Toronto Star counts copies with e-tracking system

Canada’s largest daily newspaper has switched from its paper-based tracking system to an electronic one to better gauge how many papers were being sold and where.

The Toronto Star estimates it has already saved some $150,000 in

newspaper returns as well as cut back on data entry staff, says Robert Boudreau, the paper’s Toronto-based single copy operations manager.

The papers sold at convenience stores, newspaper boxes and other locations are all dropped off by independent wholesalers using delivery trucks. The drivers used to get a paper-based list of how many papers to drop off at each box, and depending on the news cycle, the number of papers dropped off each day can change. A big story — such as the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. — means more people are likely to buy newspapers. Once a week, drivers pick up unsold papers and return them to the Star. Knowing how many papers are being sold on a daily basis, and where they are being sold, is a critical way to keep the number of returns down, Boudreau said.

With the paper-based system, the Star could calculate the number of returns only by driver. Now, each store and vending box — and there are some 5,000 boxes in the GTA area — gets its own unique address and the Star can track the number of returns from each location.

The Star looked at existing systems, but found them all unsatisfactory, Boudreau said. Instead, it decided, with the help of 3G Touch Solutions, to build its own system.

The drivers were initially concerned. They wondered if Big Brother was going to start watching them and whether the system would slow them down, said Mike Feder, chief technology officer at Concord, Ont.-based 3G Touch. They were consulted throughout the development process so that their concerns could be addressed, he said.

Most of the deliveries are made between midnight and 6 a.m. and the drivers wanted the ability to change their route on the fly, in case of bad weather, late delivery of the papers from the printing press, traffic conditions and other unforeseen problems. With the paper-based system, they could easily change the order of the papers. They wanted the same ability to re-sequence with the electronic system, Boudreau says.

In order to better understand what the drivers were facing, Feder went on some deliveries with them.

“So I was out at 2 in the morning delivering papers, seeing how that was done. The only way, really, is through an iterative, inclusionary process to make sure that everybody has done their piece and then eventually you come up with a solution that works very well.”

Instead of slowing them down, as the drivers worried, the system actually helped them save time as the returns process is now automated, Feder said.

The Star decided to use Intermec’s 760 GPRS radio handheld computers working over Rogers Wireless Communications network with an MDS server. It built the system on Pocket PC 2002.

The choice of the Intermec devices also raised some concerns with the wholesalers, Boudreau said, as they cost US$2,800 per unit.

Comment: [email protected]

More on the Star’s deployment in the April. 8 edition of Computing Canada.

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