For newspapers drowning in red ink, are paywalls really the answer?

At GigaOm, a well-argued rant by Matthew Ingram responding to a recent Columbia Journalism Review post which said, pretty much, that the only way to solve the Washington Post’s financial problems is to put up a paywall around their content like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other big papers.

"This focus on a paywall as a magic solution misses the point about the larger risks facing both the Post and the industry as a whole," Ingram writes.

I've tried to make the case before that paywalls are a sandbag strategy — one that can help keep the rising waters (in this case, the ongoing rapid decline in print advertising revenue) at bay, but not much else. Sandbags don’t solve a rising water problem, just as paywalls won’t get rid of a declining revenue problem: you need to figure out how to get the water to stop coming in, or find out what is causing it and adapt to that. Paywalls do neither.

Even the New York Times — which has what is probably one of the world’s most successful paywalls for a general-interest newspaper — is finding that the revenue from its plan is barely keeping pace with the decline in print revenue, and meanwhile digital ad revenue is also falling (possibly as a result of the decline in traffic caused by the paywall, as I described in an earlier post). As former news executive Alan Mutter notes, the failure to adapt to the rise of digital advertising is the biggest single long-term problem that newspapers have. Will a paywall solve that problem?

Over at PandoDaily, Sarah Lacy agrees. "Old media’s problems are the costs, not the lack of paywalls," she writes.