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The White Pages, Where Anybody Could Be Somebody

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The White Pages, Where Anybody Could Be Somebody

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The White Pages, Where Anybody Could Be Somebody

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First, party phone lines were phased out. Then the rotary telephone and the phone booth all but disappeared. Soon, you'll be able to add the White Pages to that list of the obsolete. In more and more places, telephone companies have stopped distributing residential directories because the same information can easily be found on the Internet.

Still, as Scott Gurian reports, the phone book does have its fans.

SCOTT GURIAN: For Steve Martins character in the 1979 film "The Jerk," getting listed in the White Pages meant a ticket to fortune and fame.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Jerk")

Mr. STEVE MARTIN (Actor): (as Navin Johnson) The new phone books here! The new phone books here!

Mr. JACKIE MASON (Actor): (Harry Hartounian) Boy, I wish I could get that excited about nothing.

Mr. MARTIN: Nothing? Are you kidding? Page 73 - Johnson, Navin R. Im somebody now!

GURIAN: Roy Peter Clark is already a well-known somebody. Hes spent years working as an author and journalist. Still, he says theres something special about seeing himself in the White Pages.

Mr. ROY PETER CLARK (Author, Journalist): I dont do this anymore, but when the new phone book used to be delivered, especially when I was new to a community, you wanted to check your own name - first to see if it was accurate, but also as a kind of a test of your membership in this new community.

GURIAN: But soon, the only community hell be part of is the global community of millions of people listed in telephone directories on the Internet. Thats because phone companies like AT&T and Verizon have decided in several states to stop printing hard copies of residential phone directories for most of their customers.

Mr. JOHN BONOMO (Spokesman, Verizon): The bottom line is, there are many more sources for finding a telephone number other than the traditional paper directory.

GURIAN: John Bonomo is a Verizon spokesman.

Mr. BONOMO: By and large, for the majority of the population, if its not used, then its probably a prudent step not to produce them and not to deliver them to those people who frankly, either just throw them away or, you know, they get stored in the back of a closet, and they get wasted there.

GURIAN: Now, to be clear, the Yellow Pages and the business listings in the White Pages arent going anywhere. But unless you specifically request a hard copy of the residential listings, youll now have to call directory assistance or look up what you need on the Internet, if you werent doing that already. Its a move environmentalists say is long overdue, but it doesnt bode well for Steve Martins character from the film.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Jerk")

Mr. MARTIN: (as Navin Johnson) Millions of people look at this book every day. This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your name in print - that makes people.

GURIAN: I wanted to ask what he thought of all this, but I figured theres no way to do that, since Navin R. Johnson doesnt really exist.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

GURIN: At least thats what I thought, until I found him listed in a Tampa telephone directory, so I decided to give him a call.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)


GURIAN: Oh, hi. Is Mr. Johnson there?

Mr. PANESSA: No. Actually, there is no Navin Johnson. My real name is Shawn Panessa. When I was getting the phone set up, I didnt want my name registered in the White Pages. And to not be listed cost money. But to be listed as a fictitious name is free. So actually, my friends dad originally had the idea of listing as Navin Johnson, and I think his phone is as well.

GURIAN: I asked Panessa how he thinks Navin Johnson would feel about the White Pages going away.

Mr. PANESSA: I guess he would be very sorry, very sad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GURIAN: But as for Panessa himself, he says what many people say - that phone books are an item that have outlived their usefulness. As he puts it, its a nice doorstop, but I only have so many doors.

For NPR News, Im Scott Gurian.

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