970s, Martha Cichelli, a business programmer at PPL Corp., left the company to take care of her newborn daughter. She sought to work part time at PPL, but companies in those days did not offer the benefit.
So she began SCS from her Allentown home, supplying the software development for hospitals and companies.
"Financially, I couldn't have lived on it, let's put it that way," she said of her new business venture.
The fledgling entrepreneur didn't need to. Her husband had been developing software for the American Newspaper Publishers Association at its research institute in Forks Township. But he decided to leave when the trade group, now known as the Newspaper Association of America, moved to northern Virginia.
Richard Cichelli licensed the ANPA technology and continued developing it on his own, and he broadened his wife's business by selling software to newspapers.
In May 1983, the Cichellis and their seven employees became the first company to move into the new Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeastern Pennsylvania incubator at Lehigh University, a state-funded business development group. The company stayed at Lehigh for 2 1/2 years.
Privately held SCS, which has 20 employees, is based in a large office building off Route 946, about 3 miles north of Route 22. Annual revenues range between $2.5 and $5 million, Richard Cichelli says. Its software services also have been deployed by the human-welfare group Ford Foundation, specialty chemicals provider Lubrizol Corp. and others.
Richard Cichelli said newspaper executives don't ask his company how much more advertising they will sell using SCS' software, but how much they are going to save.
"The reality is that we have to provide solutions that scale and reduce costs," he said.
For the Cichellis, there's no slowing down. He's 71; she's 69, but both are so immersed in their work, they deflect questions about a business-succession plan.
Many years ago, Martha Cichelli says, her husband bought a desk from a used furniture company. It was a "died-at-the-desk desk," one with a dent that looks like someone hard at work fell forward from exhaustion — and struck the desktop headfirst.
"I think that's his plan," Martha Cichelli said, adding that the goal is to elevate some employees to continue the company. "He's not ready to go yet."
Originally published by The Morning Call on 03/23/2016
“Scary and outrageous” is how Martha Cichelli, founder of Software Consulting Services (SCS), characterized a cryptoviral extortion racket that victimized one of its newspaper customers recently.
The Trinidad Express, a daily paper in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, had found itself essentially locked out of its own production system – SCS/Track – unable to pick up electronic print ads from one edition of the paper to the next. Unbeknownst to the paper, it had been infected with a variant of the CryptoLocker virus – a piece of ransomware that encrypts computer files so that they are made inaccessible to their owners until a monetary ransom is paid the virus’ creator.
CryptoLocker emerged as a new online threat in 2013, infecting Windows-based computers by means of email attachments disguised as innocuous files that are actually malware. A recent, high-profile case involved a California hospital that was locked out of its own medical records system for 10 days, until it paid a $17,000 ransom. Due to CryptoLocker’s success at extorting millions of dollars from its victims, a number of copycat schemes followed.
The one that hit The Trinidad Express was known as the .Micro File Virus, so named because the files that it infected were tagged with a .micro file extension, according to Michael Grabowski of SCS, who was tasked with helping rescue the paper from its predicament.
“The reason they couldn’t do pickups is because you would try to do the pickup and [SCS/Track] would show you all the source and destination files, but all the source files had ‘.micro’ extensions,” Grabowski said. “As soon as I saw that, I pretty much knew that it was some variant of a CryptoLocker [virus].” Further investigation revealed that the paper’s shared file directory of current ads “had about 8,000 infected files in there.” These were classified and retail display ads, many of which would have to be rebuilt by the creative services team unless Grabowski and The Express’s IT team could isolate the virus and recover the files. It was either that or the paper would have to pay a ransom and hope the cybercriminal responsible for the virus provided a key to decrypt the infected files.
Halting the Spread; Restoring from Backup
Once he had identified the problem, Grabowski, working with his IT counterparts at the paper, disabled sharing on the directories found to contain infected files, preventing further spread of the virus. Next, they found and isolated the machine where the virus originated, and while the local IT experts “did all the cleaning of it and wiping of it” with anti-virus software and updated virus definitions, Grabowski used a nightly backup to restore files to a state before they became infected. “Certainly there were some files from that day [which didn’t exist when the backup had been performed] that may have been lost – there would be nothing much we could do there – but we got 8,000 files off the backup,” Graboswki said. “I would say for the most part, there might have been a little work they had to do to recover, but it seemed like they had most of their stuff back that they needed at that time.”
