The front page of the newspaper used to set the news agenda. Extra, Extra, read all about it! But that influence has steadily waned through the TV and Cable News era, and the web now threatens to obliterate it entirely.

So who sets the news agenda now? One significant influence is a guy with nothing but a page full of links (you know, the kind that “send people away”).

In a post the other day, Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called Drudge “the single most influential source for how the presidential campaign is covered in the country.”

That’s quite a claim. Chris adds in a parenthetical:

A quick note to preempt the inevitable argument that Drudge’s influence is overblown. Tomorrow morning, take a minute to look at the stories Drudge is highlighting. Then, later in the day, watch a few cable channels to see what stories they are talking about. It will open your eyes.

As to the particulars:

The increase in positive McCain stories featured on Drudge has coincided with more skeptical coverage of Obama’s candidacy. In recent weeks, Drudge has featured in his center well spot: A picture of Obama shooting at a far off basketball hoop with a subtitle asking “Will he get his groove back?”; an image of Obama sweating on stage at the Democratic National Convention during the Illinois senator’s acceptance speech; and heavy coverage of the “lipstick on a pig” comments.

Interestingly, Greg Sargent over at Talking Points Memo took issue with Chris’ example of Drudge’s influence:

This strikes us as an unfortunate example, particularly in a column arguing (as Cillizza does) that the source of Drudge’s power lies in his influence over the cable networks. Because one of the stories ignored by Drudge actually got a whole lot more coverage on cable yesterday than the one Drudge pushed all day in that supposedly hypnotic banner headline of his.

But Greg’s push back is on the particulars, not the question of whether Drudge influences the news agenda at all:

Look, far be it from me to question the notion that Drudge has influence over network producers. Of course he does. But if we’re really going to devote so much time to flacking Drudge’s influence, how about a real and nuanced discussion of it?

And he adds at the end:

If Drudge is going to consume our attention, how about a real discussion of Drudge and what the Drudge phenomenon says about the journalism profession — one that goes beyond the narrow question of how influential he is?

Indeed, I agree the pertinent question is not the magnitude of Drudge’s influence. The real question is: WHY is Drudge influential at all, when all he does is link to news?

The answer is that Drudge, along with Google, figured out that in the web media era, when all news content is accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world, and no news brands no longer have a monopoly over news distribution, the power of influence lies in the ability to FILTER the vast sea of news.

Newspapers were once THE most important filters for news. But they gave up this role on the web, because they didn’t see that the web analogue to what they did on the front page in print was NOT taking the same content and putting it on a website front page. In fact, you could argue that this is the single biggest mistake that newspapers have made on the web.

What they failed to see is that the web analogue to the newspaper front page is LINKS to where the news IS. That’s Drudge.

The web is about CONNECTIONS, and newspaper website front pages don’t connect anything to anything. That’s why they have so little influence.

And here’s a hard truth about the current newspaper web strategy: Focusing exclusively on local isn’t going to bring back the influence of the newspaper front page.

Newspapers can’t just set the local news agenda. They have to set the WEB news agenda.

So while newspapers focus on new modes of content — video, audio, photos, interactive graphics — they are missing the BIG opportunity on the web.  The opportunity to regain their position of influence.

And newspapers won’t regain that position of influence by hosting more content, whether it’s multimedia or user-generated.

Yes, any one piece of content can be very influential, but systemically, content is not the source of influence on the web.  (Think about that for a while.)

LINKS = Influence on the web.

If newspapers want to regain their influence, they have to focus on LINKS.

The web, after all, isn’t really about content. It’s about connections between content, people, and ideas.

So before anyone in the newsroom gets trained on Flash or databases or digital video, they should receive the most fundamental training that anyone who works on the web MUST understand:

How to link.

You know,

Is there ANY newsroom out there that trains their staff how to link? (If so, please get in touch.)

The lessons of how to be influential on the web have been around for a decade.

Isn’t it finally time to learn them?