PARADE Magazine Turns a Page with ASNA’s AVR and DataGate
December 9, 2008 John Ghrist
PARADE needed a more efficient method to replace many manual and time-consuming processes for laying out the magazine’s editorial and advertising contents. The time-honored tradition of one person manually preparing the publication for printing had become a bottle neck when making last minute changes. Recently, the publishing company turned to ASNA‘s AVR for .NET and DataGate for .NET tools to create a new system that lets advertising and editorial staff plan and build individual magazines online.
PARADE is the most widely read magazine in the United States, appearing in more than 440 newspapers nationwide, with a circulation of 32 million and a readership of 71 million. Maintaining such success with a print publication in the Internet age requires staying on the cutting edge of technology.
PARADE has been a user of ASNA’s Visual RPG (AVR) for years, using it to build a system that lets its Apple Macintosh users communicate with corporate System i machines. The magazine’s executive staff considered other applications to solve its layout difficulties, but eventually decided that writing in-house software using its development tools that unite Windows and System i assets was the preferred solution.
Modernizing Old Processes
Planning magazine pages isn’t a simple matter of assigning certain pages to editorial content and certain pages to ads. Articles and ads vary in size. Sometimes there are specific page-placement priorities for both, and often there are last-minute changes to the numbers and sizes of ads. Before 2008, PARADE used a drawing program to create a layout report of the content and page order to guide the printing process, but this required cumbersome pencil-and-paper adjustments for late changes.
Eliminating a last-minute ad because it didn’t fit the current page layout wasn’t an option. Those considerations, as well as shorter press schedules, put pressure on PARADE to find a better solution than arbitrarily tightening its advertiser deadlines. At first, a corporate task force looked for a software package that might provide an answer, but research showed that would be an expensive option. Even the best fit among products designed for publication production work would require extensive customization and a very substantial price tag.
“In the end, the choice came down to a third-party system or to build our own,” recalls David Chang, PARADE senior manager of technical applications. The task force decided the company should design its own solution, based on past success using ASNA Visual RPG to build other corporate software systems.
Two factors contributed to the project’s success. The first was Bernie Bialt, an AVR.NET consultant who was highly recommended by ASNA. He worked on-site with PARADE at its New York City headquarters. The second was the decision by senior management to back the new plan because of the lower projected cost, the excellent track record of AVR’s use in creating other corporate systems, and the fact that using AVR wouldn’t force the IT staff to maintain software written in an unfamiliar language.
The biggest challenge facing the design team was that an ideal solution didn’t exist. It had to be invented. None of the third-party products the task force had considered was a good model, and the partly manual system already in use was clearly not the best idea either.
“Users have their broad-stroke requirements, and we had a vision of the AVR.NET system, but detailed specifications were lacking,” Chang notes. “So users had a hard time providing the specifics until they saw each iteration and the project was prolonged as critical features were constantly being added.”
Were they to do the project over, Chang speculates, they would use a rapid prototyping methodology to help users better visualize the system’s functionality.
The Development of BMU
With AVR’s capability to allow rapid prototyping, PARADE built its Book Makeup System (BMU), a graphical, Windows-based system that uses 100 percent AVR.NET code. BMU gives end users a GUI that lets them drag and drop contents onto magazine page templates, automates importation of data from different page layout versions without affecting items already placed on pages, and generates a final layout report that prints directly from the system.
The GUI offers three panels: a tree view of all pages, a two-column list view, and a layout view that resembles actual magazine pages. Users can move objects among all three panels with a mouse, overlap objects between panels, or insert items between other objects.
Users can place advertisements and editorial stories onto the list or layout panels, which under the old system would have caused major delays. The page data is saved to a System i, which uses text-based emulation programs on that platform for the next step in the magazine production process.
Another helpful feature of the solution is use of ASNA’s DataGate, which lets PARADE’s markup program access data rapidly, by providing a fast, in-memory store of critical data (using Microsoft ADO.NET). This means planners can make numerous changes without each one contributing to an already heavy load on PARADE’s databases. In addition, the new PARADE markup system lets the ad sales director use it as a “what if” analysis tool for trying out different ad configurations.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road–Project Benefits
Launched in January 2008, BMU saves hours of time and effort for PARADE’s magazine planers. Chang reports that the system’s ease of use, seamless database integration, and low total cost of ownership have made building BMU with ASNA products a more economical solution than buying a third-party package.
Planning for a second version that will become a “central command” application for the production department is already underway.
John Grist is a technology writer with years of experience in the System i world.