Ubiquitous phone book still a stapleWritten by Colby Dunn
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This June, 91,000 pounds of paper will make its way into Western North Carolina. Some of it will end up in kitchen drawers, some will be used as doorstops, some will end up as litter dotting the roads, while still more will eventually find a home in the landfill.
It’s this year’s shipment of Yellowbooks, an annual tradition that could one day be an anachronism in an increasingly digital world.
But Neg Norton doesn’t think that day will be soon. He’s the president of the Local Search Association, also known by various other names including the Yellow Pages Association.
“It still plays a big role,” said Norton of the good old printed phone book. “About 75 percent of adults used print yellow pages some 11 billion times last year. We have some 3 million small-business advertisers across the country. Clearly they do so because they’re getting a good return on investment.”
But some think that rather than being a relevant tool, the phone book is an annoying relic. On the West Coast, San Francisco lawmakers are looking to ban the book from city limits unless a customer requests it. A similar measure in Seattle was met with a lawsuit last year by Norton’s group, who lobby actively on behalf of the $13 billion industry.
In Waynesville, such severe measures aren’t on the table, but Town Manager Lee Galloway said he does hear complaints about the tomes.
“Especially at some houses that were vacant and it jut became litter,” said Galloway.
And that is a problem with phone books. While Local Search said it’s involved in recycling old and unused books, they don’t necessarily take responsibility for returning to collect phone books that haven’t been touched since delivery.
And then there’s just the sheer volume. Twenty-five years ago, there was usually only one phone book to be found on the market. Now there are dozens in every region across the country.
The two main competitors in WNC are Yellowbook and AT&T’s The Real Yellow Pages, but nationally Norton said there are 200 separate companies hawking books.
That’s thanks to a 1991 Supreme Court decision that declared phone books outside the realm of copyright, as they held only a miniscule amount of original content.
But with the Internet so ubiquitous that Google has become a verb, even Norton conceded that when a younger generation of digital natives reaches adulthood, the printed books might become museum fodder. And, he said, his group is OK with that. They don’t want to pass out unwanted books — it’s as bad for them as it is annoying to the consumer.
“It does us absolutely no good to deliver a phone book to somebody who doesn’t want one. We don’t make any money by distributing additional copies,” said Norton. That’s why they’ve created an opt-out website, yellowpageoptout.com, that allows consumers to pass on the phone book. According to Norton, they’ve gotten around 400,000 opt-outs nationwide with the site, which doesn’t include those who call the book publishers directly to cancel.
But even if they are self-regulating, the industry has historically railed against legally mandated opt-in or opt-out programs.
In 2008, a bill was introduced in the state Senate, co-sponsored by local senator John Snow, that would force phone book companies to provide customers the option to decline. It died after the first reading, thanks in part to lobbying by the Yellow Pages Association.
“We think it’s wrong of the government to select winners and losers in the print media market,” said Norton. “We think that’s a very dangerous precedent for the government to set.”
Plus, he pointed out, with programs such as the one proposed in San Francisco, if 75 percent of people use the book at some point in the year, it’s impractical to ask them all to opt in.
Though do-not-deliver programs aren’t mandatory in North Carolina, Yellowbook Market Manager Michael Hartnett said he does field a call every now and again.
“Yes, it happens. But it’s a rare occurrence,” said Hartnett. He said the 91,000 Yellowbooks they’ll be distributing this year in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties have held pretty steady for the last few years. But nationally, the trend is going down.
This year, there are 8 percent fewer phone books hitting the streets than the year before. And many are smaller, thanks to the elimination of the residential white pages in many larger markets.
In this way, say industry advocates, phone book companies are doing their part to reduce their own waste stream. They’re making books smaller, and all books are completely recyclable. In fact, that’s what they’re made of — themselves. When old books are recycled, they’re combined with disused woodchips gleaned from the lumber-making process and pressed into new books, a cycle that repeats itself each year.
So even as the digital revolution marches on, that staple of the kitchen drawer still, for now, has a life and a place.
“We still have a lot of people using the phone books,” said Galloway, and for those that do, they’ll be pleased to know a new shipment is already headed their way.
• 1: percent all paper products accounted for by phone books
• 0.3: percent of municipal waste stream generated by phone books
• 731,000: tons of phone books distributed in 2010
• The first phone book was created in 1878 for New Haven, Conn., residents.
• Interleafing two phone books will make them impossible to pull apart.
• To opt out of phone book delivery, visit yellowpagesoptout.com.