By Mick Swasko, @swasko
12:00 AM CDT, July 14, 2014
Doorstop, makeshift weight, a decent step stool or an ironic dress: Phone books have many uses these days, but their intended purpose isn't always one of them.
1.2 million phone books have already been distributed this year to Chicago doorsteps. And Dex Media, one of the city's largest telephone directory providers, is readying a fresh set of a million more for distribution before year end.
But in an age of smartphones, Google and even electronic versions of the yellow and white pages, why are physical phone books still distributed?
"I don't know anybody who needs a phone book or felt the need to use one for 10 years," laments Hatie Parmeter, 22, of Logan Square. "I've lived in my building for a year and nobody has touched them. They are just wet, moldy paper, and it's disgusting."
Despite Parmeter's distaste, industry research shows people still do use them and there is still a market for advertising and listings, according to the Local Search Association.
Formerly the Yellow Pages Association, the LSA represents larger publishers and advertising companies in the industry. According to LSA research, 60 percent of Americans still report using a print phone book in the last year. Additionally 74 percent of people who use the Yellow Pages to find a business' number either purchased something from the business or intended to, said Wesley Young, the vice president for public affairs at the LSA.
"Everyone thinks the search engines dominate the search market," he said. "But the problem with small businesses is that if you don't end up on page one [of a search engine's results], you don't get found." While he said both the association and the industry are in a transition to digital, businesses—especially small local ones—still rely on the phone book.
Phone book advertising is still big business. The industry is forecasted to rake in $11.4 billion in 2014, of which 66 percent comes from printed directories, according to independent market researcher IBISWorld. Despite industry strength, demand is expected to fall 7 percent over the next five years as people continue to question its relevance.
Parmeter is hardly an opponent of print products. She subscribes to several magazines and does not want to see the medium die out to digital, she said. Still, she thinks the phone books that pile up don't have much value.
"It's kind of a silly thing to have strong feelings about, but hey, we could save a lot of trees," she said.
Paul Rettig, a landlord and 38-year-old Logan Square resident, got fed up with the five phone books delivered to his four-flat. "It makes the neighborhood look trashy with these things all over the place," he said.
He'd originally planned to dump all five in front of his alderman's office—a small protest. But phone book delivery isn't a local issue. Historically, part of the Illinois public utility code that governs telephones required an area's major telephone provider (in Chicago's case, AT&T) to distribute white pages (phone numbers, addresses and names of subscribers) to all customers. However, in 2011, AT&T successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission to drop that requirement in Chicago.
Ultimately deciding the protest was "misdirected rage," Rettig didn't go through with it, he said. But they still pile up in front of buildings, often making them appear vacant. "It doesn't contribute to the safety of the neighborhoods or the cleanliness of it," he said.
Ramon Gonzales, 35, of Little Village, recently turned to the phone book when a search engined yielded unsatisfactory results about local window services. While he sympathizes with people who get upset during phone book delivery season, he gets creative with the heavy tomes. He uses many of them for pressing flowers, a hobby the garden writer, who calls himself "Mr. Green Thumb," has had for years.
"They're heavy, and the sheets of paper are absorbent," he said, adding he's found they also can be used for composting and in the garden as a weed barrier.
The LSA recognizes that residents may no longer want one of the many phone books with which they are affiliated, Young said. The association created yellowpagesoptout.com to allow residents to stop delivery completely to their address. And those who live in larger buildings, which receive dozens of copies, can approach their property manager about using the website to opt out of multiple copies. It can take up to 90 days to process a request, Young said.
"We want to get them in the hands of people that do use them," he said. "If folks don't love the book, we don't want to spend the money to deliver it."
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