How is the phone book still surviving?

A telephone on top of the the Yellow Pages


BILL RADKE: We know the Internet has hurt newspapers,
the postal service, flea markets. You would think you could add to that list the telephone directory. Why do we need this gigantic, tree-killing printed compendium? Yet, the telephone directory hangs on. I'm joined by the author of a new book called: "The Phone Book -
The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses but No One Reads." Ammon Shea, welcome to Marketplace.

AMMON SHEA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

RADKE: If no one uses it, why does the phone book still land with a thud on my driveway?

SHEA: Well, there are several reasons for that. The first is that everybody likes to say that they don't want the phone book, but when you try to take it away from them, there's a good amount of protestation on their parts -- particularly people who are not necessarily conversant with the Internet, say people of a certain age, the elderly -- they tend to become a little discomforted when you tell them you're going to take their telephone books away.

RADKE: And what's the next reason the phone book survives?

SHEA: Well for Yellow Pages particularly, because they're great business. It's a wonderful profit machine. And in 1996, Congress passed the telecommunications bill, which was ostensibly aimed at fostering competition and there was a little tiny bit of it that said, basically, anybody that wants to can now print a yellow pages. They just need to get the telephone numbers and you can go ahead.

RADKE: That explains why there are so many more now than when I was a kid.

SHEA: They've exploded.

RADKE: It sounds like you love the phone book, Ammon, but it is doomed, right?

SHEA: Well, one would think it's doomed. However, I think innate human laziness has more to do with its survival than anything else. For instance, in Norway, which is considerably more environmentally conscious than we are here [in the U.S.], they've had an opt-out in policy in place for years, meaning if you don't want a telephone book just call us and we won't send you one. And approximately 7 percent of the population takes the time to pick up the phone and say, "Don't send me a telephone book." Conversely, if you have an opt-in policy, saying you only get a telephone book if you ask for one, in the United States the polls have phone that approximately 2 percent of the population will say, "Yes, I want a telephone book." So until they get around to changing the laws saying you don't need to have a telephone and decide whether to do an opt-in or an opt-out, I think the book is pretty much going to stick with us.

RADKE: It's called "The Phone Book: The Curious History of the Book That Everyone Uses But No One Reads." Ammon Shea, thank you.

SHEA: Thanks very much.

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Yellow Pages survive because local businesses know that they receive a substantial return on their advertising investment. HomePages, one of the fastest growing local media companies publishes small town phone books in the Midwest.

There are a lot of people who don't have a smart-phone. If you just shutdown your computer and you need to get a number of that pizza place, you use the phone book. Enough said....

The death of yellow pages will come with the death of the white pages. The white pages are becoming useless, since they don't list cell phone numbers.

As soon as we make it possible to opt out of having phone books appear next to our mailboxes, the YP's will be killed, since they won't be able to promise distribution to the same number of households.

Interesting that we can opt out of annoying phone calls via the "do not call" list, but can't opt out on YP. They must have good lobbyists!

My newest set, still in its yellow bag, went directly into my single-stream recycling bin, and will be picked up by my town within the week. It would be interesting to see how many more show up this week -- and publish that information.

With so many young people opting not to ever get a landline, and middle-aged people seeking to economize starting to get rid of their landlines, the relevance of the white pages will begin to fall.

Will advertisers notice? Will YP publishers tell them?

I live in rural NY and I know some of the older people around here don't have a computer, smart phone, or internet connection and regularly go to the big book under their cordless phone for phone numbers.
For me a 30'something year old the yellow pages is nothing more than one more addition to my recycling container on the way into the house.

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