Jeff Bercovici and Felix Salmon point to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study for a cautionary tale on paywalls killing in-links and thus traffic.

The BBC, CNN, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, accounted for some 80 percent of the links from bloggers in the study (I qualify this stat three paragraphs down). Here’s Bercovici:

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.

There are a couple of big problems with this thesis: Bloomberg and Salmon’s own Reuters. Not to mention BusinessWeek, Fortune, and Forbes, MarketWatch, etc. etc. They all put a ton of free stuff out there. And none of those are in the top ten of the study, either, PEJ’s Paul Hitlin tells me, which from fifth to tenth goes: New York Post, Foxnews.com, LA Times, USA Today, Boston Globe, Guardian.

Hitlin also clarifies how this study worked. PEJ took the top five-linked stories for each day in 2009 and added up how many times each news outlet got on the top-five list. So its survey shows the Journal getting 0% since none of its stories ever broke the top five. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets less than 1% of all links.

Here’s what Salmon says:

The NYT can claim only some of the credit for its dominance of the business blogosphere: this was a battle that the WSJ and FT surrendered early on, ceding the field to the Gray Lady. But now that the NYT has this enviable position, one would think that it would be trying to capitalize on it as much as possible, rather than spending an inordinate amount of management time and Carlos Slim’s money putting together a paywall which risks sending all that high-value traffic elsewhere. (Like Reuters.com, for instance.)

But let’s take a look at the traffic numbers, which are what it’s ultimately all about. According to Compete, the wide-open New York Times got 14 million unique visitors last month. The Journal, with its clever paywall strategy that charges frequent readers and allows junk traffic in for free, got 9.7 million. That’s a 44 percent difference. Hardly earth-shattering and roughly in line with the difference in size of the two paper’s news staffs.

This traffic also doesn’t take into account how much news the papers publish. The Times has more major pieces in its Sunday paper alone than the Journal does in at least two or three of its weekday editions (that’s an educated guess there). And the Times has been far and away the news leader long before the Internet came to be. It was the Times that influenced a million news judgments across the country’s newsrooms pre-blogs, far more than the Journal, despite the latter’s higher circulation. The Journal has always been a second read. And it’s more granular and specialist than the Times.

Also, the Journal gets some $60 million a year in revenue (by my rough estimate) from subscribers that the Times doesn’t. Is that tradeoff worth whatever ads it’s losing out on? You can bet on it. And remember, the Journal still sells ads on its Web traffic, too.

Then there’s the print circulation consideration. It’s easier to sell newspapers if you’re not giving your journalism away free online. That’s critical since the paper still brings in the vast majority of revenue.

And then how much is blog traffic really worth? A lot less than you might think and much less than that from loyal readers.

Further Reading:

Loyal Readers and Junk Traffic: The bottom 75 percent of newspaper Web visitors provide just 14 percent of page views.

What’s Murdoch Up To With Google and WSJ.com?

Newspapers’ Online Ads Are Worse Than You Think.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.