Marlon Villarroel, an IT associate at the paper who worked through the crisis with Grabowski, said the virus couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time – on a Friday, after 5 pm, local time. “Fridays are our busiest time throughout the week, because [we] have to prepare for the weekend publications as well as the publication on Monday morning.” He reported it took only 5-10 minutes to enlist SCS’s support after the paper’s initial plea for help, and “we were able to rectify the problem within two to three hours.” The recovery effort “pushed us back a little bit, but it wasn’t serious or critical,” he said. “We were able to continue work as normal after that.”
“It was good to see [that SCS was] able to respond so quickly,” Villarroel said. “Thank God that we had a backup of these files and Mike was able to restore [them] from the backup.”
Grabowski acknowledged: “It was no ride in the park, but I was pretty happy, given the circumstances, what we were able to recover.”
In addition to the initial recovery, it took about a week, according to Villarroel, to tie up all the loose ends associated with the event, removing “all those residual files that the virus will create” and securing the entire network against re-infection. “Michael was very patient with us, and we appreciate that,” he said.
Grabowski said it helped that The Express had competent IT support on-site to work with him, noting that a lot of smaller papers have outsourced or otherwise lost their in-house technology resources. “Getting in touch with the outsourced people make it very difficult to get anything done, because in an emergency state like this, I need feedback from the site right away,” he said. He noted that it was “concerning” to him that many of the third-party IT companies that newspapers hire for outsourced IT expertise are unqualified, struggling with simple IT tasks. “It’s like major surgery for them.”
“When you’re working with the same person over and over again” – like Marlon or his colleague Sheldon at The Express – “they’re going to get it done,” he said.
For papers with limited IT resources, SCS has shifted to a subscription-based model of providing a broader range of “Managed Services” in support of its suite of advertising solutions and the hardware on which they run.
Grabowski also pointed out that the up-to-date versions of its software – also subscription based now – are less vulnerable to CryptoLocker-style attacks than earlier perpetual-licensed versions that some of its existing customers are still using. Specifically, anyone on Version 2 or less of SCS/Track is more vulnerable to these attacks, and anyone on Version 3 or greater is safe, by virtue of a change in the way files are shared.
“The newest version of SCS/Track has significantly beefed up resilience to malware across all platforms,” said Richard Cichelli, president of SCS. Windows-based servers and Windows workstations, he noted, are more susceptible to malware attacks than, for example, a Linux/Scribus-based system. “We support, but do not recommend, having Windows-based servers being used along with our applications,” he said. “We have had to go to extraordinary means to protect our customers’ data when such platforms are part of their configurations.”
Grabowski said that SCS has had “two other significant instances beside [Trinidad] where this has happened” - both involving Windows-based platforms. SCS’s normal subscription services cover all recovery activity in cases such as these.
Originally published 02/29/2016
How many vendors to the newspaper industry – especially software vendors – can boast 40 years in business under the same owner?
That’s the milestone Martha Cichelli reached in November in 2015, celebrating the ruby anniversary of her founding of Software Consulting Services (SCS), a small, family-owned start-up whose systems would become the heartbeat of hundreds of newspapers – large and small – throughout North and South America.
SCS’s core product, Layout-8000™, is now a central component of the production and advertising systems in dozens of the largest papers in the United States, and is widely considered the standard for automated advertising dummying solutions in the newspaper industry. Dominant newspaper chains – including Gannett, Tribune, Lee Enterprises and Advance Publications – are among its devoted users, as are hundreds of small and medium-sized independent papers.
Most recently, SCS shifted its focus to include a broad range of subscription-based solutions and services for newspapers, including: advertising, editorial, digital asset management, and color management. The FotoWare digital asset and color management software it markets, sells and installs has a customer base that extends beyond newspaper customers to include The White House Historical Association, the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Packard, the city of Toronto, and Lubrizol (a Berkshire Hathaway company), among others. The pivot helped keep SCS responsive to the evolving needs of its customers, and has provided the company some traction in expanding its services beyond the niche for which it is better known.
