shrinking paper directory advertising

The local paper directory business is shrinking rapidly.  Consider Yell Group, which publishes Yellowbook and describes itself as “a leading international directories business operating in the classified advertising market through print, online and phone-based media in the United Kingdom, United States, Spain and Latin America.”  The Yell Group’s presentation of financial results for the first half of accounting year 2009 (April through September, 2008) doesn’t describe an imminent business crisis.  Yell Group’s stock, however, has declined precipitiously across calendar year 2008 and is now trading about 14% of its value at the beginning of 2008.

The Yellowbook for Alexandria City, Arlington County, and Fairfax County, Virginia, indicates a major directory advertising contraction.  The main business components of the directory are yellow pages (classified business advertisements, customized advertising texts and graphics), white pages (alphabetical business listings, no advertising text, but some paid block size and color levels), and coupon pages (10 standard-size coupons per page).  The “2008” Yellowbook had 1546 yellow pages, 303 white pages, and 40 coupon pages.  The “2009 2010” Yellowbook has 1162 yellow pages, 260 white pages, and 28 coupon pages.  Most of the directory’s advertising revenue undoubtedly is from the yellow pages. Thus this directory’s advertising revenue has probably fallen by more than 25%.  If the directory is for two years, compared to the previous one-year directory cycle, then the undiscounted two-year advertising revenue is down by more than 63%. Remember that this has occurred just in the beginning of what is likely to be a long and deep macroeconomic contraction.

My apartment building hints at the business problem.  The building has 11 occupied apartments, excluding mine.  About two weeks after a stack of Yellowbook directories were deposited outside the entryway, 9 books remained.  This remaining stack of Yellowbooks disappeared shortly thereafter.  I guess that the condo maintenance person threw them out. Thus perhaps only 2 out of 11 residents (plus one communications industry economist) even was interested enough to pick up the directory.

Rapidly shrinking local paper directories are a sign of the enormous change that the Internet is fostering.

traditional news: an academic style

The rise of interactive media has directed attention to differences in communicative style.  “News is a conversation” and “conversational marketing” have become rallying slogans for new-media news reporting and advertising initiatives. Conversation uses words and grammatical constructs in characteristically different ways and frequencies than does traditional news reporting and public relations releases.

Experts in corpus stylistics and corpus-based linguistics can quantitatively differentiate communicative styles. Readability metrics, such as those implemented in this readability tester, indicate one aspect of communicative style. Quantitative linguistic metrics can also characterize informational purpose, interactional, affective orientation, narration, situational embeddedness, agent abstraction, and expressions of epistemic and attitudinal stance.[1]

Markers of epistemic and attitudinal stance occur much more frequently in conversation than in news reporting. Stance markers occur in conversation on average about 46 times per thousand words. The corresponding figure for news reporting is 30 stance markers per thousand words. Academic prose averages about 28 stance markers per thousand words.[2]  Hence, with respect to expressions of stance, news reporting is much more similar to academic prose than to conversation. Few persons read academic prose.  With the emergence of online, conversational forms for disseminating news, few readers may also be the destiny of traditional newspapers.

Since it was well institutionalized as a distinct communicative form in the seventeenth century, British news reports have expressed stance much less frequently than British personal letters.  In the second half of the seventeenth century, news reports and personal letters contained on average about 18 and 34 stance markers per thousand words, respectively. Expression of stance became more frequent over time in both news reports and letters, but the gap between them closed relatively little.[3]

An indirect expression of stance has increased in frequency in news reports much more than in personal letters.  A stance verb followed by a that-clause provides an indirect expression of stance.  Compare, for example, these reports:

Galbi confirms that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

Galbi states that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

Galbi alleges that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

From the eighteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century, the frequency of “stance verb + that-clause” in news reports increased by about 5 instances per thousand words.  In personal letters, this stance form increased by only 1 instance per thousand words.[4]  The total of stance markers of all types increased across this period by about 16 and 13 instances per thousand in newspapers and personal letters, respectively.[5] Thus a smaller share of the stance increase in news reporting occurred in other stance forms, such as stance adverbials (“purple motes undoubtedly is a leading communications industry analysis blog”).

If news reporting is to be more like conversation, it should include more frequent expressions of stance.


[1] Biber (1988) developed multidimensional analysis in a pioneering, corpus-based quantitative study of linguistic variation.  Lee (2008) provides a critique.  Corpus-based quantitative linguistic analysis is likely to be an important aspect of web search-engine design. Xiao and McEnery (2005) show that a keyword analysis can approximate Biber’s more computationally complex multidimensional analysis.

[2] Biber (1999) Figure 12.1.

[3] Estimate from Biber (2004) Figures 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.  Similar estimates of stance markers for 1950-99 are 28 and 41 instances per thousand for news reports and personal letters, respectively. Note that the y-axis in id. Figure 1 is mislabeled.  Here’s an example of sixteenth-century English news reporting.

[4] Estimate from Biber (2004) Figure 8.

[5] See n. [3] and related statistics.


Biber, Douglas. 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, Douglas. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, England: Longman.

Biber, Douglas. 2004. “Historical patterns for the grammatical marking of stance: A cross-register comparison.”  Journal of Historical Pragmatics 5:1 pp. 107-136.

Lee, David Y. W. 2008. Modelling variation in spoken and written English: the multi-dimensional approach revisited. Routledge studies in corpus linguistics. London: Routledge.

Xiao, Zhonghua and Anthony McEnery. 2005.  “Two approaches to genre analysis: three genres in modern American English.” Journal of English Linguistics 33:11 (March) pp. 62-82.

the masses

Right leg, left arm, left leg, right arm
pump forward numbered torsos
with identifying peculiarities.
The House of Lords mounts an enquiry:
name, age, years worked, state of health
six thousand workers manufacturing
in a distant factory.

A crescendo of foot falls
and the onslaught arrives
threads drawing and twisting
bobbing breasts and bulging muscles
vapors boiling over bodies of all ages and sizes —
a mob of marathoners pours
through the capital’s streets.

By nightfall, tranquillity.
A quilted comforter,
imported from Macao,
covers aching limbs.
Folded neatly in a dresser,
an emblazoned t-shirt
memorializes the laborious hours.
Illumination from stars
two hundred light-years away
is obscured in the night’s
innumerable stories.