Lots of people have been blogging about John Nichol’s piece in The Nation about the state of newspapers in America.

For some, this is a reassuring tale about the continued importance of newspapers over other media. For Roy Greenslade, the anecdote at the start about newspapers’ role in the Montana Senate race shows that “newspapers continue to set the news agenda“. Ditto *Editors’ Weblog.

Nichols does begin his piece by writing about the enduring importance of local newspapers:

…daily newspapers remain essential arbiters of what passes for news and what Americans think about it. For all the talk about television’s dominant role in campaigns … and all the new attention to the Internet, newspapers for the most part continue to establish the parameters of what gets covered and how. … Moreover, neither broadcast nor digital media have developed the reporting infrastructure or the level of credibility that newspapers enjoy.

This Greenslade summarises like this:

We are still in a state of transition from old to new media and newspapers do tend to set the news agenda. Bloggers, meanwhile, act as critics of the old media. They set the agenda only as a reaction to old media. They are not, yet anyway, proactive sources of news and their commentaries, given that there are so many, do not appear able to wield political influence with the same facility as newspapers.

Some might call this an example of the “derivative myth” of blogs, but it is certainly true — particularly for hard news like local politics. But reading Nichols’ piece as just another “old media vs. new media” text misses the more important argument further down page.

What if, as Nichols suggests later in his report, the business model for newspaper’s crucial and as-yet unmatched reporting infrastructure slips away — or if newspaper owners accelerate the decline with suicidal measures aimed at maintaining the high profit margins to which they have become accustomed?

It may be happening far slower than some more alarmist pundits might suggest, but what happens to news as newspapers lose more and more of their classified advertising revenue to the web? Who is going to pay for that agenda-setting reporting?

For some, the instinctive reaction is to cling on to the old, established business model in the vain hope that everything will be alright eventually. This is a disaster waiting to happen. Nichols again:

As sad as the end of newspapers might be for someone like me, who began writing at age 11 for the weekly newspaper in my Wisconsin hometown, the important question for the great mass of Americans is not, How do we save newspapers? It’s, How do we still get a healthy mix of reported news and analysis from a variety of at least reasonably reliable sources?

This is a crucial point: Let go of your romatic attachment to the medium. It’s the message that matters. News, not newspapers, need saving.

Equally important is that the Internet is not, as some assume, the obvious solution. Nichols warns:

The web has yet to emerge as a distinct journalistic force—let alone one that speaks with the authority at the local, state or regional level of a traditional daily newspaper. While the web may someday be home to sites that generate the revenues needed to pay reporters and editors to produce meaningful journalism, that day has yet to arrive in any real sense.

“What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That’s a grave danger to democracy,” says [Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss].

Exactly. This looming journalism gap, which some people have been warning of for ages, is the real issue we should all be talking about.