I was chatting with Joyce J. at a meeting of a club Martha and I belong to. Joyce was a teacher. She is now retired and dedicates her time to volunteer work. I was describing what SCS does for newspapers. As she listened she seemed to become more and more concerned.
"What are you going to do about all the jobs your systems are eliminating?" she asked.
I was surprised. "Like what?"
"Are you going to help the people - maybe get them some training?"
"Why or how would I do that?" I said, somewhat taken aback. "They are not my responsibility."
"You should be doing something," she continued.
"How could I afford that?"
"Well, you could apply for a grant or something like that," she said.
Apply for a grant? Now I was really mystified. The last thing I want to get involved in is applying for grants. It's a lot of work and I've been turned down more often than not by both government and private organizations. Besides, our newspaper customers are in 18 countries around the world. This seemed plain silly. Still her comments weighed on me all Christmas week.
I consider our company to be quite virtuous. We hire interns and pay them. We make sure they have really useful experiences with interesting work, fair wages and hugely valuable mentoring. Many report our internships are one of the most rewarding experiences of their education. (I get the pleasure of telling old stories to new, young faces.)
We build trusted newspaper systems that are both extremely reliable and affordable.
We employ great talent - super people that our customers often say are the best they have ever worked with. We don't outsource. We are a Made in America Company in the best sense of the phrase.
We help newspapers when times are tough. We have saved them when there were disasters, both natural and terrorist made.
Martha founded SCS in 1976 and since 1983 we have run it together. We consider ourselves model business people.
Still Joyce's comments caused me to lose sleep over the next week.
Sure, newspapers use our systems to reduce labor costs. Many have done staff reductions with generosity. Others - not so much.
How do our applications like Layout-8000 and SCS/ClassPag save labor? They automate display ad dummying and classified pagination. They come with middleware that ties disparate systems together. They are industry standards. Yes, these days there are fewer jobs in newspapers. Part is due to the realities of being a print medium in a digital advertising age. Even so, we have literally saved at least a half-dozen newspapers from going out of business over the last 36 years.
I kept thinking, "We are the good guys."
Wait, sometimes when we are cast as bad guys, the other side fights us. We call this PICNIC. Problem in chair, not in computer. With every new labor saving technology Luddites fight the inevitable. Sometimes they even win, but the win doesn't last long. It seems that it is when you provide software that replaces jobs that involve problem solving and creativity that trouble is most likely to arise. Bright people may think that it is all right for machines to replace John Henry, but not them. Their work is brain work, not muscle work. It takes smarts to dummy a newspaper. It takes smarts to paginate classifieds. The more ads, the more difficult. The truth is that making smart machines has been my life's work.
There was a time not so long ago that chess programming was the drosophila melanogaster of computer science. (Drosophila is the fruit fly geneticists use in experiments.) Artificial intelligence (AI) was forever going to be the next big thing. Before I got my BS in computer science, I had been Delaware's state Chess Champion for three years. Creating a chess machine became my passion. I learned everything about AI programming I could. Writing such programs is really tricky and fun, since for the most part, they must just work right from the start because the computations are so large you can't hand simulate their logic.
My computer science research focused on finding the simplest algorithms that improved chess play. I had several articles published reporting my results. This remains a significant theme for AI research today. There have been major breakthroughs very recently.
In 1973 I brought this knowledge to the American Newspaper Publishers Association Research Institute (ANPA/RI), the trade association that has had a number of names since then. I thought to myself, "You are going to get to apply your computer science knowledge and skills to serving the free press. You will help newspapers hold the powerful accountable. How cool is that!"
I completed my first and second ANPA/RI assignments: 1) making DEC's RSX11-D operating system run on the lab's anemic PDP 11/45 computer and 2) then writing the software and logic for what was called the Laser Page Setter. It was perhaps the first technology (circa 1974) to digitally image newspaper pages. I was then asked to figure out what the lab's computer applications department should do next. I'd been made the department's manager by then. I also upgraded the staff with my former Lehigh University students I had taught as adjunct faculty.
The ANPA had supplied significant funding to MIT for developing newspaper design and pagination technology. I offered that our group could produce practical, deliverable solutions for ad dummying etc. based on MIT's research but without their help. And so we did. Unfortunately, we didn't get the left-over MIT funding ourselves. When it came time for the ANPA to move to the Washington area, we had over three dozen operational sites for Layout-80, as it was called then. The folks at the ANPA were very kind to Martha and me, perhaps because I did as told and sold licenses not just to Martha's SCS, but five other established newspaper vendors as well.
ANPA's chairman of the board, Bill Marcel publisher of the Fargo Forum, insisted on becoming SCS's first customer for Layout. Having always been a rebel, it was nice to feel the love.
