Experts can give you list of reasons why including target=”_blank” on links is bad for UX/accessibility and they’re mostly all right, but they tend to ignore the 5B pound gorilla in the room: Social media sites + Gmail all open external links in new windows and users (including saavy users who understand middle-click etc.) expect them to, and a huge part of UX is doing what the user expects.
My hypothesis is that users see some sites as applications (especially those that have popular app versions) that they would not generally close just to read a story. This change is also surely influenced by the fact that there is no instant way to context click on touch devices as there is with a mouse.
My point is we need to study this phenomenon with real users, who are rapidly moving to touch devices, and not let our preferences and value judgments, formed over years of desktop PC browsing, take over.
We must be willing to admit that in some scenarios the game has changed and we no longer know what is “best”. And this could be a case where what is best for UX is not best for accessibility or for promoting the understanding of browser technology. It would not be the first time.