I’m trying to grok this exchange from…

Talk to The Times: Answers About Charging Online

What About Social Media?

Q. What about posting articles to Facebook and other social media? Would friends without a subscription then not be able to view an article that I think is relevant for them? — Julie, Pinole CA

A.Yes, they could continue to view articles. If you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones.

It’s the part in italics that puzzles me. They’re my italics. But the answers are from Janet Robinson, president and chief executive of the Times company, and Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations. They ought to know, right?  So according to the people who made the decision, the metered system to which the Times will be moving permits unlimited access to articles at the Times site as long as the user gets there from another web site.

Therefore, all linking from blogs would be unaffected, Felix Salmon. (“All in all, this is a sad day for online journalism and the open web, and from here on in I’m going to be linking less to NYT content.”)  From a bloggers point of view, you can set it–the link–and forget it, Kevin Drum (“An important part of the great Blogosphere Circle of Life™ is the ability for readers to click on links, both to get the full story for its own sake and to make sure bloggers are playing fair with their excerpts and commentary. If the Times cuts this off, it’s a big hit.”) Google News is surely “another Web site,” therefore all articles found that way will be free and accessible, Jeff Jarvis (“The New York Times is going to start metering readers and charging those who come back more often…”) No matter how often Google News is used to get to the Times, if you come back by that route you will never be charged.

Which means that for those people who get their news from the web itself, using search, aggregators, social media and blogs to find the stuff they want, the stuff they find from the New York Times will always be available, free of charge.  That looks a lot less like a pay wall to me. It isn’t a metered system if I can access the Times via the link economy without limit.  This scrambles a lot of what’s been written on the subject. 

NOTES

Scott Rosenberg says in the comments that the Times executives didnt know what they were saying:

I think that the phrase “get there from another website” may be executive fuzz-brain of some kind. Maybe they mean “get there from certain other websites we select.” Because otherwise what they’re saying is “we want people to read our articles. We will charge them to do so if they find those articles by clicking from our own front page, but if they arrive from anywhere else they will be free.” Which makes zero sense…

But Nick Carr thinks it does make sense.

The Times’s paywall is not only a delayed paywall, falling after some number of articles have been read; it’s a delayed, leaky paywall. This makes it all the clearer that the Times plan is a versioning strategy, through which, as I described yesterday, Times readers will segment themselves according to the value they ascribe to the Times and their willingness to pay.

Over at Reuters, Felix Salmon says “… if this is true, then they’re not actually charging for NYT content; they’re charging for NYT navigation.”  Also see his More NYT paywall math.

Here’s why I think Scott Rosenberg may be wrong.  In an earlier post, before the big announcement about the metered system, Felix Salmon gave the Times some advice:

The Sulzbergers are rightly serious about preserving the NYT as a public trust — and it’s in their self-interest to do so. Nowadays, that public trust is best served through the website, and its accessibility to hundreds of millions of information-hungry people around the world. Cutting them off from the website just for the sake of dealing with a nasty cashflow problem is not smart business… I trust too that NYT digital chief Martin Nisenholtz will do his best to encourage bloggers to keep on linking to nytimes.com, just as he came to an agreement with Dave Winer, before he freed up the NYT’s archives, to create a way of linking to stories whereby the links would continue to work even after the story should have disappeared behind the archive wall.

I remember that agreement: it was a special way to link to Times articles that overcame the paywall then existing around the archives. (See the New York Times link generator, now a piece of history.) So… if Scott is right, then the same man who worked out that earlier deal to keep the links from bloggers working despite an archive paywall is somehow suffering from brain fog when he works out a similar deal to keep the links from bloggers working despite a metered system.  Sound plausible? Not to me. I think the Times is serious about allowing unlimited visits if you get there by clicking a link from another site.

Scott comes back in the comments:

You may well be right, Jay. But I continue to find the plan perplexing if it is truly going to allow *any* external link to bypass the meter.

Salmon’s phrasing is illuminating: as he puts it, this means the Times is charging for navigation rather than content. No offense to the Times’ design team, who’ve built a wonderful site, but is that really what we value in the Times’ product?

An “All links free” approach means that anyone and everyone can build their own “free” Times service — just grab the RSS feed and republish it. Between that and all the other ways around the Times plan people are discussing — cookie zapping and Firefox extensions and so on — you’re not looking at a leaky wall, you’e got a collapsed one.

If that’s the plan, then it’s either (a) too insignificant to matter, i.e., not enough people will buy in to justify the cost of building the system, or (b) it’s essentially a play to allow those people to pay who want to support the Times because they love it. In which case an NPR-style membership plan might make more sense (and wouldn’t take a year to build!).

Mathew Burton in the comments:

Why allow unlimited outside links? Because:

1) nobody who gets their fill of the Times strictly through outside links would pay for access to those articles, and;

2) nobody who loves the Times enough to pay for it would get their fill by simply bumping into third party links.

They understand that trying to get money from everyone while maintaining their visibility is impossible. Instead, their thinking is: let’s get money from everyone possible, without keeping out anyone who won’t pay. How is this not brilliant solution?

Reacting to this post, Tom Foremski has an idea: “adtribution,” which combines links and quotes with text ads from the source that is linked to.

Shane Richmond rounds up the commentary on the Times plan.

NYTPicker, a blog that covers the New York Times obsessively, speculates that the purpose of the pay site is to protect print circulation. That interpretation would be compatible with… If you are coming to NYTimes.com from another Web site and it brings you to our site to view an article, you will have access to that article and it will not count toward your allotment of free ones.

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