The phone book becomes a by-request item many disdain

Posted: January 06, 2011

Thwummp!

Was that a sonic boom? Or just another phone directory - bigger than a doorstop, heavier than a hard drive - landing on your front steps?

It's a sound people will be hearing less this year.

The icon known as the residential phone directory is going away. More and more, only people who ask for them will get them.

It's partly about waste. Not to mention the digital crowd's who-needs-it-anyway attitude.

Internet directories - with online ops and apps - are proliferating. Smart phones can store hundreds of contacts.

"You can call it a public outrage or just, frankly, common sense that a vast number of people do not want to receive a printed directory," said Alex Algard, chief executive officer of White Pages Inc., a Seattle company on the flip side of the trend. It publishes residential listings online.

"It goes into the recycling bin. It becomes a child booster . . . anything other than what the phone book was intended to be," Algard said.

Even the business pages are getting whacked. Coming soon to a website near you will be an industry initiative that allows people to opt out of the yellow pages.

In response, the business directory industry is evolving, trying to save - and improve on - its $15 billion a year value with web versions and other add-ons.

Ditching the directories altogether is complicated.

Many states have laws requiring phone companies to publish residential white pages, from an era when companies wanted to reduce operator staffs.

It's an expensive law, given that residential directories have no direct ad revenue. So in many cases, the phone company itself initiates the move away from print.

Last November, Verizon received permission from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to stop delivering residential white pages - 12 million strong.

Anyone who wants the paper version will have to opt in by calling 800-888-8448.

New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Florida have done likewise. Verizon aims to nix all its residential white pages, saving 17,000 tons of paper.

The company has cited a Gallup poll finding that only 11 percent of people used a white pages directory in the last year.

Other groups have taken aim at the yellow pages.

Recently, Seattle, Wash., passed legislation to create a yellow pages opt-out system.

In a city where 1.5 million directories are delivered each year, the legislation also required publishers to pay a "recovery fee" of 14 cents per book delivered plus $148 per ton of paper used in printing. The funds will cover the recycling costs - estimated at $350,000 - and to administer the opt-out system.

Councilman Mike O'Brien, who sponsored the legislation, hailed "the right of our citizens to control what happens on their front porch."

The industry is fighting back. Publishers and an industry association filed suit, contending that their right to free speech was violated and that interstate commerce was being unlawfully limited.

The court did not issue an injunction, and the law took effect Saturday.

One of many groups closely watching the fray is the Product Stewardship Institute, a Boston nonprofit with 46 states as members. It works with industry and environmental groups to reduce the health and environmental impacts of products.

Of all its campaigns - radioactive devices and mercury in products, for instance - none has garnered as much passion as phone books, said executive director Scott Cassel.

"It's the visceral issue, the visible waste issue," he said.

In 2008, about 840,000 tons of phone books entered the national waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Few were recycled. The EPA calculated that nearly 80 percent were carted off to landfills and incinerators.

Even when the books are recycled, collecting and transporting them has a cost. Cassel's institute estimated an annual national price tag of $63 million to landfill, incinerate, and recycle phone books.

Cassel got involved in 2006, when a waste coalition and several state and local officials asked the institute to develop a national solution.

What followed, said Cassel, was years of foot-dragging.

Now, within weeks, the industry will put the finishing touches on a national site, www.yellowpagesoptout.com.

People will be able to type in their zip code and see a list of all the yellow pages companies that deliver directories in their area.

"You can opt out of some or all, or even increase what you're getting," said Neg Norton, president of the Yellow Pages Association, an industry group. "It's totally about consumer choice. We think this is the elegant solution the marketplace has been asking for."

Cassell, however, dismissed the effort as "too little too late," adding, "We need regulation."

The institute is developing model bills and is tracking efforts in about a dozen states.

Amid the struggle, digital options are proliferating. Algard's www.whitepages.com - yes, there's also an app - is a sort of super directory, listing ages and additional family members.

Algard calls it a "connectory." In Facebook fashion, it has the capacity for listees to add all kinds of information to their "profiles," including a bio and photos.

Algard's company, which makes its money from online advertising, is pushing his views through a website, www.BanThePhoneBook.org.

Meanwhile, printed yellow page directories are being transformed into what they call super-marketing devices.

They're expanding where they are - adding web pages and apps. And they're expanding what they do - from mere listings and display ads to offering their business customers websites, Twitter accounts, smart phone apps and search engine optimization. Phone counts and other tracking measures help a business gauge its ad's success.

"Think of it as casting a wide net across the virtual world as well as the physical world," said Pat Marshall, chief new media officer of Yellowbook, a phone company competitor.

SuperMedia L.L.C., which publishes Verizon's yellow pages, began a program in 2009 that offers a consumer satisfaction guarantee with its business pages - both the print directory (look for the gold shield logo on the cover) and the virtual one at www.superpages.com.

If a customer isn't satisfied, SuperMedia tries to get the matter resolved. If that fails, SuperMedia says, it will pay the customer up to $500.

In the end, today's yellow pages aren't about ad revenue and circulation.

"It's how many phone calls and mouse clicks and walk-in visits" a business gets, the Yellow Pages Association's Norton said.

"Delivering a directory to someone who is going to recycle it just drives our costs up."


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace

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