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Steven Brill: 2011 will bring ebook battles, paywall successes, and a new model for long-form articles

Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2010 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Here, Journalism Online cofounder and long-time journalism entrepreneur Steven Brill lays out three predictions for 2011.

1. E-books will continue to soar — and authors will get into major fights with publishers over who gets what percentage of the take, with more top authors withholding their e-book rights and selling them independently or through specialty distributors.

2. Someone — via Press+, I hope — will go into the business of commissioning long-form magazine articles from top writers and providing the first two or three paragraphs online for free and then selling the rest for, say, 75 cents or a dollar. That trailblazing publisher might call these “mini-e-books” and use a business model of simply splitting the revenues with the author, 50-50. My favorite candidates would be website publishers who already have great brand names, such as the Huffington Post or Daily Beast, but that want to revive long-form journalism and make money doing it (and limit risk by making some top writers their 50-50 business partners, rather than pay high flat fees for their work.)

3. As it becomes clear (as it already is to our Press+ affiliates, and as will also be made clear when The New York Times, too, launches its metered model approach) that the sky doesn’t fall in on newspaper and magazine websites who try the freemium model, more newspapers and magazines (and online only sites, too) will begin charging their most frequently-visiting customers for their content online.

Unlike old-fashioned pay walls, the metered model means publishers keep all their online ad revenue and almost all of their monthly unique visitors. (Our affiliates have not lost a nickel of ad revenue.) By next year I bet a big chunk of publishers are doing it and most of the rest are planning it.

Progress will be slow but steady; they’ll gradually climb some of the way back to their old margins. More important, they’ll be preserving their franchises as the trusted-brand provider of news and information in their community — whether that community is the world of sophisticated news consumers who read the Times or those in a small town in Pennsylvania or the UK who read the local paper for news about the school board. Only now they’ll gradually be moving out of the business of paying printers and truck drivers to facilitate that. Their customers will be customers for their content, no matter how it is delivered. That in turn will enable daily papers, for example, gradually to stop printing daily, cutting back on the week’s slowest ad days or even ultimately cutting back just to Sunday or to no print version at all.

All of the above will be facilitated by the onslaught of tablets, such as the iPad, which make reading the same kind of intoxicating sit-back experience that have made books, newspapers and magazines so irresistible. But we’ll also see that the real value of devices like the iPad for reading newspapers and magazines is not as much about the apps that get built for them as it is about how web browser versions are so well presented on them — which means that publishers will want to charge for their web versions if they are going to charge for an app version.

                                   
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