Paper atheists and local city governments are frothing with joy over the Seattle City Council recent decision to begin charging publishers a $.40/book pre-delivery waste recovery charge, as well as other fees/licenses, for the privilege of delivering books in the city. The legislation also establishes the requirement for a single opt-out point by 2011, which of course, the government will control, despite the fact that the industry and publishers already have mechanisms in place. While on the surface this legislative attempt to single out the Yellow Pages industry appears to be Armageddon for print products, I’m not so sure that this isn’t an opportunity for the Yellow Pages industry.
If you listen to the comments from the Seattle City Council or follow some of the commentary that appears on the blogs and online chat rooms, you would initially believe that the effort to ban or discontinue printed directories is because of some overarching environmental concerns. Silly me. The reality is this new effort in Seattle is nothing more than a financial grab by the local government.
As the former mayor and Town Councilman for a small town I can tell you that one of the ongoing challenges facing local governments is how to fund a wide range of initiatives, many of which are not budgeted. While there always seemed to be no shortage of viable projects that even the smallest of governments would like to pursue, even in good economic times, there never seems to be enough money to do them. Local governments also face many mandates that come from state and federal governments which are usually only partial or totally unfunded requirements. For example, it sounds great that the state may be offering grant programs (aka money) to hire additional police officers or buy critical equipment. Yet most of these programs are only partially funded grants. To receive the grant funds, the local government must find a way to come up with a matching amount to receive the grant. Finding those matching funds can be interesting as no one is interested in raising taxes, especially in this economy.
The recent actions in Seattle should not be a surprise — the city government wants to shift several hundreds of thousands of dollars in waste costs from their shoulders to someone else. The Yellow Page industry is the perfect target for shifting these costs. First off, publishers like DEX and Yellowbook are not based in the Seattle area. They are just some foreign, big bad corporation dumping costs on the poor citizens. No local citizen is ever going to complain if they tax a non-local corporation. But imagine the outcry if the city was trying to implement an ongoing tax on Boeing or Microsoft, the two local darlings in the Seattle economy.
Secondly, the Yellow Pages are an easy target because Seattle knows exactly who to bill. By example, if you wanted to go after the consumer packaged goods industry for the extraordinary amount of waste they generate, who would you charge? Even better, if you were to try to tax consumer electronics manufacturers for the costs of recycling their often highly toxic waste, who would you tax? Best Buy? Sony? Apple? I doubt the city of Seattle is going to try to pursue companies such as Coke, Hewlett-Packard, or the makers of the cardboard that is in so much of the packaging we buy, even if their contributions to the waste stream (and the city of Seattle’s cost) are orders of magnitudes higher than the impact of directories.
The third factor to consider is that local politicians, like the ring leader in Seattle – Mike O’Brien, see efforts like this as the fast-track to higher political office. When you have such a small vocal group (less than 1% of the population) bugging them on this issue, with the other 99% of people not really involved, you have the perfect platform from which to build name recognition and supposed notable achievements. Who wouldn’t like a politician that on paper, is bent on saving the world (regardless of the cost) and goes after those nasty corporate giants? O’Brien is new at the political arena, but he clearly relishes it. I doubt he expects to stay in Seattle much longer, as the sirens of higher office will begin calling his name.
Had this been purely a green or environmental issue, then the decision-makers in Seattle would have actually paid some attention to the industry’s efforts already underway. For example:
- Phone books are in fact made from wood chips and recycled paper, not virgin trees, and even some trash purchased from the city.
- Fewer and fewer phone books are going to the landfills, thanks to community and publisher recycling efforts.
- Publishers have created websites giving consumers the option to opt-out from receiving a phone book at their address.
While the next steps from the industry are quite clear, specifically litigation which would block this ridiculous effort in Seattle, the industry should take to heart that while this issue is extremely serious, it will survive.
At the recent BIA/Kelsey 2010 DMS conference, several speakers talked about the results of their eco-oriented efforts which yielding some interesting trends:
- In France, as reduced usage in large metro areas was beginning to occur (as expected — consumers in cities have the shortest distances to go to shop) instead of continuing to distribute a massive multi-county book, the French YP reduced the number of headings in its big city books and took out the B2B headings (which are usually accessed online from work). Surprise, some interesting trends developed after these changes:
- Overall usage for the print Yellow Pages leveled off in those city areas, but still at high usage levels – 71% of consumers still used print, and 63% used online. Obviously both numbers include people that use both.
- In 2009, of the 30k visitors to their opt-out site (out of a total metro population of about 12 million, or more importantly 0.25% of the population) a total of 47% of the requests were for OPT-IN, while 53% asked to opt-out. In 2010, the numbers reversed themselves with OPT-IN requests rising to 56% while opt-out dropped to 44%.
- In Great Britain/UK – for every opt out request they got, 10 others who wanted a book.
- In the US, DEX indicated it’s opt out rate is running at less than 1%. For door hangers left at residences confirming they had requested to be left out of the book distribution, 5% actually contacted DEX requesting a book be delivered.
The important take away for anyone directly or indirectly involved in this industry is that we must rally around the effort to stop legislation like the one in Seattle. A major lawsuit to fight this type of legislation will be a hot news item in many communities throughout this country. If there is a positive in filing a very public, aggressive lawsuit, the industry will at least have the opportunity to tell its value story. Given that it has been a long time since the industry had a coordinated promotional program aimed at both advertisers and users, I hope we seize this chance to present our view on the benefits the industry brings, as well as the responsibility it has already taken on it’s own to be good local citizens. Equally important is that each of us must be ready to share the message with the same zeal that the 1% who are opposed to our efforts have in each of our communities, with the people that we socialize with, in the organizations that we volunteer for, and especially when the local media asks for comments.
It’s up to you. I think we’re going to be just fine. But you need to do your part.