So what about Joyce. I surely wasn't feeling the love from her. We met again last Sunday. I had been so disturbed by her comments, I wanted to have another go at seeing her point of view. Maybe I could justify thinking of myself as one of the good guys again.
Think about it. There are people and tasks. You could focus labor savings from either direction. Eliminate jobs or tasks. The troubling issue is that having a person do a job that a machine can do as well or better, dehumanizes the human. It is also dehumanizing to think of yourself as an item on a spreadsheet for improving ROI. There has to be a better way. Bright people are adaptable. Those who dummy advertising and paginate classifieds are, of necessity, quite bright. There has to be a better way.
When newspapers acquire our systems, they should look to eliminating tasks with our AI and find ways to redeploy the people.
Such a recommendation is, perhaps, enlightened self-interest. Sometimes purchases of our systems are delayed. Management might just be retaining valued staff by keeping the manual work that they do. Of course, this only works for a while. When savings are critically needed, change comes bluntly, in a hurry.
Perhaps this is a better way. Retrain and redeploy.
Joyce liked the idea that she had such an impact on me. She even seemed to like my new way of looking at deploying AI systems. We thanked each other for sharing.
Multi-billionaire, artificial intelligence expert Kai-Fu Lee said that he believes 40% of the world's current jobs will be done by AI machines in 15 years. He claims that Chinese companies like his, and not US Silicon Valley companies, will be the principal creators and builders of these machines.
I don't want to say that newspapers are feeling beat up, but we were recently congratulated by a prospect for doing some very high profile work with the White House Historical Association. ("Thank goodness you don't entirely depend on newspapers for your survival.") Yes, we do projects outside our traditional market of newspapers. https://www.tnonline.com/jim-thorpe-man-gets-rare-invitation-oval-office.
Trump is the president, after all.
We're having a party. Actually it's a launch party for Scoop 7.
Scoop 7 is the culmination of a $100,000 rewrite of the Scoop editorial system. We've supported it for years. We bought the rights from Scoop's owner and re-engineered the entire system. The server component now runs on Linux. The separate clients for Macs and PCs are now one unified component made with the platform-independent Qt user interface library. The proprietary database management systems are replaced with open source PostgreSQL and ElasticSearch. And there was much more clean-up work.
What was once a popular, easy to use, full function editorial and library system is now a stunning new system that runs on a completely modern system architecture. Best of all, it is now enhanced and supported by SCS developers.
The launch party is on October 2nd at SCS's Nazareth offices. Lancaster Newspapers and several other current Scoop users are planning to attend. One meeting topic will be better integration of Scoop and other SCS products with their Town-News systems.
Here's a question: Are Lineup's AdPoint and/or The Washington Post's ARC the next big things? I couldn't guess. But here's the thing. When a newspaper group or large newspapers sign up to jump into these digital oriented technology offerings, they come to SCS for middleware and integration of best-of-breed design technology. New SCS newspaper customers like La Nacíon in Costa Rica and long term ones like the LA Times (and tronc/Tribune) use our stuff. SCS is, after all, the leader in display ad dummying and classified pagination.
Thank you, Lineup for this link.
Is artificial intelligence (AI) hot? You bet it is. SCS isn't trying to transition to the newest big data machine learning technology. That's unlikely to be applicable to newspaper production and design problems. But if you want the best in applied AI for newspapers, there is no one better or more experienced than SCS.
Layout-8000 does have a new machine learning module called LayoutHistoryAdBoss that remembers and synthesizes ad dummying decisions to aid in auto-dummying. It's going out with the newest release. That release also has new technology for supplying key performance indicators.
While we seek to serve those whose mission is to hold the powerful accountable, our mission is to keep their print business viable. For this we make labor saving systems that operate on an industrial scale, saving some of our larger customers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.
Cloud hype. Surely the cloud is the next big thing. Actually, when a newspaper group consolidates production tasks, it typically does so using a private cloud. They use their own computing resources, not those of others.
Public clouds like those from Oracle, IBM, HPE, Amazon, Google, etc. are entirely different things. Cloud technology is cloud technology; the difference is in cost for both support and computing resources, latency, security, etc. None of these favor public cloud solutions. SCS does two things about this. First, when a newspaper group wishes to deploy an SCS solution in their private cloud, we have and do easily accommodate it. Second, the advantages of a private cloud solution are such that we supply and support our technology platform running on a local appliance.
SCS recently provided a dedicated private cloud platform to Times Shamrock Creative Services (TSCS). You've heard the phrase "print others or be printed." It's a new business model. That's what TSCS wanted for ad production. With an over $200,000 development effort for SCS/Track paid for by SCS, TSCS has an actively growing ad services business. And we now have an ad tracking product that can help our customers expand their business.
