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News on disk: A multimedia approach to a traditionally pamphlet based medium

Myles Kennington
Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia
This paper discusses the design approach and feature tradeoffs in the implementation of News Ltd's product, "News on Disk", a promotional and reference tool for media planners and buyers within advertising agencies.


Multimedia in some form has the potential to penetrate all forms of communication in existence today (Edgar, 1993). There are many examples of multimedia implementations of various media, such as, encyclopedias, instructional aids, entertainment and advertisement. This paper looks at many of the issues associated with the development of News on Disk, a multimedia front end to a traditionally paper based media information database. News on Disk was designed as a promotional and reference tool for advertising media planners and buyers within advertising agencies as well as for executives responsible for making advertising decisions. Many tradeoffs for features were made with respect to the target audience, target platform, available budget and disk space requirements.

Purpose of News on Disk

News on Disk is targeted primarily at the media department within an advertising agency which is responsible for advising clients on how best to communicate their message to the market. People working within the media departments research the reading, listening and viewing habits of the public so as to match the advertiser's message with the best possible media vehicle. That is, the most efficient way to reach the greatest number of people, with a certain demographic makeup within a certain budget.

Prior to News on Disk, sources of newspaper information were fragmented, with the majority of newspaper circulation and readership data, rates and mechanical details of metropolitan newspapers provided by the individual rate cards published by each newspaper. Maintaining up to date records and locating the specific information quickly was often difficult, due in part to the non standardised presentation of information adopted by the various media.

Readership data, in particular, was time consuming and often expensive to procure. Unless the advertiser or agency subscribed to the Roy Morgan readership survey they had to rely on the representatives of the media to obtain comparative media information. Not having this data on hand was a major inconvenience.

Previous attempts to provide electronic access to this information had proved cumbersome and were not utilised by those for whom they were designed. Dial-in information services, or massive PC resident databases were not successful - in the case of dial-in services the issue was speed of information retrieval, and in the case of the existing databases, the overhead in disk space requirements exceeded all but the biggest agency computer systems.

A further inconvenience associated with the traditional forms of research and information was the need to re-enter often large amounts of data in order to analyse comparative readership statistics or prepare reports. The idea of providing information in a form that could be cut and copied into the planner's spreadsheets or reports was considered a major benefit.

News on Disk was designed to be distributed on a single floppy disk, to reside on the media planner or advertiser's PC, thereby allowing fast access to the most often used information. As well as readership, circulation and rates data, News on Disk was to contain information about the contact numbers for a newspaper's staff, mechanical specifications, deadlines and the types of sections available within each newspaper.

News on Disk was intended to provide an intuitive interface to make access to the data easy and meaningful. The user interface accounted for much of the development process and was designed so as to resemble tools that the user was already familiar with (card files, spreadsheets, request forms etc.) and using advertising terminology rather than computer terminology. This adoption of the desktop metaphor, proved popular and is used within many of today's multimedia and user interfaces.

Evolution of market research media

1989 - Sunday Times develops the Sunday Times Fact File, a card based information system with information on newspapers.

1990 - Sunday Times takes card system and creates simple disk based version, the Sunday Times Electronic Fact File.

1991 - Sunday Times improves concept with greater interactivity and better presentation.

1992 - News Limited develops basic version of News on Disk with limited information on all News Limited metropolitan newspapers.

1992 - News Limited Suburbans produce version of News on Disk with suburban newspaper information.

1993 - News Limited develops News on Disk 1.0, featuring all metropolitan newspapers in Australia with greatly expanded functionality.

1993 - News on Disk 2.0 developed.

Originally, without the use of electronic assistance (pre 1990) it could take as many as 4-5 hours of search time, plus a considerable amount of reference acquirement time to develop a national newspaper advertising schedule.

With the introduction of the Sunday Times Electronic Fact File market research information was available in an electronic form. The Sunday Times Fact File however was limited in the information it could present, was not particularly intuitive and did not achieve widespread use.

