Hot Economist Probes Newspapers and 'Bias'

By Fitzgerald, Mark | Editor & Publisher, March 25, 2007 | Go to article overview

Hot Economist Probes Newspapers and 'Bias'


Fitzgerald, Mark, Editor & Publisher


The young University of Chicago economist Matthew Gentzkow, whose work may reshape our understanding of why newspapers make the political and business choices they do, admits sheepishly that he doesn't read the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times. "I was like that at Harvard, too," he says. "When I lived in Boston, I never read the Globe. I have really shamefully little knowledge about what's going on locally."

But Gentzkow has shown in a recent series of groundbreaking economic studies that he may know newspapers better than they know themselves. At 31 and barely two years arrived in Chicago, he is attracting national attention for research showing, among other things, that political bias at newspapers is driven by economics, not by ideologies -- and that newspaper Web sites do steal readers from the print product, but not as much as you'd expect.

When New York Times business columnist David Leonhardt informally polled senior economists at a conference in December, Gentzkow was named among 13 "economists to watch."

"I think Matt is one of the most exciting young economists in the entire profession," enthuses University of Chicago Professor Austan Goolsbee, who recruited him to the graduate school of business. Gentzkow, he says, has a rare combination of rigorous academic training and the appetite (unusual for economists) to tackle the media. Newspapers churn out tons of data about themselves, Goolsbee notes, but Gentzkow figured out how to mine it for research. Says Goolsbee, "The media industry is so important, and yet there didn't seem to be anybody making that their major focus."

In his office in the new School of Economics building, a modern steel-and-glass structure that contrasts with the dark Gothic buildings on the Hyde Park campus, Gentzkow says he began basing his work on newspapers more by accident than design. For one of his first studies, Scarborough Research opened up its trove of data -- and Gentzkow realized newspapers, which compete with an ever-growing number of media, would be a good model for studying how consumers select among options. …

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