Up till now, “we have been the kings of interfacing,” Cichelli said. “We’ve interfaced [Layout-8000] to every front-end system out there and to numerous pagination systems, including QuarkXPress in 1987 which established the viability of desktop publishing tools as an alternative to proprietary newspaper vendor provided systems.” But what SCS is discovering, she said, is that bundling the ad dummying software with its own advertising and editorial solutions, and offering the whole system to newspapers by monthly subscription, provides advantages to both SCS and its customers that had not previously been realized. “We … find it much easier to do it all … than having to interface to lots of other systems,” she said, “and that’s what we’re working toward.
The initiative has led to recent sales of SCS’s so-called Community Advertising System to The Lawton (OK) Constitution, The Falmouth (MA) Enterprise, and the Virgin Islands Daily News, among others.
The shift in business models is not the first for SCS since its humble beginnings in the mid-1970s, with Cichelli programming, her husband, Richard, helping out with part-time consulting, a neighbor (who is still with the company as its controller) handling marketing and sales, and fairly soon thereafter the addition of another programmer and two summer interns.
The company didn’t start off writing software for newspapers, but rather did custom programming and data analysis for a variety of customers – businesses, organizations and individuals. Cichelli said, “It wasn’t products that I was making.” Rather, it was her facility with math and her computer programming skills that lent themselves to providing consulting services at a time when desktop computing was just in its infancy. She said she simply “did things that people wanted done,” but couldn’t do for themselves.
That meant, for example, writing a custom desktop scheduler and calendar for a “forward thinking” American Express executive – “stuff that you’d get for free now on your [smart] phone,” Cichelli commented, “but at the time there wasn’t anything like that, particularly nothing that would sit on your desktop [computer]. So, in Pascal, I wrote some simple, little applications for him.”
That connection helped Cichelli wrangle SCS’s first credit card. Though initially turned down by American Express for lack of credit history, she recalled, “I wrote back to them and said, ‘We’re extending credit to a member of your executive staff and it would be nice if you could do the same for us.’” The tactic worked and the card was issued. “That’s the same American Express card we use to this day,” she said. “It’s the same account.”
Math in Her Blood
Although something of a math prodigy, Cichelli didn’t have any formal training in computer programming until after she graduated from college in 1968.
The granddaughter of a University of Wisconsin math professor, Cichelli said that “it was kind of pre-ordained” that she would study math. “I did love math, especially Algebra,” she recalled. “Algebra was wonderful!”
Her grandfather – “a big guy in abstract algebra” who “wrote some parts of the Encyclopedia Brittanica” on the subject – had apparently instilled some of his own passion for his vocation into her, at a very early age. Although she had no personal recollection of it, Cichelli related a story told her by her mother, saying, “He taught me how to add fractions by suggesting I tear up pieces of paper and figure it out. So I figured out how to add a half and a third before I started school.”
By the time she was a grade school student at a tiny town in central Maine – “trudging through blizzards, uphill both ways” – she was essentially setting the curve for her classmates. “The teacher I had in fourth grade somehow was convinced that I would have a perfect paper in Arithmetic, which was not the case, and she would just mark mine 100% and grade everyone else’s from mine. I’d bring home this perfect paper and my mother would re-grade it,” Cichelli said, laughing.
Cichelli went on to study math under a scholarship at Wilmington College in Ohio, later transferring to Temple University in Pennsylvania, because Wilmington “only had one math professor” and at Temple “there was more variety.” Even at Temple, however, there was little opportunity for exposure to programming as a profession. “There was no Computer Science [program] at Temple when I was there,” Cichelli said. “They had one computer course and I never got to take it because it was [cancelled due to] ‘lack of interest.’”
Her first job out of college, though – at E. I. DuPont de Nemours Company in Wilmington, DE – was as an entry-level programmer, which afforded her “training from scratch.” She said, “Within a week, I couldn’t believe that they were actually paying me to have this much fun. I was hooked.”
While acknowledging that “Computer Science is now considered a male-dominated field,” she doesn’t recall it feeling that way when she entered the profession in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. “It was at least 50:50 and maybe even more women than men.” She noted, however, “It wasn’t called ‘Computer Science’ then. I have a personal theory that as soon as it got the title ‘Science,’ it scared women off.”
