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Why The New York Times' Paywall Won't Lead It to Online Isolation

A VentureBeat post today puts hard data around something I mentioned in my post about The New York Times' paywall yesterday: whether will lose substantial visitors simply because people won't be as willing to post its links as they have been in the past. VB blogger LeeAnn Prescott posits it could be hugely detrimental, citing the experience of The Wall Street Journal, one of a handful of subscription-based newspaper sites. Using data from Experian Hitwise, she emphasizes that the WSJ gets much less traffic from Twitter, Facebook and blogs (4.4 percent) from social media as the Times (6.46 percent).

But, in erecting a paywall, I don't think the Times is destined for the same fate.

Particularly if the Times makes it very clear, especially to prominent bloggers, how tiny a fraction of its links will be inaccessible to people who click on them. Why do I say a tiny fraction? Because the WSJ and Times pay models have big differences that should partially insulate the Times from Internet isolation.

The primary difference is that unless you have a subscription package to the WSJ site, most of the content is off limits to you. This problem is universal to anyone who doesn't subscribe; there is no form of free pass. In the Times' case, all content will be free to everybody most of the time. Though the Times is still working out details, the paywall will only rise in front of frequent visitors on a monthly basis; for most of us it will never rise at all. (Not to mention the site will remain free to current Times print subscribers, which make up about eight percent of its monthly audience.) You could even see a dynamic where bloggers who follow this closely, like me, link to the Times frequently at the beginning of the month, but think twice toward the end. That's just not that big a deal, and besides, I'm sure the Times will scrutinize just that sort of data to get the paywall's balance right.

The best proxy for what the Times' experience would be to look at data -- which I don't have -- about how frequently the Financial Times gets linked to, because it has a similar model (full disclosure: my husband works there). Even then, however, the two newspapers would probably diverge. The Times offers global coverage of the world; the FT's mission, of course, is primarily to cover global business. As a news property with huge diversity, the Times probably gets linked to more frequently by more people than the FT or the WSJ ever will.

No doubt, Times' brass is wrestling with this issue as I write. Among other things, it has to decide whether it's even important to lose some of that 6.46 percent of traffic in exchange for paying online subscribers. Even though I don't think the site will become an island unto itself, it may not be.

Previous coverage of The New York Times at BNET Media: