Industry turns up volume on phone books
ALBANY, N.Y. — It's been a fixture on kitchen counters and refrigerator tops and in junk drawers for decades.
But today, the Yellow Pages is a bit too ubiquitous for some, with phone books published annually in the United States outnumbering the population by two to one.
While the $17 billion-a-year industry is showing remarkable resilience as other advertising-driven businesses suffer, it has become a familiar target in state legislatures, where lawmakers have tried — unsuccessfully, so far — to place limits on distribution.
The Yellow Pages Association, an industry trade group, has paid outside lobbyists about $50,000 so far this year to defend it in communities across the country. Two main points the group tries to get across are that phone books help promote local businesses and that they are made almost entirely from wood scraps collected at sawmills and recycled paper.
In Albany, N.Y., city councilman Joseph Igoe is trying to build support for a law that would limit their distribution and require publishers to make it easy for people to halt delivery.
If Igoe succeeds, it will be noteworthy. Proposals have been floated — without success — by state legislatures in Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina and Washington.
Phone book publishers acknowledge that many households and businesses receive more directories than they need. But they call it a sign of competition in a healthy business and argue that the marketplace, not the government, should determine the number of phone books distributed.
For years, phone companies dominated the directory business and published the only phone book available in many markets. Federal rules enacted in the late 1990s required phone companies to provide listings to independent publishers at a reasonable cost and ignited an explosion of competition.
Lexington has at least three such directories.
Last year, Yellow Pages publishers logged roughly $16.8 billion in revenue. That figure is on pace to rise to $17.2 billion this year, and $17.6 billion in 2009, according to projections by media research company Simba Information.
And while other advertising-driven businesses — particularly newspapers and magazines — have been struggling as their readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet, the old-fashioned printed copy remains king in the Yellow-Pages business.
A usage study conducted by statistical research firm Knowledge Networks/SRI estimates that Americans referred to print Yellow Pages advertisements 13.4 billion times last year, compared with 3.8 billion online listings.