View From The Corner Office: An interview with Dave Goddard, Simba Information

Perhaps no one issue is more relevant, current, or strategically important for the Yellow Pages industry right now than  some of the recent environmental challenges it has faced.  Up until recently the industry had managed to fight back most efforts. But a new ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council which would levee new registration fees for publishers, require mandatory opt-out compliance, and impose significant new waster recovery fees per book distributed has now brought the issue to the fore front.

Simba Information, led by Senior Analyst of the Yellow Pages Group, David Goddard, has released a comprehensive new report covering the full spectrum of the topic entitled Going Green:  Environmental Challenges in the Yellow Pages industry 2010. Goddard is a recognized authority on the industry having covered it since 1997.  He oversees the content gathering and presentation of Simba’s Yellow Pages & Directory Report and numerous related research reports. This work is an exceptional piece covering not only the general industry issues, but also provides readers with more detailed views inside most of the major publisher efforts.

We recently sat down with Goddard to further discuss his views on this hot topic. Enjoy.

YPT: How was this study assembled??

GODDARD:   Generally, Simba gathers the information for a report for about a year, which gives some solid trend lines. We then analyze the information and publish it. We have tracked the environmental impact on the industry for the past few years but this year Seattle brought the impact on the industry right to the forefront. While we discovered the industry has become more green over the past few years—primarily since the beginning of the PSI hearings in 2007 — it may be too little and too late. A number of states  and municipalities are already looking closely at the cost of yellow pages recycling just as Seattle did and may decide to recoup the money.   Seattle is going to charge the publishers as much as $600,000 at year to do business in their community. That will probably look very inviting to legislators.

YPT:  Is your overall sense that the industry understands how serious an issue this really is?

GODDARD:   Absolutely, I remember the first few environmental meetings that came up in 2007 & 2008. The publishers were surprised by the environmental issue as it pertained to their industry.  But, now they have educated themselves and a great deal of the credit goes to the YPA and ADP associations.  The publishers now work hard to making recycling of yellow pages directories more convenient and have gotten behind the green movement. However, the challenge is quite large because publishers are dealing with individual states and municipalities.

YPT:  In YP Talk articles we recently suggested that this lawsuit may not be a totally bad thing for this industry.  It could almost be viewed as an inexpensive public relations effort from the industry.  Do you agree??

GODDARD:   It is likely there will be a more united industry. Seattle is already proving itself to be a good example: two of the RBOCs and the YPA have filed the suit against the city ordinance and Yellowbook, which also distributed in the city, has thrown support behind them.   The money that will be owed to Seattle if this ordinance is upheld is really going to pinch. And, it won’t take long for environmental groups in cities like Chicago, which are already in contact with Seattle, to look to do the same.   Publishers may well have to pay to distribute in some of the cities and communities. Hopefully, both sides in Seattle will come up with a compromise that will work for publishers and the city. What that compromise would be, I’m not sure but I suspect they will be looking for one.

YPT:  Publishers have suggested that opt-out rates are only about 1% of the total delivery , and that it is a small fragment doing all the complaining/blogging about the issue while rest of the community isn’t really engaged in the discussion.

GODDARD:   Those statistics sound about right from what I’m hearing but the issue has now moved into the political arena.  If the Seattle model expands, communities across the U.S. are going to ask taxpayers if they want to continue to pay for recycling phone books or send a bill to yellow pages publishers.  I think the taxpayers’ answer is pretty obvious. Communities are going to go for the money. So, even if it’s only 1% of the households that don’t want the book delivered, the political arena is likely to give communities the legal right to send Joe Walsh a bill.  The publishers have to pay the bill, go to court in an attempt to have the ordinance overturned or come up with a compromise.

YPT:  Wouldn’t the process agreed to in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area be the better route for all parties (agreement to set up a single source opt-out program with fees involved.   So, I think me the issues is that if there were no fees involved then say you have to offer the opt-out I don’t think that would bother anyone.

GODDARD:  Minneapolis/St. Paul was a good compromise but communities are always looking for additional revenue.  While cooperation with business is a goal, the Seattle model is an opportunity to offset some expenses. It would be nice for the industry if the Seattle model doesn’t spread but it’s pretty likely that it will.

YPT:  Specific to the Seattle ordinance, it seems that the ordinance champion, Councilman O’Brien, really has his eyes on a bigger loft (State House).

