Will the New York Times' Pay Wall Chase Away Bloggers?

New York Times iPad
New York Times iPad

Everyone who publishes news online would like to be able to get paid for it by readers. But the balance of risk versus reward isn't the same for every publisher. Some, like The New York Times (NYT), have far more to lose by erecting a pay wall -- more, perhaps, than they realize.

A new study on news and social media from the Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at which outlets are linked to most frequently by blogs. Overwhelmingly, it found, bloggers draw on a handful of traditional-media sources for their links. Remarkably, just four outlets account for a full 80% of those links: the BBC, CNN, the Times and the Washington Post.

What does this mean? For starters, it's another nail in the coffin of the so-called Long Tail theory of Internet-enabled consumption, which says that search, social networks, artificial intelligence and other technologies will lead consumers to explore underutilized niches and create demand for overlooked products and content. When it comes to media, at least, the Long Tail theory appears to be more wrong than right: People mostly use the Internet to read what everyone else is reading.

That, in turn, means that the news organizations at the very top of the food chain are essentially in a different business than everyone else. The dynamics of the Internet naturally work to amplify their audiences into mega-audiences. It's almost as though they exist in a world where gravity is reversed.

This, surely, represents a rare opportunity. But at the Times, at least, the emphasis seems to be less on exploiting it than on figuring out how to monetize the fraction of its readership (19%, according to this study) that's willing to pay for full access. Starting in January 2011, the Times is expected to introduce a scheme for charging its readers, probably in the form of a metered system that allows them to read a set number of articles for free before demanding payment.

To see what effect that will have on the Times's place in the ecology of the Internet, you need only note that The Wall Street Journal, with nearly twice the print circulation of the Times, isn't on that short list of most-linked-to news outlets. That, of course, is because the Journal has dwelled for years behind a pay wall that, while highly permeable, is still an effective deterrent to bloggers, who don't want to direct their readers to dead ends. The same goes for the Financial Times, which employs a metered model similar to the one the Times is believed to favor.

In fact, PEJ's study suggests that the links that would have gone to WSJ and FT in the absence of pay walls have been going to the Times instead. The content on nytimes.com most often linked to by bloggers is business and economic news, which accounts for 29% of linked stories -- as much as the next two areas (politics/national news and technology) combined. Surely in an all-free online universe, many if not most of those links would go to financial publications instead of to a general-interest paper.

This is not to say it's necessarily a bad idea for the Times to test the waters of paid content. But the right plan will be one that allows for the paper's unique role in driving discussion across the web.