AT&T has announced an initiative in North Carolina to stop publishing its White Pages directories in Charlotte and Raleigh in favor of Web-based or CD-ROM access to residential listing data. According to a recent article in the Canadian Press:
“Clifton Metcalf, an AT&T spokesman in Charlotte, said the company wants to try the idea in North Carolina before expanding it elsewhere. Metcalf said internal research shows that customers rarely use the [residential] White Pages as they increasingly turn to the Internet for basic phone listings. If all customers in Raleigh and Charlotte switched to the web-based version, AT&T estimates that it will save about two million kilograms of waste [paper] each year.”
This move is an obvious play to appease the recent opt-out movement in North Carolina and could be a similar blocking strategy in New York and New Mexico where opt-out legislation has also been proposed. While this will be a cost and paper savings for AT&T, this move could also embolden other state legislators and environmentalists to put pressure on publishers to make similar changes to White Pages publishing and further complicate issues dealing with challenges to Yellow Pages production.
The trouble with the opt-out movement is that local, state and public utility commission laws vary on their requirements to publish yearly residential listings, meaning a national change would be difficult unless state legislative measures could be enacted to overrule the local and public utility commission requirements. As I mentioned in a recent Kelsey Group Advisory, environmental advocates are focusing on states and cities where they have the best opportunity to overturn local publication requirements. Residential White Pages directories were the most likely targets since they are an easy means for reducing “solid waste issues.” Legislators, environmental group and consumer advocates have discovered that challenging a commercial vehicle like Yellow Pages is a difficult battle.
Removing the requirement to produce an annual residential White Pages directory is a boon to incumbent publishers, which can reinvest the production and delivery costs into other new products. In essence, this gives environmental and legislative groups a win while at the same time leveling the competitive directory field for the incumbent publishers, which would no longer be required to bear the expense of producing a residential White Pages product and could potentially reduce the size of their books in markets where the residential pages are integrated into one book.
Is this the future movement for print Yellow Pages? I think not in the near term given the usage rate and the amount of business leads generated for local small and medium-sized businesses. As the legislators and environmental groups found in North Carolina, it is difficult to restrict a commercial media vehicle that so many SMBs find essential in building and maintaining their livelihood.