The New York Times left a big hole in its new paywall: visits from Facebook or Twitter don’t count against the 20-article-per-month limit for free reading.
But readers who come via Google News — the loophole used to get around paywalls at the Wall Street Journal and other publications for years — only get five free visits per day.
Five visits is probably plenty for most casual Web users. So why do users coming from Facebook and Twitter get unlimited access?
Because, as a reporter from a smaller daily paper told me last fall, social networks are driving a ton of newspaper traffic.
Two or three years ago, this reporter tells me, the big push at the newspaper was search engine optimization. The parent company used a number of tricks to try and show up higher in Google search results. It didn’t quite make reporters tailor their stories to specific popular Google queries like AOL is doing now, but SEO was discussed in editorial meetings.
But in 2010 the focus suddenly shifted. Now, this person was told to write more of the kinds of stories that would get posted on Facebook. Twitter was less important, but rising.
The NYT’s paywall loophole suggests that it’s seeing similar traffic patterns. Instead of alienating those users by blocking them after a random number of clickthroughs, the Times hopes to keep them coming back for more, so eventually they’ll subscribe.
So here’s a question. Five years from now, if social networks have more or less replaced Google in driving traffic to news sites, will we begin to see impassioned editorials about the decline of serious journalism and toward stories with common interest, great headlines, and attractive graphics that make for great Twitter and Facebook posts? Bet on it.