RICHMOND, Va. — What's black and white and read all over? Not the white pages, which is why regulators have begun granting telecommunications companies the go-ahead to stop mass-printing residential phone books, a musty fixture of Americans' kitchen counters, refrigerator tops and junk drawers.
In the past month alone, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania approved Verizon Communications Inc.'s request to quit distributing residential white pages. Residents in Virginia have until Nov. 19 to provide comments on a similar request pending with state regulators.
Telephone companies argue that most consumers now check the Internet rather than flip through pages when they want to reach out and touch someone.
"Anybody who doesn't have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway," joked Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.
Phone companies say that eliminating residential white pages would reduce environmental impact by using less paper and ink. It also can't hurt their bottom lines to cut out the cost of a service that they say rarely gets used and generates little beyond nostalgia.
The first telephone directory was issued in February 1878 — a single page that covered 50 customers in New Haven, Conn. That sheet grew into a book that became virtually a household appliance, listing numbers for neighbors, friends and colleagues, not to mention countless potential victims of prank calls.
Fewer people rely on paper directories for a variety of reasons: more people rely solely on cell phones, whose numbers typically aren't included in the listings; more listings are available online; and mobile phones and caller ID systems on land lines can store a large number of frequently called numbers.
Traditional land lines have been declining for the better part of the decade, and now are being disconnected at a rate of nearly 10 percent each year, according to company financial reports.
And a survey conducted for SuperMedia Inc. by Gallup shows that between 2005 and 2008, the percentage of households relying on stand-alone residential white pages fell from 25 percent to 11 percent. Dallas-based SuperMedia, which publishes Verizon's telephone directories, has instead focused on its yellow pages and paid advertising listings, and their online equivalents.
Unlike the residential white pages, the business directories printed on yellow pages are doing fine, at least according to the Yellow Pages Association. The industry trade group claims more half the people in the U.S. still let their fingers do the walking every month, and that 550 million residential and business directories are still printed every year.
As for the white pages, Steve Keschl can attest to the declining interest. As a doorman at an Upper East Side condo building since 1960, the 84-year-old has watched tenants' fading reaction to the annual delivery of New York City's white pages book — which incidentally weighs in around 3 pounds, 9 ounces, or a little more than a dozen iPhones.
These days, the books "sit here pretty long," said Keschl, who added that even he rarely uses the directory anymore. "Sometimes they take them, sometimes they don't."
While New York and other cities still have stand-alone white pages, many of the thousands of phone directories across the country include residential white pages, yellow business listings and blue government pages. Where they no longer have to print the white pages, publishers will simply slim down their combined books.
Verizon and AT&T Inc. — the two largest land line players — and others have requested exemptions from state requirements to distribute residential phone books in paper form. The directories would be available on the Internet, printed upon request or provided on CD.