By 1968, Cichelli had married her husband and future SCS collaborator, Richard, whom she had met in Delaware. He was renting the upstairs apartment in a house she shared with her mother and future step-father, and they crossed paths over a game of pool.
The two would discover a common interest in Computer Science. Richard had had a very early introduction to it, teaching himself – at age 14 – to write FORTRAN from an instruction book he had borrowed from his father, who was Engineering Research Director for the DuPont Company. “His dad said, ‘Oh, you want to run those programs?’” Martha recounted, and “took him over to the DuPont Experimental Station and let him run programs on the Sperry Rand UNIVAC I (the very first commercially manufactured computer)” – a $7 million playground for her then-adolescent future mate.
When he and Martha met, Richard was working as an architectural draftsman, helping design the building that housed the Computer Programming Institute of Delaware, from which he would later graduate. After their marriage, he went back to school and got a B.S. degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware while Martha worked at DuPont. Richard subsequently went to work in the data processing department of a bank, “supervising the running of computer jobs. He made a name for himself there by greatly reducing the complexity of that process for them,” she said. “He applied, I guess you could say, Computer Science to that. He wasn’t writing software at that time.”
The couple eventually moved to Allentown, PA, where Richard had secured a position as a systems programmer for Lehigh University. Martha took a programming job with the Pennsylvania Power and Light (PP&L) Company, coding, she acknowledged, in new languages that “I never claimed to know.”
There were some barriers of sexism Martha encountered along the way. While applying for computing jobs in Allentown, PA, for example, she interviewed with a large manufacturing company that initially balked at placing her on a team designing software solutions, the interviewer admitting: “We’ve never had a woman analyst. You’d have to talk to the men out on the floor, and they can be pretty rough.” An offer did come, Martha recalled, but many months after she began working at PP&L.
The genesis of SCS came when Richard and Martha decided to start a family. “PP&L did not have part-time programming jobs and neither did anyone else that I could find,” Martha said. “I wanted to stay home with our new baby, but I wanted to stay active in computing. So, what could I do but start my own company?” Martha founded SCS in the fall of 1975 and their daughter, Sharon, was born in February of 1976.
Sharon and Martha programming
Sharon, Martha recalled, “pretty much grew up with the company.” Martha brought her along on site visits, placing her in a car seat “parked behind the warm tape drives at a client’s.” As a preschooler, “she learned enough to write simple programs” – like adding two numbers together – “ which she claimed she ‘did not use to do her homework.’” During her high school and college years, she spent time at SCS writing documentation and testing programs – an experience that got her her first “real” job. “Eventually, she came to love writing software and is now a Lead Technical Analyst at a company in Austin, TX,” Martha said.
Leaving PP&L and starting her own company, Martha said, was not particularly a difficult transition “because I had a husband supporting me, and it wasn’t like I was on the verge of financial crisis with the business. It was more like a hobby, at first.”
“It was growing,” though, Martha noted. The company added another programmer and started employing summer interns – “another tradition that we continue to this day,” she said – and plunked down $20,000 for its first minicomputer, used to create Pascal Validation Suite distributions. “This was a big deal at the time,” Martha said. “This was my first experience negotiating a business loan from a bank.” Richard, who had meanwhile become an adjunct lecturer and co-director of the computer science program in the graduate school of mathematics at Lehigh University, was a member of a committee that wrote the official standards for the Pascal programming language and had become a very early evangelist for using Pascal in teaching programming.
Shift to Newspaper Orientation
At that time, the company didn’t yet have the orientation it has today as a vendor providing solutions and services primarily to the newspaper industry.
The first newspaper that hired SCS for consulting services was the Pottsville (PA) Republican,” Martha said. “They wanted to get into using these personal computers a little bit, and they had one” – a [Radio Shack] TRS-80. “They wanted to learn how to use it, [so] they sent us the computer and it sat in our offices, which were in our basement, and I learned how to use it and how to write programs for it and everything. And then I trained them a little bit on how to use it.”
It wasn’t until 1983 – when Richard officially joined the business – that the shift in orientation occurred. He had left his programming job at Lehigh to become the Research Manager of Computer Applications at the American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) Research Institute. When ANPA – now called the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) – moved its headquarters from Easton, PA to Reston, VA, the couple decided not to relocate, and instead Richard joined forces with Martha at SCS.