GODDARD:  Yes, you’re right.  Who’s going to be against cleaning up a community?  O’Brien told Simba in a recent interview: “If you produce it, you should pay to get rid of it.”  And, who can successfully argue with that?

YPT:  In which key areas do you think we’re going to similar legislation come up with next?

GODDARD: My understanding is that environmental groups in Chicago are looking to Seattle but don’t want the legal bill, so they are waiting to see what happens.  How long will a court case like this last – 18 months to 3 years?  It’s certainly going to take a while, so I expect we’ll see a lot of communities watching and waiting. If the Seattle ordinance is upheld, communities are likely to follow the model. Two RBOCs and the YPA, which represents a major portion of the business, have recognized the danger of a strong fee-based environmental model and drawn the line in Seattle.

YPT:  But if they lose?

GODDARD:  Those flood gates are going to open if they lose.  It will be costly to the publishers in Seattle and most likely will become expensive in other communities as well. Since the stakes are so large, a settlement really seems likely.

YPT:  You indicated that one of the things that surprised you in your work on this publication was how green the publishers have become.  Tell us more about that.

GODDARD:   Basically, unlike previous years, we’re seeing a lot of progress. In past years we would search the publishers’ web sites and find that opt-out was available but the procedure was difficult. A person who wanted to opt out often had to hunt through the site, follow many steps and sometimes end up placing a phone call to the publisher rather than an online procedure.   But this year it has gotten pretty easy.  And, the YPA and the ADP, which has their own opt-out site, are about to take it national.  So the industry really is going ‘green’ and working toward recycling—that is the big difference from past years.  Back in 2006 before the PSI (Product Stewardship Institute, an environmental advocacy group) meetings, you often couldn’t find yellow pages recycling information anywhere on a publisher’s site. By 2010 a resident can opt out of a book or find the closest recycling center without much difficulty all across the country.

YPT:  Publishers have indicated that the actual opt-out rates are running under 1%, and have slowed to a trickle.  How do you view this result??

GODDARD:   What opt-out does is create a choice and Seattle is a good example because three of the largest yellow pages publishers—Dex, Super Media and Yellow Book—distribute directories in the market. What is likely to happen is two of those publishers will be “opted-out” and a household will receive one book. Environmentalist groups seem to really get fired up when multiple publishers deliver multiple books multiple times a year. Many, many books then arrive at the landfill or recycling center, which is a great photo opportunity. That’s what draws attention and that’s where they see unnecessary costs to the taxpayer.  An average yellow pages user may not even recognize the differences between books delivered to their home, never mind the difference between incumbent and independent.   Given an opt-out choice, I doubt there will be many residents that love the yellow pages so much that they want to receive all three. I just don’t see that happening and with a door-to-door campaign like the one planned by Seattle environmentalists, the opt-out option will definitely come to the surface.

YPT:  If you were leading a print Yellow Pages publishing operation, what steps would you be taking now?

GODDARD:   Basically they have to get into Seattle and file a suit that points out the defects in the ordinance, including the question of why yellow pages publishers need a permit to operate in the city but newspaper publishers don’t.  There are a number of questions raised by the Seattle ordinance that appear to fly in the face of the First Amendment.  While the publishers have to make an expensive stand in Seattle, it can also be an opportunity.  It may well be in the best interest of the industry to find a compromise that becomes a model across the country rather than kill the Seattle ordinance in court and face continuous battles in other communities.

The yellow industry is going greener while the environmental groups are getting stronger, more united and savvy with working with politicians. This entire issue really came to the forefront on the East Coast when Verizon Information Services [now SuperMedia] split its big book in Boston into three regional editions. The issue has now spread across the country to the West Coast and the environmentalists and publishers are in this together. As Sieg Fischer, president of Valley Yellow Pages, said at the PSI dialogue at the Seattle EPA office a couple of years ago, “We all live on this planet; maybe we can work this out together.”  The Seattle ordinance and lawsuit could supply that cooperation.

And lastly, the PSI group has some real credibility and they have influence all over the country.  The institute, which has been involved with multiple industries ranging from batteries to pesticides, seems to know how to work with environmentalists and businesses.  The wisest course of action may be to work more closely with PSI to find a compromise. They may wear green shoes, but the truth of the matter is that they are pretty savvy.

YPT:  How much is the report and how can someone order a copy?

GODDARD:   The report costs $2,995 for an online download and this is the link: http://www.simbainformation.com/pub/2648050.html

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