Oooh the latest Yellow Pages arrived – you great big beautiful useless chunk of print.
It’s getting to the stage now when the unheralded arrival of the Yellow beast prompts a response of ‘Oh, are they still doing that?’. Which is perhaps not surprising given that it is now 80 years old and might be expected to be entering its twilight years.
What to do with old Yellow Pages (or even new ones…)? This year’s Sculpture by the Sea at Tamarama beach revealed one solution – turn them into art. This is let your palm do the walking by Tom Blake, a fake palm tree created from Yellow Pages. The title is a play on the old Yellow Pages ad line to “let your fingers do the walking” instead of traipsing around shops, except it’s a palm but not the palm of your hand but… look, do I have to explain everything?
It’s a neat joke. The pages are recycled and, in a kind of reverse engineering, used to create a new type of tree – still dead but nevertheless emblematic of what went into creating the pages. Not palm trees, obviously, but trees nonetheless, ones which, according to Sensis, come from “responsibly managed forestry sources”.
It’s important too that the tree is obviously fake – there’s something kitschy and slightly tacky about a fake palm, in keeping perhaps with its beachside location. It’s creating something fun out of an iconic print product which has seen better days, giving it new life, albeit shredded and rearranged. The Yellow Pages are rendered more useless – which is how many people regard them anyway – but, in a cute twist, made decidely more intriguing and eye-catching.
I finally found this year’s Yellow Pages directory buried beneath a pile of (unread) magazines and newspapers. I’m not sure how long it had been there but, by analysing the layers of print deposits, it is possible to reconstruct a timeline. I estimate it was delivered and died some time around March this year and has since lain undiscovered. That says everything about how often I need the Yellow Pages these days.
I’ve written about the White Pages previously; the Yellow Pages directory is its smaller, more colourful sibling. Together, they are among the biggest, most obvious examples of the waning of print as a mass communications medium in favour of online platforms. Once upon a time, Yellow Pages ruled the roost when it came to small business marketing. It practically set its own terms. Any small business which missed out on its Yellow Pages listing faced the prospect of becoming invisible, and possibly extinct. Not any more. There are other ways of being found now.
Earlier this year, the publisher of both directories, Sensis, signalled its intention to move away from an ‘an outdated print-based model’ and focus more on digital marketing. As a result, PMP, which currently holds the contract to print both volumes, has closed down its directories printing plant at Chullora in Sydney.
So what we are looking at here is an endangered print species – the information and search directory – albeit one which, as recently as 2011, had a circulation of over 1.5 million copies in Sydney alone. It’s still a big beast but wounded now, perhaps fatally. The pages feel hollowed out, large areas greyed out, particularly in the locality guides. And that’s despite the fact that it now comes in a smaller format of less than 900 pages, a far cry from its glory days when it was big enough to require two fat volumes.
Of course, the irony here is that the current Yellow Pages is a highly-evolved specimen of print; not so much reduced as refined. It is environmentally sensitive; carbon neutral, recyclable, sourced from managed forests. The colour print is laudable, particularly given what it is printed on and the speed at which it is produced. It tries really, really hard to be friendly and community-minded. And, you know, when I sat down to read this edition (not cover to cover – hey, I do have a life) I actually learnt something interesting about the place where I live.
Unfortunately it wasn’t how to find a decent plumber (still searching for that one).
These days the general consensus seems to be that anything the White/Yellow pages can do, the internet can do better. The past decade or so has seen a dramatic drop-off in directory printing and most experts now agree that it is a declining sector, at least in developed economies. This decline is only likely to accelerate with the spread of mobile computing.
Sensis, the publishers of the White Pages, has acknowledged as much with the announcement that, as of this year, residential White Pages will no longer be delivered automatically to every household: if you want a copy, you’ll have to ring up and get one or collect it from the post office. This will see a reduction in the number of White Pages books printed from about 1.4 million to just a few hundred thousand (this particular example delivered to our door is the Business and Government White Pages).
At the same time, the White Pages itself is getting smaller; this edition is 3-3.5cm smaller all round, although it is the same thickness (it is just 8 pages shorter than the previous edition). That means the type has also shrunk to the point at which standard entries are now barely readable, even with my glasses on. Any business hoping to get noticed in the White Pages had better pimp their listing by investing in some bold type. Sensis also offers a free ‘pocket sized magnifying aid’ for anybody who now finds the listings to small to see. Alternatively they could just hop online.
No doubt the shrinking White Pages delivers a significant cost saving, given that paper is the most expensive consumable used in their production, but it is also indicative of the increasing irrelevance of such directories, an instinctive response which seems to say “Perhaps if I get smaller then maybe people won’t hate me as much”. Sensis describes it as being easier ‘to handle and store’.
All of this tends to over-shadow the fact that the White Pages is a remarkable print production, 1,016 pages of tiny type printed on little better than tissue paper, bound and trimmed in perfect order. The registration on my copy is slightly out on the early colour pages but, all in all, it’s an amazing artefact given the speed and volume of its production. Those extraordinary colour maps of the entertainment venues – almost unreadable without a magnifying glass – are incredibly detailed, often using just a single row of dots to delineate features. That’s very precise printing.
So what, you say, it’s still a waste of resources and harmful to the environment. Well, maybe, although Sensis itself is keen to point out that production of its books has been certified as being carbon neutral and the paper itself uses 40% recycled fibre. An awful lot of used and unwanted directories also get recycled, re-entering the production stream, or sit on bookcases as big, silent carbon sinks.
That’s not to say the White Pages doesn’t have an environmental impact – almost every human activity does, even online search – but at least its production is theoretically sustainable; almost every element that goes into the printing of the directories has the potential to be recycled or sourced from sustainable resources. The White Pages may look like a big waste of space but it’s not an environmental villain.
So what, you say, it still can’t compete with the speed and ease of an online search. Well, maybe, although – as a random example – I don’t know where, online, I would find the phone number of every single hospital, aged care centre, community health centre and early childhood centre in NSW, all on a couple of easy-to-read pages in alphabetical order. No doubt I could search for it and find it online (I did start searching the NSW Government Health site but after clicking away uselessly for a couple of minutes… hey, life’s too short); with the White Pages it took me 5 seconds to turn to ‘Health’.
True, the White Pages is not searchable in print form but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t often quicker for finding stuff than typing it into Google. My guess is that the reason why users prefer to search online is not that it is necessarily any quicker but because they are already sitting at their screens; consulting the White Pages actually means getting up and doing some heavy lifting. That’s indolence, not ease.
Besides, where else except in the White Pages would I be able to find out that the very first business in NSW, alphabetically-speaking at least, is A AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA Aardvark Finance Lenders. You can’t Google that.