It’s Almost 2009. Do You Still Need a Phone Book?

phone-books99.jpgLast year about this time I wrote about the insane waste that phone books represent in an age where almost everyone has a decent internet connection. I mentioned that, as a longtime shareholder of AT&T, I was particularly outraged to see the company spending money printing these useless tomes and dumping them in my building, plastic wrap and all – not to mention the absurd environmental cost and utter disregard for any principal of waste control.

Well, here we go again. This morning about 100 phonebooks in plastic bags showed up in my foyer and will undoubtedly sit there for weeks until (hopefully) finding their way into the recycling. I’d estimate about 3 of them will actually be used. Last year I found a use for 2 – to prop up a portion of my cracked bed-frame.

Commenters on last year’s post brought up two interesting points – that some local governments may actually require the printing and distribution of phone books, and that AT&T probably still makes money selling ads in them. News flash to local businesses – get a website and learn to use Yelp.

Now, I can’t find any proof that municipalities require phone books (if you can please leave a comment), so I have to assume that there is still profit in the industry, otherwise they’d have phased them out. So therefore, what we’ve got here is a reluctance to give up on an old practice perhaps for fear of change and and certainly for fear of disrupting a proven revenue stream. But is there a better way?

It turns out that the Yellow Pages are printed by many independent publishers and not necessarily by the phone company, or AT&T, who may just pay to slap their name on the book. The industry is expected to have a phenomenal $17 Billion+ in revenues this year which means that countless small businesses still regard an advertisement in the yellow pages to be a worthy expense.

I find this quite surprising as I thought most people I know haven’t used the phone book for anything other than a furniture aid in years. The rise of localized search engines and sophisticated mobile devices mean no business is out of reach for me in seconds. Isn’t this the trend everywhere?

Apparently not – Yellow Pages revenue is expected to continue to grow in 2009. My scientific survey of 5 people at a coffee shop found that 2 had in fact used the phonebook in the past month, which means some people actually find them useful. But others vocally complain, like me.

So why not make the phone book a paid-for service? If people don’t want one, they shouldn’t have one dumped in their foyer. If people do want one, they should pay for it. Something modest like $5 – after all, people will pay for coupon books, which is essentially what the phone book is. Could there be a revenue sweet-spot for yellow pages companies that would result in better profits and far less phone books printed? Or is this a waste problem that could only be addressed by government action? Or is the reality simply that many people actually want them and I’m out of line suggesting they give them up?


Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.