FT Tilt: A blog behind a paywall

January 10, 2011
FT Tilt has now officially launched.

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FT Tilt has now officially launched. Calling itself “a premium online financial news and analysis service focused exclusively on the emerging world,” it has a total staff of 12, including 8 reporters scattered around the world. Founded by Paul Murphy and Stacy-Marie Ishmael of FT Alphaville fame, it has so much blog in its look and feel and its DNA that it’s probably fair to call this the most ambitious paywalled blog in the world.

The design of Tilt is very clean and very modern—all Ajax and HTML5 and CSS3, in austere black-and-white reminiscent of Khoi Vinh’s Subtraction. It clearly needs work, especially on navigation from article pages, which feel like dead ends right now; even bylines aren’t linked to anything. And the site is far too prone to opening not only external but even internal links in a new tab. But that’s all fine: if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your Web site, you’re doing something wrong. The trick is to get something up, and then iterate continuously.

One thing is clear, however: the paywall will stay, with all the problems that implies in terms of sharing tools, commenting, and other central parts of any bloggy enterprise. Tilt is designed to provide valuable information to bankers and other financial professionals; the business model is to sell subscriptions on an enterprise level for thousands of dollars a year and up. Eventually, the content could even be rebranded and provided by those financial institutions as a perk for their buy-side clients.

The result can feel a little odd. Tilt behaves in many ways like any number of premium news and analysis services which distribute their content over terminals—except it’s distributed on a website instead. That makes it much easier to build a community: Tilt is built to allow clients to republish their own work and to talk to each other and comment on stories. But because Tilt isn’t available on Reuters or Bloomberg machines, traders aren’t going to see its stories effortlessly shuffled in to their main feed of news and analysis—they’ll have to make a specific trip to the site to find them. Similarly, all the headlines on Tilt are its own: while it will link to outside stories from within its own posts, it doesn’t aggregate external headlines and drop them into its main headline feed.

All of this makes the task facing the Tilt team a very tough one. They don’t want to be one more source of news and analysis for financial professionals who already have dozens of such sources; they want to change the way those professionals consume media on a day in and day out basis—adding an extra site where those professionals feel they must spend valuable time.

The Tilt team is at pains to note that they’ve built one community already—the Long Room, a by-invitation extension of FT Alphaville which has proved very popular. And the community areas of Tilt are going to be free, just as the Long Room is: they’re outside the paywall. Still, I’ll believe it when I see it. One of the key parts of the Tilt architecture is that it doesn’t have an edited front page, since every client is going to be interested in different asset classes and regions. And a necessary corollary of the heterogeneity of its audience is that it’s going to be hard to spark interesting discussions among communities of interest.

What’s more, even if the community areas do prove popular, that’s not going to drive subscriptions. Some institutions are doubtless going to prove willing to pay for access to what Tilt’s handful of journalists are writing; others won’t be.

Murphy explains that he’s filling a gap in the coverage provided by most media organizations based in London or New York, which tend to give much more weight to local deals in their own towns than they do to big deals in countries like Colombia or South Africa. “Western business media is so fixated on London and New York: it just can’t get over itself,” he tells me. “The quality of the journalism tends to deteriorate, the further you move away. It’s a parochialism we’re trying to overcome.”

It’s a very fair criticism. But Murphy’s not really competing with the FT and the WSJ here: he’s competing with expensive news wires and free daily brokerage reports. Many of those are very strong in emerging markets. Murphy is asking his overstretched journalists (just one person for all of Latin America, for instance) to tell financial professionals something they don’t already know: that’s a tall order.

The big picture here, to me, is not that the FT is making an ambitious move into becoming a genuinely global financial-news organization, but rather that it isn’t. Important news about what’s going on in crucial global markets should be a core competency of the FT, a key part of why people read it rather than, say, the WSJ, which seems to be more interested in building up its New York City coverage. Instead, the big Tilt project is being ghettoized behind its own high paywall, is being forced to pay for itself through high-priced subscriptions, and is being deliberately withheld from the broader FT audience.

I’ve said before that the FT is retreating to a newsletter model; I called that “a sad and narrow fate for what should be a proud and global newspaper.” Tilt only reinforces that diagnosis, and seems to be based on the idea that the FT won’t invest in ambitious new projects which are central to what its target audience wants, unless it can wall those projects off and get them to pay for themselves on a narrow, self-standing basis.

I’m friendly with both Paul and Stacy, and I wish them success with Tilt. But both they and the FT would surely have found success much easier to come by if they’d simply made Tilt freely accessible to all FT subscribers.


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