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Database publishing: getting information into shape.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, that was my first exposure to database publishing. U.S. TV personality Ed McMahon still writes me now and then inviting me to participate in sweepstakes, and I appreciate hearing from him. His mass-mailed missives are a good starting point fOr a discussion of database Publishing, the latest buzz words to hit the fast-paced world of personal computers.

Database publishing is a catch-all term for combining databases and desktop publishing software. It can either target individual readers with personal messages or present large amounts of information in a fresh, more readable way. For professional communicators, uses of database publishing can range from simple computer-generated correspondence to sophisticated new ways of taking complex data and producing directories, lists and catalogs.

This may not sound like the sexiest new technology, but it can save a lot of time, and it has the potential to bring personal computer users far beyond word processing and desktop publishing. Personalized correspondence made easy If you have ever done a "mail merge" with a word-processing application, you have done database publishing. A mail merge takes a list of names and addresses and combines it, one by me, with a standard piece of correspondence. You type the letter once, specifying where you want the personalized parts to go, and your word-processing software does the rest, referring to the list, generating each letter and even printing addresses on all the envelopes. Presto, now you can write letters as fast as Ed McMahon ! Mail merging has been around for many years. In our business it is great for producing notes thanking volunteers for helping run a charity event or churning out personal cover letters to the recipients of news releases. You can send letters of acknowledgment to job applicants, or prospect for new clients by mailing out scores of business-to-business solicitations. All you have to do is sign your name after the Sincerely Yours on each letter.

One risk of this time-saving device is that all those computer-generated personal letters are prompting personalized computer-generated responses. In the future we may live in a world where everyone is pen-pals with everyone else, but no one ever reads her mail.

Applications such as Claris' FileMaker Pro for the Macintosh are taking the mail merge concept a step further, allowing the user easily to format data for a wide range of uses. A media list, for example, could be manipulated in FileMaker Pro to produce not only personalized letters and mailing labels, but also a handy one-page phone list, a form for keeping track of interviews and follow-up calls and a guide containing useful background information on each journalist and media outlet. All the data is input only once, and producing letters, labels or reports is as easy as choosing from an on-screen menu. Making data pretty The newer side of database publishing is the creation of specialized publications using existing databases. A good example of this technology at work is how the company where I work, Petro-Canada, Calgary, Alta. communicated information on its first employee stock share purchase plan.

Earlier this year, Petro-Canada was about to have its initial public offering of shares. Like most newly public companies, it offered a subsidy to employees wishing to purchase Petro-Canada stock. The amount of the subsidy was based on each employee's salary, so personal correspondence had to be created telling employees exactly how many shares they could purchase under the plan. A few days after the launch of the share offering, every employee received a neat, laser-printed, personalized statement with information about their individual involvement in the plan.

"Data for the statements was maintained on the company's mainframe computer in our human resources employee database," explains Garth Lockwood, a senior policy advisor in the company's human resources department. "A data set was extracted from this database, and then manipulated by our information services people using AFP (Advanced Functional Printing), an IBM software application for use on mainframe computers. The 8,700 individualized statements were printed within a matter of hours on a high capacity laser printer."

The result was timely, accurate and visually attractive communication that, just a few years ago, would have taken days to print and would have had the ugly, primitive look of a computer-generated financial report.

Petro-Canada's share purchase plan statements were easy to read, but publishing them was not an easy task. It took 30 work-hours to set up the data, and the project involved experts from human resources as well as information services. The next generation of database publishing technology allows the same kind of job to be done by one person using a personal computer.

The latest approach involves new software applications such as ElseWare Corporation's DataShaper and PageAhead Software Corporation's PageAhead. These powerful, easy-to-use software products build bridges between traditional databases and desktop publishing packages like Aldus PageMaker. Molding data with DataShaper Gary Berlind, president of Desktop Innovations Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., got a chance to test out ElseWare's DataShaper on a recent publishing project. Berlind, whose company produces PR/Works, a Macintosh-based desktop information system for professional communicators, wanted to create a commercial directory of contacts. The information for the publication was stored in PR/Works, and he used PageMaker to create the directory on a Mac.

"DataShaper lets you coordinate the flow of information from a database into PageMaker," says Berlind. "The reporting capabilities of databases have always been limited. You could produce reports that sort of look like your phone bill, but you couldn't do any fancy stuff without going to great lengths."

Berlind points out that databases are tools for reference rather than presentation, and PageMaker is an excellent presentation tool that doesn't handle data very well. Database publishing software lets you harness the power of both. "DataShaper educates your page layout program so it can understand information from the database, so you can make the data pretty and easy to use."