As part of his job at ANPA, Richard had overseen development of an ad dummying system, Layout-80®, which was the precursor to SCS’s Layout-8000™. SCS was one of several companies that bought the rights to sell and install Layout-80, but it was the only one that enhanced the program and made the product its own, thanks to Richard and a few others from his staff at ANPA who had left to join SCS. The first newspaper to buy the product from SCS was the Fargo (ND) Forum, whose owner and publisher was the chairman of ANPA at the time. “Bill insisted on being SCS’s first customer for Layout-80,” Richard said. Layout-8000 is now on its 15th major version, and is currently in use at 1,500 publications in multiple countries, in five languages.
Along the way, SCS outgrew the Cichelli’s basement, and was the first company to become part of the Ben Franklin business incubation program, moving into offices on the Lehigh campus. It later “graduated” from there to a renovated four-room school house in Nazareth, PA and subsequently upgraded to a space in an office complex in Nazareth, large enough for its current staff of 20.
For a short while in the late 90’s and early aughts, Martha stepped back from the company, returning to school to earn a doctorate degree in behavioral neuroscience. “I learned so much in graduate school about psychology, behaviorism and research. The principles I learned apply everywhere – including SCS”, when she rejoined the company a few years later.
“We Are Customer Service”
The Cichellis pride themselves, above all things, on a company ethic devoted to customer service.
Helping newspapers recover from disaster is the most obvious and specific example. Martha recounted anecdotes about helping the Detroit Jewish News recover from a major fire in 2002, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and El Diario la Prensa in New York recover after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. In each case, SCS set up emergency servers in temporary spaces, and made sure the papers were able to publish without interruption.
“Talk to anybody that’s one of our customers,” Martha said. “Our folks really care and will go the extra mile.”
What’s next for SCS and the Cichellis, aside from their current transitioning business model? Martha replied that she can’t see that far ahead. “When Richard bought the desk that he’s sitting at, he told the furniture guy – it was a used furniture company – he said, ‘I want a died-at-the-desk desk.’ One that looks like it has a little dent there where the guy was working on his last day and he fell forward and his head hit the desk. That’s what I want: a died-at-the-desk desk.’ And he has it.
“I think that’s what he has in mind. I don’t know,” Martha said.
Originally published 02/03/2016
Not long ago, Wired magazine referred to the elusive goal of a “paperless office” as a “30-year-old pipe dream”. But tell that to the Times Review Media Group in Mattituck, Long Island, where the bins and shelving that was previously used to help organize a traditional, paper-based production workflow system were recently set aside for recycling.
Within a few short months, the chain of three weekly newspapers and assorted niche magazines achieved the initiative of “going paperless” – a mission set by its owner, embraced by his staff, and fulfilled through a partnership with Software Consulting Services, LLC (SCS), which provided the software and technical expertise to accomplish the feat.
The resulting solution delivers benefits and efficiencies beyond the elimination of paper shuffling. “The big surprise for me,” said Times Review Owner/Publisher Andrew Olsen, “was how large a benefit it represents for all the different departments.”
The endeavor began in late February of 2015 with a road trip to SCS’s offices in Nazareth, PA, where Olsen and some key employees met with a team of SCS developers and project managers for a presentation. “I keep [a printed copy of] the presentation on my desk,” Olsen said. “It keeps reminding me where we were and how far we’ve come.”
The company’s starting point will seem all-too-familiar to the vast majority of papers that don’t have a modern production workflow management system, like SCS/Track™, or a modern order entry and accounting system, like SCS’s AdMAX™. Olsen’s company actually had these tools – it had been an SCS customer for more than 10 years – but it hadn’t implemented upgrades to SCS’s new web-based order entry module, and hadn’t taken advantage of many other features that had subsequently been introduced by SCS. “They’d been using our ad tracking system and our advertising system in a somewhat traditional manner,” said Kurt Jackson, SCS’s vice president and general manager. “That would be an environment that included a lot of paper pushing.”
Olsen described a workflow that included a four-part form filled out by sales reps to schedule an ad in one or more of the group’s print and online products.
