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Phone books are nearly obsolete

More states no longer require that the white pages be delivered to your door. But the Yellow Pages will still arrive unless you opt out.

By Karen Datko Feb 19, 2013 7:35PM

Image: Printing press (© James Hardy/Getty Images)When was the last time you looked up a telephone number by flipping through the white or yellow pages of a big, bulky phone book?


A survey done for WhitePages, the online white pages outfit behind the Ban the Phone Book Initiative, said that nearly seven out of 10 people hardly, if ever, use the paper kind, and that 60% have looked for contact information online. (That's all?)


Phone companies like Verizon and AT&T have been lobbying states to drop a once-useful requirement that they print and distribute the white pages to every customer's door. So far, 18 states (see a map of them here) have gone along, and Washington state is considering it.


Not so with the paper Yellow Pages, which are still profitable for their publishers. A legal battle has been fought to keep them coming to your door, whether you want them or not.


Recent history

Seattle in 2010 allowed residents to opt out of getting the Yellow Pages, and imposed fees on the three companies that distribute the books there.


The following year, San Francisco became the first city to ban the distribution of Yellow Pages unless a resident or business opts in -- beginning May 1, 2012. USA Today described the potential impact:

"(Board of Supervisors President David) Chiu, citing industry data, says the city receives almost 1.6 million Yellow Pages phone books each year, although there are about 800,000 residents. If stacked, he says the books equal the height of more than 287 TransAmerica Pyramids -- nearly eight and a half times the height of Mount Everest -- and create nearly 7 million pounds of waste annually."

Then, in October, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Yellow Pages publishers and struck down the Seattle law, which also made the San Francisco law unenforceable. "Although portions of the directories are obviously commercial in nature, the books contain more than that, and we conclude that the directories are entitled to the full protection of the First Amendment," the court said.


More than 79,000 businesses and residents had already opted out in Seattle, The Seattle Times said.


Do we even need these books -- white or yellow -- anymore?

The Iowa Policy Research Organization looked at (.pdf file) the pros and cons of making the white pages -- and, by extension, the Yellow Pages -- extinct. Among the pluses:

  • 5 million trees a year would be spared.
  • Only 20% of the books are recycled, at a cost to taxpayers of $17 million a year.
  • More people are going cellphone-only, meaning you won't find their number in the book.
  • People don't want them. Where opt-in is the rule for white pages, only 2% of customers do, according to AT&T.

On the other hand, high-speed Internet access is not readily available to many people, particularly the elderly, the poor, and rural residents. But with an opt-in system, people who need them can order the books for free.


Benj Edwards wrote at PC Magazine (two years ago!) that phone books are passé, and he included them on a list of "10 victims of recent tech." He said:

"Companies that distribute phone books in 2011 and beyond should probably be charged with littering. For all but the very few, paper phone directories are utterly useless environmental travesties, having long since been replaced by the likes of Google and the Internet at large."

On the other hand, a Seattle Times blogger found that about 20% of King County residents (including Seattle) use the Yellow Pages at least once a month, and in other Puget Sound counties the number goes up to 41%.


If you're still getting the white pages and don't want them, contact your telephone company. The Local Search Association, a Yellow Pages trade group, has its own website,, to allow people to stop delivery of the books. It took me about three minutes to do it.


If you have phone books you don't open, recycle them. Or Apartment Therapy has a post about how to use your phone book to alleviate back pain by decorating it as an attractive stand to elevate your computer monitor.


More on MSN Money:

Feb 21, 2013 5:53PM
The author of this post may admirably payoff her credit cards in full each month, but on the subject of Yellow Pages directories, she simply doesn't know her subject matter.

She makes sweeping generalizations, apparently based on personal opinion and an over-reliance  on self-serving and therefore spurious sources, each of which demands a response to this example of shoddy journalism.

I find that point-counterpoint corrections to factual inaccuracies often take the discussion toward tangential debates rather than addressing  the core deficiencies of a post like this.  Accordingly, I will limit my specific comments to a few glaring examples.

First, the author cites questionable statistics from a survey commissioned for the Phone Book, whose purported data is really just another attempt by another online wannabee to build it's business model by distorting facts and creating false perceptions.

Second, her claim that "making the white pages...extinct" will spare 5 million trees year is ludicrous.  The fact is that trees are rarely if ever harvested to make directory paper., which obtains its requisite fiber from both pre- and post-consumer waste and wood residue from the lumber-making process.

Third, her assertion regarding the relatively low percentage of directories recycled flies in the face of data released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, released every two years.  In 2008, EPA data showed that Yellow Pages directories constituted only 0.3% of the country's solid waste stream, compared to 4.2 % for newspapers. illustrating directories relatively minor impact.  The EPA now measures a broader category of waste called "newsprint", which includes directories.  It's 2010 data shows that 71% of all newsprint was, in fact, recycled.

Conversely, the EPA data also shows that only 20% of electronic search devices were similarly recycled.  Additionally, the facts show that print directories not only use fewer raw materials than electronic search devices, they consume less energy overall.  Further, most of the power used to manufacture newsprint-quality paper is from renewable sources. Most of the power sources required for Internet searches is from fossil fuels.

Now that I have put the specious claims of the author in factual perspective, I will close with the truth about Yellow Pages usage, based on independent, third-party research data.

CRM Associates, Boulder, CO, conducts over 300,000 call measurement studies across the country each year.  It's data is unassailable - either consumers made a call or they didn't.  It's president, Dennis Fromholzer, PhD., is considered by most to be the world's leading expert on Yellow Pages usage.  Here is what CRM's most current data shows:
76% of adult Americans used the Yellow Pages last year, to the tune of 7.4 billion references;

calls to the Yellow Pages were up 18% in 2011, the third consecutive year of increase;

85% of Yellow Pages users end up making a purchase; and

based on conversion to sale rates, a call from the Yellow Pages is worth between 15-25 more than a click-through on a search engine.

Sure, not everyone uses the Yellow Pages like they did throughout the 20th century.  Simply, there are alternative options today.  But that alone does not translate to a loss of effectiveness and strong ROI for those advertisers continuing to include Yellow Pages in their media mix.

Finally, the Yellow Pages industry recognizes that not everyone wishes to receive some or all of the printed directories available to them.  That's why the industry created , as a convenient way for individuals to opt-out.  It's easy to use.  Try it if you don't want to receive a directory.  But to masquerade unsubstantiated claims as fact as the author of this post has done borders on being journalistically unconscionable and intellectually dishonest.

Feb 21, 2013 4:01PM

We and nearly 3 million local businesses disagree with the title and premise of your article. Almost 2/3 of adult consumers used the yellow pages in 2012 because it remains a complete and convenient source for finding local businesses. That usage translates into a strong return for those businesses that invested in yellow pages advertising.  Residential white pages are different and are not widely used so we do support eliminating state Public Utility Commission rules that require publishers to distribute white pages.


We also strongly disagree that stopping phonebook distribution would save 5 million trees. This is an urban myth perpetuated by "Ban the Phonebook". The paper used to make phonebooks comes largely from recycled material and leftover wood chips that otherwise would go to landfills. 2010 EPA statistics show that directories constitute less than 0.3% of the municipal waste stream and enjoy high recycling rates. We do recognize that consumer preferences are changing rapidly and not everyone wants a phonebook. So directory publishers have digital products and support that consumer choice through the opt-out site as you mention in your article, and we hope that you can help actively promote the site in a positive manner while preserving the directory for those who need and use them.


Wesley Young

VP Public Policy - Local Search Association



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