Using DataShaper, Berlind was able to pre-apply formatting instructions to parts of his database, so that, for example, he could make all company names come into PageMaker in the same type size and style. This saved going through all the information after it was in PageMaker and formatting every company name one line at a time.

The contacts directory "came out beautiful," says Berlind. But he warns that, although DataShaper is a useful, time-saving tool, it doesn't do every, thing. "Don't be fooled into thinking everything is automatic," Says Berlind. After he placed the data into Pagemaker, some "massaging" had to take place to get it into publishable shape. But he's not complaining. With all the time he saved using DataShaper, he says he's "just glad to have it as it is."

DataShaper is available in Macintosh and PC versions, and retails for under U.S. $200. (Elsewhere Corp., 713 Northlake Way, Seattle, Wash. 98105, 206/547-9623.) PageAhead goes one step further PageAhead Software Corp., also based in Seattle, has gone one step further than DataShaper, allowing users to go beyond pre-applying formats to each field in the database. PageAhead actually creates a set of instructions for how the database information will be cleaned up, sorted, numbered and formatted, but without actually creating a data file of its own. This lets the user manipulate the information in more ways, and allows the database to stay "alive" until the PageMaker document is ready for publication. This means you can update and maintain your database even after you have started work on the publication.

This feature comes in handy for Donna Ruddy, director of marketing for Bavarian Auto Service of Newmarket, N.H. Ruddy puts together the annual mail order catalog for her company, which sells auto parts and accessories to BMW owners.

Eight years ago, Bavarian's catalog was printed from its database using a custom-written program. "It was nothing fancy, just in Courier type, says Ruddy.

Then, in 1989, she began producing the catalog on a PC using PageMaker. The information in the database was converted to an ASCII (unformatted text) file, and then imported into PageMaker, where Ruddy worked it into shape.

"All the formatting had to be done by hand," she says. "It was very tedious, and I had to wait until very close to publication time before starting work on the catalog, because once the ASCII file was created, I was cut off from the database."

The typeface was changed to Helvetica, and Ruddy did "a few fancier things, but we were still limited."

Then, in the spring of this year, she read about PageAhead in Aldus magazine, and contacted the company, which promptly set Bavarian up as a software "beta" test site for its new product.

"It's slick. It's very, very nice," says Ruddy of PageAhead, having completed this year's edition of her catalog. For people who have to maintain a large database, it's a useful tool for publishing catalogs and reports. It really makes a difference."

Ruddy says although the quality of the publication was improved, she didn't save much time in the production of the 100-page catalog (80 pages of which were produced with PageAhead) mainly because the process was new to her. "This year was a learning experience, but I think next year we're looking forward to considerable time savings. Because I don't have to cut my link with the database until I'm ready to publish, I can start setting up the pages months earlier."

Ruddy's enthusiasm echoes the sentiments of many desktop publishers who have found that working with new technology has its rewards. "I find it exciting," she says. "I feel fortunate to be able to have really nice tools at hand, to be learning something new every day, and seeing results."

PageAhead is available for PCs only, and sells for US $795.00. (PageAhead Software Corp., Suite 300, 2125 Western Avenue, Seattle, Wash. 98121, 206/441-0340.) The future of database publishing Today's databases are not designed to be published. Tools like DataShaper and PageAhead help to bridge the gap between the database and desktop publishing, but we have a long way to go before we are able to manipulate data and publish it with ease.

Most databases have internal inconsistencies, depending on who entered the data and how the raw material they entered was formatted. Databases are not stable, and never will be. They are living, breathing information organisms, with as many quirks and idiosyncracies as the people who create and maintain them.

As information technology progresses, our connections with databases will no doubt improve. Direct marketers talk about "micro-marketing," attempting to send personalized sales pitches to smaller and smaller groups within large databases with the ultimate goal being the ability to have a different message for every individual.

For our industry, I can see the day where a different company newsletter could be published for each employee. Databases containing company information would be "merged" with employee databases to give each reader an information package tailored to his or her own needs and interests.

I just hope I never pick up a company newsletter to see a photo of an Orwellian version of Ed McMahon and the message: "DEAR RON SHEWCHUK, YOU MAY ALREADY BE OUT OF A JOB! " Ron Shewchuk is editor, communication projects, Petro-Canada, Calgary, Alta.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Shewchuk, Ron
Publication:Communication World
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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