Americans lead the world in adult science literacy, it has nearly tripled since 1988. What other trend occurred since 1988? A lot fewer people read newspapers.

If people are smarter about science than ever, and they read fewer newspapers than ever, newspapers were not doing a very good job covering science. And in the 2000s, the 'churnalism' culture, pretending to be doing journalism when it is just a rehashed press release (such as this) caused people to stop subscribing and just sign up for a press release RSS news feed.

But analysts and journalists alike have blamed the Internet for the demise of newspapers. It's been claimed so much that people assume it must be true. 

According to University of Chicago Booth School of Business Professor Matthew Gentzkow, assumptions about journalism are based on three false premises, many of which have caused newspapers and legacy journalists to misread the landscape:

1) Since online advertising revenues are lower than print revenues, online does not have real reporters.

The sad truth is most newspapers never had real reporters either. It was a job, just like any job, and just like automobile sales have people who are not very good at it and just plod along, so did journalism. Magazines like The Economist have done quite well with content written by recent Cambridge graduates - they instead pay editors a lot.

If anything, journalism has gotten stronger due to the collapse in print revenue. But so has digital. Scientists used to complain that journalists were wrong, now they can be the journalists on Science 2.0. That is not a drop in quality, it instead means the audience is getting information from experts, even if it lacks clever prose.

Claiming that if revenue is lower then the quality must be is odd logic. In science, no one assumes that Science magazine must have better quality than PLOS Biology because they charge $100 a year. If they are better, they are better, but the subscription charge has little to do with it.

2) Desperate online sites have chased revenue to the bottom, which has killed print journalism.

This is not true in the case of Science 2.0. When an advertiser can buy a print ad in the New York Times and get the digital ad for free, they do it - but Science 2.0 has no print and can't compete with free. So print outlets have cannibalized themselves. Instead of maintaining their premium print status, they have focused on the online market, which their sales force says has no value. That is a nonsensical business model. Good luck getting USA Today or the Wall Street Journal delivered to your house, they instead want to mail it now - which means you are reading the latest news 12 hours after you could get it digitally.

3) The Internet is responsible for the demise of the newspaper industry.

Studies continuously show that print readers spend an order of magnitude more time with newspapers and magazine than the average monthly visitor online, which makes looking at these rates as analogous incorrect. 

By comparing the amount of time people actually see an ad, Gentzkow finds that the price of attention for similar consumers is actually higher online. In 2008, he calculates, newspapers earned $2.78 per hour of attention in print, and $3.79 per hour of attention online. By 2012, the price of attention in print had fallen to $1.57, while the price for attention online had increased to $4.24.


"This perception that online ads are cheaper to buy is all about people quoting things in units that are not comparable to each other—doing apples-to-oranges comparisons," Gentzkow says. Online ad rates are typically discussed in terms of "number of unique monthly visitors" the ad receives, while circulation numbers determine newspaper rates.

Gentzkow also points out that the popularity of newspapers had already significantly diminished between 1980 and 1995, well before the Internet age, and has dropped at roughly the same rate ever since. "People have not stopped reading newspapers because of the Internet," Gentzkow notes.