FT Tilt, RIP

By Felix Salmon
October 13, 2011
launched with some fanfare in January, has now quietly died.

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It never even made it to its first birthday. FT Tilt, the high-priced emerging-markets blog launched with some fanfare in January, has now quietly died.

This is a sad day: Tilt was run by the FT’s two most innovative journalists, Paul Murphy and Stacy-Marie Ishmael, and was a bold attempt to view the developing world from a novel perspective. The FT could and should learn a lot from Tilt’s innovations, not least the rich and various forms of engagement it had with its readers.

The FT should also learn from Tilt’s failures, which are to be found in the business model rather than in the journalism. Tilt was a blog run by a small team of smart young journalists — but it was priced at thousands of dollars a year, and I could never understand where the value was meant to lie. Those journalists had amazing sources and language skills in countries around the world, but they were ring-fenced from the FT itself, and didn’t really contribute noticeably to the newspaper. Ironically, they might actually contribute more now, going forwards, in the wake of Tilt’s execution: FT spokeswoman Darcy Keller tells me that the newspaper is trying to find jobs for them. I hope it does; as Stacy says, they have done tremendous work, and deserve to be rewarded for it.

The model of charging very large amounts of money for information about global markets which is relatively cheap to collate just doesn’t seem to work — Tilt is now dead, and Roubini.com is up for sale. The fact is that smart, economically-literate people are never going to be that cheap — so you need to have some kind of decently-sized market for what they do. And both Tilt and Roubini.com have been priced way too high to reach even a four-digit subscriber base. What’s more, these kind of services get better as their audience grows — they learn from their audience. Keeping the audience artificially tiny by implementing a massive paywall is self-defeating.

No startup ever achieves success in less than one year, so the FT’s decision with respect to Tilt does seem hasty. What they should have done is make Tilt free to all FT subscribers, and see if it took off that way. FT Alphaville has proved that bloggy brand extensions can be extremely successful, if done right, and Tilt’s material was certainly of great interest to a very important part of the FT’s global audience.

It’s good for media companies to experiment, and it’s necessary that some of those experiments fail. But I don’t think that FT Tilt failed, in terms of its core journalistic output. I think that the FT got greedy for subscription revenues from day one, and never let Tilt grow and thrive as it could and should have done. I absolutely blame the overlords for this one, not the people who did the real work.

Update: Richard Desai-Green, Roubini’s CFO, responds:

We have 1,000 clients.

You seem to be treating info published in the media as fact but in fact the CNBC journalist had his numbers wrong.

We are cash flow positive.

We’re well capitalized.

We are continuing to hire people.

We just opened an office in India and hired 9 people.

We’re continuing to grow our business.

We can never say we won’t sell the company but I can say at this time we don’t have any offers and the executive team of our company is as committed as ever.

September was a record sales month for us and we’ve started October really well and expect our growth to continue.

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