The everlasting phone book; why won't it go away?
"Yellow Page usage among people, say, below 50, will drop to zero—or near zero—over the next five years," Bill Gates predicted in a Microsoft address last spring, and unless by "usage" you mean yanking them apart with cars, it's not hard to see his point. Left to pulp out in the rain and abandoned in mountainous mailroom piles, phone books don't get much respect anymore. They're having the most absurdly drawn-out death throes of any advertising medium ever known—and yet remain so poorly understood as social history that when they really are gone, we'll scarcely understand what we've lost.
We're a long way from 1878, when New Haven phone subscribers received a single-sided sheet with all of 11 residences and 39 businesses on it. From there, directories went viral: The print run for the Manhattan directory alone passed the million mark in 1921. Within five years, it rose sixfold again and required a corps of 500 deliverymen, more than 500 rail-car loads of paper, and 100 tons of binding glue. And that's just in one city. The humble phone book spent the 20th century as the prince of print jobs. When AT&T gave all 2,400 local editions the same bicentennial-commemorative cover, the resulting run of 187 million copies probably became the most-reproduced book cover of all time. (Stanley Meltzoff's illustration of American archetypes playing "telephone" will induce the shock of long-forgotten memory in anyone over 35.) But, above all, phone books were the sine qua non of small-business advertising and such an unstoppable gusher of profit that by the time industry pioneer Reuben Donnelly died in 1929, he'd already built up a $10 million personal estate.
Ask anyone under 30 about phone books, though, and you might as well inquire about Victrola needles. The Yellow Pages Association claims that even young households use them when the occasion—a wedding, for instance—demands reliable listings. But printed phone books are a maturing industry, with only about six in 10 businesses and individuals still regularly relying on them. Yet even as directories hemorrhage content to the Web and to unlisted cell numbers, enough oldsters—those, say, who still recall physically dialing numbers in a rotary motion—continue using them enough to keep profits rolling in. In other words, you remaining four in 10 recipients can expect a lot more doorstops and spider-smashers in your future.
That waste is a truly weighty issue. In Portland, Ore., alone this year, the Dex directories tipped the scales at 10.5 pounds per pair, consumed the equivalent of 49,779 trees, and could be stacked nearly 12 miles high into the stratosphere. And that's just one of several directories that Portlanders receive. On a national level, the figures become mind-boggling. If we assign the not-terribly-scientific figure of just more than three pounds to the average directory, then the 615 million volumes produced last year come out to 1 million tons of phone books. Still, the Yellow Pages Association claims that phone books produce only 0.3 percent of the household waste stream—while "newspapers, in comparison, represent 4.9%." Alas, customers ask for newspapers, and they do offer an opt-out—it's called canceling your subscription.