In February 1993 News on Disk v 1.0 was released, it gained market acceptance as being an effective way of conducting market research, but was relatively slow in operation and required a degree of training, as certain tasks required specifications to be entered in a particular order.

July 1993 saw News on Disk v2.0, the current version, released. This version incorporated many additional features suggested by the users and a user interface rework that nude it fast, intuitive and lightweight. Both state and national markets have accepted it with no bugs reported by users.

As the concept develops, and as user hardware becomes more capable, further developments are possible. A CD-ROM version is under consideration by Pretzel Logic and may be proposed to New Ltd as a version of News on Disk that eliminates the storage restrictions and facilitates the use of sound, animation and video. The ultimate intention is to provide a complete reference engine that will supply all of the information required by interested parties on a single CD-ROM. It is envisioned that this version will serve as a 'one stop shop' of information.


The important design issues that have to be made when developing multimedia applications include the target audience, language selection and the hardware/ software platform on which it is to run. The development of News on Disk was strongly influenced by such issues. These issues prevented the formation of a full blown multimedia application and instead resulted in an application that filled a market niche as a commercial tool.

User interface

The expected users of News on Disk were the media planners and buyers (media department) within advertising agencies as well as executives responsible for making advertising decisions. This type of user is interested primarily in applications that can save them time, are intuitive to use (in that they seem familiar) and require little learning time.

The user interface (UI) guidelines were therefore defined to be the generic but infallible ones that any intuitive application aimed at this group should follow. Therefore, the prime directives to follow in the interface design were defined as follows:


A survey of advertising agency media departments conducted by News Ltd revealed the following regarding current computer platforms: While not all expected users ran Windows on PCs, the decision was taken to develop News on Disk for IBM compatible PCs under Windows 3.x. The basis for this decision was to position News on Disk where the market was heading (ie, Windows), rather than where it was leaving (ie, DOS). The entire package had to run on machines with 2 MB of RAM and occupy no more than 10 MB of hard disk space. Moreover, the package was to be distributed on a single 3.5 inch floppy and the information contained (readership data by demographic breakdown, contact numbers, general information etc) able to be updatable quarterly without recourse to code changes.

With such restrictions any features that consumed large amounts of disk space, such as animations, sound and extensive use of bitmaps had to be avoided. The design of News on Disk therefore avoided sound and animations. Bitmaps were used sparingly and only where they were needed to provide valuable information or aesthetic appeal.

Language selection

Often when developing user oriented multimedia applications, high level 4GLs are used (Authorware, PowerPoint, HyperCard, etc). Applications using such languages can be developed quickly and with a good UI. 4GLs, however, are often lacking in low level constructs such as multi dimensional arrays and OS interfacing capabilities. Additionally, if a 4GL does not support a feature then it is difficult, if not impossible, to implement that feature.

The implementation of News on Disk required features that were either impossible or very difficult to implement with existing 4GLs, for this reason the language Visual Basic was selected as the development language. It provides rapid UI construction with 3GL language support, OS interfacing, debugging facilities and Object Oriented (OO) abstractions. This allowed the design and development of News on Disk to use complex data types, rapid interface design and the data abstractions of OO languages.

Development approach

Being a low budget project with a short development time, News on Disk was not developed using an existing Software Development Methodology (SDM) eg, SSADM, SQA, OOD, etc. Rather the methodology used in the News on Disk project could be best described as ad hoc. As the project was low budgeted, with short development cycle it was decided that formalism's of a SDM were a hindrance, preventing the adherence to deadlines and budget.

Although in many cases ad hoc approaches to development can prove problematic, the development team, through experience and training, knew where many of the pitfalls of such an approach would be and avoided them.

The key ingredient of the approach taken was the high level of user involvement made possible by the use of a Domain Expert (DE). The DE had a broad knowledge of advertising, a computing background and a vested interest in News on Disk's success. The DE developed the overall guidelines for what the product needed to do and regularly presented the evolving system to the users for comments and suggestions. This meant that there was constant communication and feedback given to the programming team.