A display ad coordinator, serving as gatekeeper, would enter all the data into AdMAX and “it would digitally flow through to the art department so that [the artists] could see that they had an ad coming for a particular customer.”
There was a natural bottleneck in this procedure, however, in that work building the ad couldn’t begin till the display ad coordinator “physically brought over the carbon copy [ad order form] and the [ad] copy” and placed the paperwork into one of “a series of wire baskets” used by graphic artists to prioritize fulfillment. Only then could the ad follow the subsequent stages – proofing, customer approval, and finalization.
“We did that for literally hundreds of ads every single week. That’s how we worked,” Olsen said, pointing out that “all this [was] being done on deadline cycles,” so a lot of orders and copy coming in at once tended to restrict turnaround, and a lull in submissions would inhibit art department productivity.
While he had high praise for his sales team, art department, and pagination personnel, he said, the workflow didn’t foster the kind of interdepartmental communications he considered necessary. “I really have stressed integrated management of everything we do,” he said. “It’s sort of like a floor plan of a house. You want to have an open floor plan” so that each department knows what the other is doing or may need.
The traditional, paper-based workflow wasn’t providing a mechanism for that to happen. “If you’re running the art department and you see that you have a whole bunch of orders that need to be done, but you don’t have [ad copy], that’s frustrating,” Olsen said. Similarly, sales reps are focused on finalizing their outstanding ads so they can “move on to the next thing.” Delays in turnaround are what frustrate them.
“That sort of linear-bound process is what’s going to restrict the growth you want,” said Jackson. “It’ll look like you might have to add more people, when in fact if you just reorganize and [go] to a centralized, digital environment, you can get a lot more time efficiency out of your [existing] staff.”
“The conclusion that I came away from the meeting, back in February, was we were mimicking with a manual workflow what we could do digitally,” Olsen said. With all the key people from SCS and Mattituck in the room, the two companies immediately set about discussing a path forward for the Times Review papers to achieve a more dynamic, paperless workflow.
“They ended up,” Jackson said, “in a really, really good place.”
The Path Forward
The challenge for a lot of papers making a transition like this, according to Jackson and his colleagues at SCS, is that a paperless workflow is a deviation from the familiar. An ad order form and hard copy – passed around in a clear plastic ad jacket – have physical substance that sales reps and graphic artists come to rely upon in handling production workflow.
The hurdle, said Jonathan Ebling, product manager for SCS/Track, is “realizing that if the paper goes away, you’re still going to be able to put ads out and do your job.” “It’s a comfort thing,” he said. “It just takes an effort from everybody. Trust[ing] the system has a lot to do with it.”
Back in Mattituck, the team experimenting with the new web-based software and digital processes was limited at first to a couple of key employees, as opposed to “getting a ton of people in the room” to manage a wholesale transition. “It’s good to get some specialists,” Olsen explained, “and as the specialists gain knowledge with it, and expertise, then they can help share it with everybody else.”
Ebling said the leads were instrumental in raising confidence among the rest of the staff. “They showed everybody else: ‘Hey, look, I can do it, so you guys can do it, too.’” From there, it was a matter of “starting to build a comfort level – not only with the new workflow,” but also in accepting change.
Even then, the scope of the transition was limited to a segment of the company’s business – not rolled out across all its products at once. “We started trying it in a very small, controlled way,” Olsen said. “We did it with our magazine business [first],” holding off until later any workflow changes affecting the company’s three community newspapers.
“You have to be very calibrated with how you do it, and you have to be very deliberate,” Olsen said. “It’s not like just flipping a switch and it happens. You really have to work at it. You have to set it as an objective, as a team, and go after it, and know that it can’t just happen in two days. In our case, it took several months to get to the point where we are now.”
On the sales side, Olsen said, there was “a little bit of a learning curve, but we had a couple sales reps that had a high aptitude to do it.” They started entering orders digitally on a laptop or tablet while at home or on the road – “wherever they had an internet connection.”
