The debate over the future of journalism is only getting more heated as some of the most storied newspaper companies sink deeper and deeper into financial distress.

Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the debate: some are now calling for government intervention. And they’re serious about it.

In a Wall Street Journal piece, Bruce W. Sanford and Bruce D. Brown, partners at US law firm Baker Hostetler, suggest that:

Unless Congress embarks on far-reaching change in public policy to maintain the viability of journalism as it evolves online, we will soon find ourselves with the remnants of a broken industry incapable of providing the knowledge necessary to manage life in a complex world.

They go on to argue that copyright law needs to change to protect journalism. Not surprisingly, their words were met with fierce criticism. Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York’s new Graduate School of Journalism called the suggestions “willfully destructive to fundamental principles of the law” and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos went so far as to call Sanford and Brown “******* stupid“.

So who’s right? Frankly, I don’t think anybody is.

Yes, many newspapers have handled their finances very poorly. Government bailouts are a bad idea and new copyright legislation isn’t going to be the panacea some apparently think it would be. But personally, I’m not exactly sure why so many people, especially some in the blogosphere, seem to enjoy throwing stones at newspapers and those who are looking at the ways journalism might be saved, even if their suggestions are ill-conceived and unworkable. It seems to serve no worthwhile purpose.

Instead of arguing over how specific mediums can be saved, we should be focusing on how the institution of journalism itself can be sustained. Period. This isn’t about old media versus new media or newspapers versus blogs, this is about figuring out
how one of the most important public institutions can build business models that work both online and offline. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it’s not as if all the revenue that newspapers have lost has been redirected to bloggers.

The bottom line is that debates that pit people against each other or that focus on the mediums journalists use instead of the messages they need to deliver are a distraction. Anyone engaging in the bickering and name-calling is doing a disservice to everyone.

Although it’s cliché, we do live in interesting times and I believe that how we handle today’s journalism crisis will have a significant impact on the future of journalism. Will we have a thriving institution that delivers on its ideals or will journalism self-destruct, leaving behind a “cesspool of disinformation“?

We get to choose what journalism will become in the 21st century. From professional journalists to ‘bloggers‘ to consumers at large, the decisions we make today will shape the future of journalism tomorrow. Having the right debates and making sure all stakeholders are working together is crucial to affecting an outcome that we can all be proud of.

So for the executives, special interests, pundits and armchair critics focusing on chopping down trees instead of taking care of the forest, the biggest question that can be asked now is: are you a part of the problem or are you a part of the solution?

Photo credit: Sudhamshu via Flickr.