G5 is the next generation in wireless technology. There is no denying that G5 should be great. When it starts maturing in around 2020, it could revolutionize the way computing services are provided. One result is that it will likely offer a big fix to the issues with public cloud services.
G5 should be a faster, simpler, more secure and robust and less costly technology. With its platform independent solutions, SCS will make sure newspapers can take advantage of it.
To make this easier we have an ongoing refactoring effort to make all our applications run in a microservices systems architecture. It's an architecture for making SCS system components and those from others be even more easily integrated.
Our enthusiasm for Intel NUCs is unabated. We just deployed the 100th. Their high performance and low cost make them an ideal hardware solution for newspaper applications. That performance has been proved over and over again, most recently at TSCS, where dozens of ad builders and hundreds of remote users enjoy unequaled efficiencies in every aspect of ad management production.
Overall our conversion to providing systems using a SaaS model is going well. We are nearing the point where monthly recurring revenue equals our monthly costs. There are still significant perpetual license sales, but the SaaS sales now dominate. It's a good thing, but it would have been nice to have done it sooner.
We serve an industry that is being severely challenged. Joshua Benton of NiemanLab writes: "In the second quarter of 2018, McClatchy’s print advertising revenue dropped 26.4 percent year over year; Gannett was down 19.1 percent, Tronc 18 percent. They’re not making new daily print newspaper subscribers anymore, and existing ones either move to digital or shuffle off this mortal coil daily."
It's tough, to say the least.
So, that's what's new and trending at SCS. Much of it is a story of supplying less visible network "plumbing". We are often charged with making disparate subsystems work together. We're the middleware experts. Others get the bigger credit, but in the end we get the thanks for making systems work. Perhaps that's the way it should be.
If you want to increase the benefits that computing provides while reducing the costs associated with it, this game plan might help.
Save money on platforms.
Raw computing power is becoming ever cheaper. Unfortunately, utilizing it well seems to be getting ever more difficult.
How much cheaper? Computers have storage and processors. The storage is for describing objects (i.e., nouns.) The bigger, the better. Processors are for performing tasks (i.e., verbs.) The faster, the better. In 1958 I first wrote programs for the Sperry-Rand Univac 1. It was the first computer that became a product. Since then the costs have dropped by a factor of 127 trillion. A leader in this is the Raspberry Pi. The change works out to be about a 50% reduction every 16 months.
Linux and other free open source tools have further reduced platform costs.
Platform independence is key to lower computing costs.
Don't get locked in. A platform independent software tool or application can be made to easily run on a number of operating systems, computer hardware and system architectures. Platform independence keeps you from being locked into overly complex, unadaptable technology.
The applications newspapers use are large and feature rich. They can be built of components that share a common data store, e.g. an ad database. Alternatively, they can be composed of a set of tasks or services. Neither of these system architectures is guaranteed to minimize system complexity. Care must be taken to prevent being locked into a monolithic database. Components can become too complex when they have too many interacting functions.
A microservice architecture seems closer to the ideal. A system built of microservices has a service oriented architecture that follows certain rules. These rules are designed to minimize complexity and maximize adaptability. A less complex system will be easier and faster to extend, debug, upgrade, deploy, understand and support.
A microservice is a software component designed to perform a single function. Microservices are a way to build modular systems. Several rules characterize them. They have their own data. No microservice can directly access another or its data. (I.e., no shared databases, monolithic or otherwise.) Microservices can reside anywhere. Data is shared among microservices via an enterprise service bus. (ESB). ESBs use standard, encrypted protocols to provide communication among microservices. Only the ESB knows where a microservice resides, locally or network based.
A given function might be implemented by several different microservices. The ESB chooses which. For example, using the ESB an upgraded component can be tested in parallel with a prior version.
Well written microservices are inherently platform independent. Systems built with them are compatible with every type of system architecture from dedicated workstation to a single server, multiple servers, private clouds and hosted platforms.
Standby ads, an illustrative example:
Our advertising systems have supported standby (or remnant) ads for decades. If you are dummying a product and have a space you need to fill, putting in a standby ad can provide revenue where a regular filler would not.
Standby ads should not be ordered in the ad order entry system, because there is not yet an order. Supporting them within a microservice is a near perfect use case for them.
Up until recently we bound standby support into our display ad dummying system. If you had a space to fill while dummying, you could find an ad to use. Unhooking standbys proved a revelation. Using the standby ad microservice allows remnant ads to be selected during classified pagination as well. Isolating the function offered new revenue possibilities.
What is good for classified pagination is also good for news pagination. Well engineered microservices can often be easily used in many different contexts.
What makes for a good system architecture is well engineered software.
The best choice will be the least complex to do what's needed. You will know it by how durable it proves to be.