Jackson noted that once the sales reps are unbound from the office – able not only to place orders but also to access customer information without returning to work – the dynamics of their workflow change. Most notably, the ritual practice of turning in a stack of paper tickets and ad copy – on deadline – is disrupted. Instead, an individual order is taken and entered into the system as soon as the customer commits to an ad. Ad copy is also transmitted electronically – including logos, art and layout instructions – and routed “right into the ad tracking department and the ad building department for those folks to start working on it,” Jackson said. Any delays associated with ad reps having to return to the office to submit a paper ticket or ad copy are eliminated. “All of the deliverables that used to be foot-soldiered all over the place – those are gone,” Jackson said. That includes the intermediate proofing steps necessary for customer approval and finalization, since the system also features digital markup tools with which artists can interact with sales reps and advertising customers to facilitate the completion of the work and handle all the formalities.
The paperless workflow “creates an environment [in which] the ‘electronic jacket’ is much more shareable than the physical jacket ever was,” Jackson said. “[The electronic jacket] allow[s] them to all be able to access it freely, versus [the physical ad jacket] having to sit in a basket somewhere.”
“The biggest gain is that there’s less waiting time,” Olsen said. With a traditional workflow, “you have big spikes when you’re on deadline,” but SCS’s paperless workflow “has allowed us to level out that workflow – to make it a little bit more even – so that people are not quite as insane on the [busier days]. I mean, we’re always busy, but it just allows us to manage it much better.”
According to Olsen, the new process “was faster for the sales reps” and they “liked it better.” The creative team reaped immediate benefits, too. “All of a sudden, the art department could not only have the order immediately, without having to wait for the display coordinator to be able to key it in, but the ad copy was also provided as digital text. “Before,” Olsen said, “[ad reps] would just scribble it on a piece of paper, and it was very difficult in many cases to read their handwriting.”
“I said to my head of production, ‘Do you like it better?’ and he said, ‘I absolutely love it!’” Olsen reported. The production employees are “just so much more efficient now that they would never want to go back to the old way of doing it.”
One of the more persuasive arguments for the investment in a paperless workflow solution, Jackson and Ebling agreed, is what Jackson called “the higher level business case” that “salespeople can be more efficient out in the field by using this tool.”
“It frees up time for sales reps, in particular, to be selling,” Ebling said. “That’s what they really need to be doing.”
But Jackson said there was also convincing evidence that the investment can be recouped simply by minimizing the incidence of error that is endemic to a traditional, paper-based workflow. “We typically, when we put in the [SCS/Track] system, see a reduction of make-goods by about 80-85%,” he said. “If you take that number alone, in some papers, it pays for itself.”
While any improvement in productivity can enable cost cutting and staff reduction, that’s not what Jackson said he sees driving papers to go paperless, especially at small papers. “They may already feel that they’re at the lowest number of FTE count that they can get to.”
Olsen, for his part, plans to continue in his efforts to digitize his company’s workflow processes. His next steps include implementing SCS’s electronic tearsheet and billing solutions, and although he acknowledged these moves could save “probably a couple days of time [each week] for an administrative position,” the intent is not to cut staff, but to “use that position to help grow our business.”
“Andrew is smart,” Jackson said. “He really is into automating and moving forward efficiencies for his people. He doesn’t want to cut anybody. He wants to give them more time to sell – which of course at the end of the day, is the name of the game.”
Olsen expressed gratification with the transformation his company has undergone this year, so far. “I’m really happy with how much we’ve been able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time,” he said. “In basically a half a year, we were able to get the entire workflow revamped to be a paperless, digital workflow.”
He gave a lot of the credit to SCS. “I’m so happy that we’re working with [SCS] as a partner and that we’re working together strategically,” he said. “I think that’s really key.”
Originally published 10/09/2015
If you are an SCS customer with a maintenance contract for Layout-8000, you are entitled to this release at no additional cost. Don't miss it! It is available for download as of August 5, 2015. If you need help, call us and ask for Layout support.
The newspaper business is changing, and we must help our customers with those changes.
To improve efficiency, newspapers are consolidating. Newspaper groups are building design centers to help streamline newspaper design and production.
We have been releasing incremental changes in Layout-8000 Version 14 since March of last year. All together the changes since then support a huge change in orientation.
It's been a year in the making, but for newspapers using SCS’s Layout-8000 to dummy the display ads into their printed products, the new feature set available in Version 15, launching Aug. 5, 2015, will be more than worth the wait.
