News publishers have failed to exploit new technology to tackle the decline in newspaper readership, according to online news guru Vin Crosbie.

In a lengthy essay published on the Online Journalism Review on 4 March, Mr Crosbie says that news sites are 'dangerously dependent' on their print counterparts.

Mr Crosbie, who has more than 25 years' experience in the news industry, argues that newspapers have failed to develop self-sustaining online publications.

"Today's online newspapers couldn't exist without their newsprint editions," he said.

"The newsprint operations create almost all of the content published by today's online newspaper editions, plus provide the online operations with financial support."

Mr Crosbie told dotJournalism that the essay, which is based on the state of the US industry, was specifically aimed at triggering debate within the industry.

"Unfortunately, I am deeply pessimistic over the likelihood of debate or that any action will be taken by the industry until it is too late," he told dotJournalism.

Referring to Professor Donald Sull of Harvard Business School, Mr Crosbie said that industry leaders have become used to tackling decline in the news industry, rather than finding ways to stem the loss of readership.

"Facing big changes in their environment, they tend to respond with what Professor Sull calls 'active inertia' - a tendency to persist in established patterns of behaviour," he said.

"They are stuck in the modes of thinking and working that have been successful in the past, so rather than dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it."

Publishers have developed online news services partly to attract younger readers - but it does not follow that online readers are always younger, said Mr Crosbie. He quoted research showing that fewer people in their 20s now read newspapers, and that typical ages of print and web readers are actually very similar.

Mr Crosbie suggests a three-part solution.

• News publishers must learn to employ new technologies to satisfy each reader's individual interests.

• They must recognise that convergence - content sharing between different platforms - will happen within the next decade.

• They must focus less on producing content and more on delivering a complete package.

Key to this plan is customisation, said Mr Crosbie - something that is not on the radar at most publications. He said that digital printing presses will allow pre-addressed, cutomised editions to be sent to subscribers - or even sent by email and printed out through their home computer.

"Editors think customisation will let each reader opt out of receiving stories that editors think all readers should know - that their choices about content must be controlled.

"But a newspaper that can match stories - and specific advertising - to each individual reader's needs and interests is much more valuable to its readers and advertisers," he said.

Europe's online news publications are more advanced than those in the US, particularly in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, and Spanish and UK sites are leading the way in charging for web newspapers.

"I think most of the issues I'm raising apply to the UK regional newspaper market, and many also apply to the UK national newspaper market.

"The mobile phone was invented in the US but perfected in Europe. Perhaps the same is happening online, too."

Mike Ward, head of journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, feels that some sectors of the UK media industry still have some way to fully exploit the potential of online publishing.

"The Guardian web site, for example, has very distinctive content and there is the sense that the site is an entity in itself. So there are sites that really make a statement," he told dotJournalism.

"But they are in the minority - and the regional press often has a certain rigidity in its online product. Many sites still use 'shovelware' and have a very limited approach.

"They need to be more imaginative and take a longer term view."

• What do you think of Vin Crosbie's comments on the state of news publishing? Have news publishers been radical enough in taking steps to boost newspaper readership? Do readers really want customised newspapers? Email and we will publish your views.

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