Most of the evolution occurred in the design of the user interface. By the end of the project, the user interface had changed considerably from the initial specifications. Fortunately the functionality of the package was developed so as to remain loosely coupled with the user interface. This meant that changes to the interface did not adversely affect the code providing the functionality to any great degree.

In this respect the development was an iterative process of production, evaluation and alteration. As noted by Hirschheim (1985), constant user involvement is a double edged sword, end user satisfaction is all but guaranteed but at the cost of frequent code alteration.

This was all too apparent in the development of News on Disk as a lot of time was wasted because personnel within the client company could not agree on small details (such as which spelling of the word 'colour/color' to incorporate). A small detail, but when working with custom made buttons, the time for a complete swap from one spelling to the other is measured in hours. After the third swap tempers start to fray, especially when the project deadline was imminent.


Many believers in strict adherence to formal design methods may believe that the approach used for the development of News on Disk was far from optimal. However this approach did lead to a software product that satisfied the requirements, gained user acceptance and was bug free.

The News on Disk project was successful and satisfied all the requirements, deadlines and expectations envisioned in its conception. Although no follow up statistics have been collected, interviews from the users and managers involved resulted in comments such as:

"News on Disk has contributed to positioning News Ltd as a high technology media organisation, using electronic media to make life easier for our major clients, the advertising agencies that we service. The product's image and ease of use is typical of the way we see our interaction with Australia's major marketers and their advertising agencies, and for this we are grateful to the developers, Pretzel Logic and Image Technology, as well as the Sunday Times, here in Perth, who lead the way in this development." (News Limited Group Marketing Services Manager).

"Remarkably user friendly and the format looks great, too, making News on Disk ideal for client presentations". (Advertising Agency Media Manager).

"It's wonderful having everything on the one program.

"News on Disk reduces the amount of time spent collecting newspaper data and you are not reliant on outside sources providing readership and circulation information."

"Combining rates, mechanical details and readership in the one source eliminates much of the manual work required in the past, and is simple to use. *

"News on Disk is the most useful initiative taken by any media to assist media planners in quite some time."

Despite the release of News on Disk v2.0 to over 800 sites in all states of Australia, no bugs have been reported. This success can be attributed to many factors. The key ones are believed to be: Due to the success of News on Disk these factors should be considered strongly when developing small user applications targeted at a market niche.


As described in the paper, many tradeoffs have to be made when developing multimedia applications to run on corporate sector hardware. It is not always possible to have all the bells and whistles of a full multimedia approach. This does not completely undermine the use of such an approach, but rather makes the developers put more consideration into the limits of target systems and develop the application accordingly.

With low budget/time projects it is not feasible to put into practice a full Software Development Methodology (SDM). Many short cuts are necessary and this does not always lead to disaster as long as the project team is aware of any pitfalls such an approach may have. This is due to the fact that SDMs can be cumbersome and often seem to detract from the task at hand. With small projects it is still feasible to adopt the classical approach, 'just do it' with successful results.

In the future however its is hoped that the development of software can be formalised in such a way that it is always better to use a SDM approach. This would give developers a methodology that would guarantee the success of software projects.


This paper has been prepared with the assistance of Donald Hunter of Generic Computer Consultants and Steve Pretzel of Pretzel Logic.

The News on Disk project was conceived and managed by Pretzel Logic and was cooperatively developed by IMAGE Technology Group, Pretzel Logic, Generic Computer Consultants and Surfing Computers.


Edgar, T. H. (1993). Multimedia demon or genie. Keynote Address, Business Educators WA Conference. September 93.

Hirschheim, R. A. (1985). User experience with and assessment of participative systems design. MIS Quarterly, 9(4), 295-303.

Author: Myles Kennington, Research Assistant, Image Technology Group, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001. Tel: 09 470 2428 Fax: 470 4881

Please cite as: Kennington, M. (1994). News on disk: A multimedia approach to a traditionally pamphlet based medium. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 226-229. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/km/kennington.html

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