In the past, in the days of ink-stained wretches and typesetting, it was the editors and publishers who set the news agenda. A small coterie of journalists decided what was most important, what went on page one, what was to be emphasized day after day. In effect, they would separate the important from the superficial, and could to large degree push what they wanted to and create the "water cooler" issue of the day.
Of course, this is still true to some extent. The New York Times' Bill Keller, the Washington Post's Len Downie, and the Los Angeles Times' Dean Baquet still determine what tens of millions of Americans will wake up to every morning on their doorstep, or go to bed with online the night before.
But their decisions are influenced more and more by the creeping democracy of blogs and news aggregators; when these sites jump on an issue, it gets noticed. And once the Web starts buzzing, newspapers ignore the issue at their own peril. Blog links and news-site hits are in essence an instant poll as to what is and what isn't important -- at least as judged at the grassroots. A quick glance at Technorati.com can instantly tell you what most people care about on a given day, even if it's just a passing fancy.
Even if Keller buries a story deep in the paper, it can get more hits (and thus be more important) than what he thought was worthy of page A1 that morning in print. The next day, having noted the reaction, and the spike in traffic, an editor like Keller can't help but reevaluate the importance of the story; people care, so it is (more) important. He can continue to dump stories about the issue deep in the paper, but in time the denial of the story's popularity and importance on the web will be seen by some as "bias." In fact, the newly redesigned New York Times site now features a greater emphasis on "most popular" lists, creating a counterpoint to the decisions of editors.
Now that journalists have lost their power to "frame an issue," they have a new appreciation for the propagandistic power they wielded for decades.
Essentially, in this new populist paradigm, the daily whim of Matt Drudge may matter more (at least in terms of the discrimination of online information) than the editorial judgment of Bill Keller. Drudge can frame an issue and create seeming significance in a way that Keller, constrained by the format and mission of his newspaper, often cannot, at least outside the "elites."...
So what can newspaper editors and publishers do to reclaim their power as arbiters of public taste? So far that's unclear.
While many papers are cautiously experimenting with their own blogs, they are constrained by the corporations that own them and their mission to present news "objectively." In linking to sites outside of their own editorial, newspaper blogs run the risk of actually driving traffic away to competitors and watering down their own brands. As well, in-house blogs are essentially a low-fi medium, which lose much of their value if they are seen as PR tools or as branches of a corporate entity.
Likely the best that newspapers can do in adjusting to the new digital reality is the same thing they've always done: create fresh, unique, and credible, content that will draw the attention of an ever-wider audience while they figure out how to measure and monetize it.