This major upgrade to the industry's leading ad dummying software includes important advancements in security and redundancy, making it a whole lot less likely that a single point of failure - a power outage, equipment breakdown, network hiccup, etc. - will interrupt production workflow. For newspaper groups with consolidated design centers, the application has been thoroughly reengineered for the very different workflows necessary in that kind of environment, including
The image below shows what you will see when you startup Layout-8000 and get ready to select a product to dummy.
Layout-8000 knows which products you are likely to be dummying today, and it presents them to you as choices. It lets you know which ones have ads waiting, which ones have been started and which have not, which ones are completed and who is or has been working on each. Attention design center managers: this makes an easy place for you to keep track of the schedule and the progress for the day.
You might want or need to start work on a new product before you have finished the last one. This is now no problem; you can select a new product and work on it in a new window. You can switch back and forth with no need to close and reopen products each time.
Busy work reduction and mobile access to reports
We are working hard to reduce and simplify repetitive clerical tasks.
If there is a series of steps that are always performed at a particular point in the dummying process (e.g. when a product is “sent to pagination”), these steps can be configured once and executed with a single mouse click.
One of these repetitive steps is generating and distributing a Final Report for a product after it has been sent to pagination. This report can be emailed to users throughout the organization who need a copy. The email list details can be set up once and invoked with a mouse click when needed.
With Version 15 this can be automated further. Instead of requiring the Layout user to distribute the report, users of the report can retrieve it on any mobile device or workstation via self-service just as they can retrieve page dummies (Note: this feature requires the optional module PGLAdBoss). The Layout operator does not need to take the time to print or email copies.
Ad placement consistency
Version 15 includes a learning module, LayoutHistoryAdBoss, which remembers where the ads of various advertisers for various products are consistently placed. It uses this data to provide a ranked set of placement recommendations.
Improved high availability
This is a critical issue, and it is a sufficient reason in and of itself to install Version 15.
Why is high availability something Layout-8000 users need to think about?
The simple answer is that if Layout-8000 were somehow to be unavailable, its users would be in a world of hurt. And it is not just about ad dummying. At almost every installation, Layout-8000 provides important interfaces (middleware) among advertising order entry systems, production systems and pagination systems. The requirements for this middleware are as complex as any of the interfaces among applications in newspapers. What comes in from a rate card based insertion order goes out from Layout-8000 as an edition design with precise geometric locations for ads, etc. It's mission critical and, without it, getting out an edition on time is nearly impossible.
As more and more products are dummied in large design centers, there is more risk of workflow disruption if a centralized server fails.
Most newspapers back up their data processing oriented ad scheduler with Layout-8000's production oriented scheduler by constantly feeding current insertion order transactions to it. They depend on it.
SCS takes high availability very seriously. We are changing our approach to this for Layout-8000 from a nightly full snapshot to a combination of the nightly snapshot with a technique called log shipping.
We have used the full snapshot approach in Layout-8000 for numerous years. Recovery takes you back to the state when the last snapshot was done. Snapshots taken the night before lose the session work back to the nightly backup should there be some sort of failure. Since Layout-8000 almost never fails, this method has provided adequate reliability. As design centers grow, however, the possibility of a server failure and its impact on multiple publications becomes more serious.
SCS's other advertising applications don’t rely on snapshots alone to provide high availability. To meet the needs for even higher availability with larger active computational states, they keep two (or more) application environments in sync in near real time. You can switch from one to the other and be assured you will lose little, if anything, when an application server fails. This is done by sending copies of all changed records from the active environment to be almost immediately applied to a backup environment (this is called log shipping).
Log shipping is a reliable mechanism for building recoverable databases. Layout-8000 Version 15 is being deployed with log shipping. Read this article we have posted on LinkedIn at http://bit.ly/1IHgyEe (link is external) for the technical details - especially if you are using VMWare. For specifics about how this technology is deployed for Layout-8000, see the diagrams at the end of this article.
A special thanks to the folks at Gannett for sharing how well they use our high availability technology and for challenging us to make it better. We also appreciate having the many new Gannett publications using Layout-8000.
And thank you, Kris Julius of Lee Enterprises for sharing your insights for building well-managed corporate design centers. You are teaching us how to do it better.
Originally published 08/04/2015
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