Sophie Schmidt, a tech industry veteran and the daughter of Eric Schmidt, the former Google and Alphabet executive chair, is starting a new publication about the effects of technology on the non-Western world, BuzzFeed News has learned.
The 32-year-old Schmidt plans to self-fund the journalism nonprofit initially, and hopes to launch it by the end of the year, according to a source familiar with the effort.
The publication, which does not yet have a name or any full-time staffers aside from Schmidt, will be “focused on exploring the surprising and complex effects of technology internationally, specifically outside the US and Europe,” the source wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “We're most curious about human impact: social, cultural and political phenomena driven by the interaction between new tech and different cultures, institutions and norms abroad.”
News of Schmidt’s media startup comes just days after the stunning implosion of the Markup, a much-anticipated data journalism startup nonprofit also funded by a wealthy tech executive, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.
According to the source, though the new outlet is still in the planning stages, Schmidt has been developing the idea for a year, during which time she’s met with leaders at the New York Times, ProPublica, Vanity Fair, Wired, the Atlantic, the Information, and others. More recently, Schmidt has hired media consultants, including the veteran digital media strategist Amy O’Leary, formerly of the New York Times and Upworthy, to start staffing discussions. The source said the publication will be based in New York and will start as a website with a focus on medium- and longform narrative features and enterprise stories. The source added that no firm decisions have been made about whether most of the writing will come from staffers or freelancers.
Schmidt does not have a journalism background, having worked most recently as a public policy and communications manager in Uber’s London office. She has also kept a very low profile; she’s probably best known for a blog post she wrote in 2013 about her experience accompanying her father on a trip to North Korea.
But Schmidt, who studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Stanford Business School, has had a globe-trotting early career, including stints at an Afghan media company in Dubai, a Google-funded tech incubator in South Africa, and the Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi in Beijing. In 2013, Schmidt interned at SCL Group, the parent company of the notorious political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.
It’s unclear how aggressive a stance the publication will take toward the industry that Schmidt comes out of, one that made her father one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, with an estimated net worth of more than $13 billion. The world’s largest tech companies have undergone searing criticism from the media and lawmakers over the past several years as journalists have scrutinized the devastating consequences of the spread of the industry’s products to Myanmar, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Nigeria, and elsewhere. The source close to the project insisted that the publication would not shy away from aggressive coverage of these companies, would receive no funding from Google, and that Schmidt would be transparent about potential conflicts.
One hint as to the direction of the publication may come from some of the stories the source said Schmidt has circled as inspiration for the new venture: a 2014 feature in Wired about the emotional cost of outsourced content moderation in the Philippines; a recent story about a Cameroonian separatist group that launched an initial coin offering (ICO) to fund its political aims; and a New York Times story about “phone Romeos” in India who call random international numbers in an effort to find a girlfriend; and another Times story about the completely unexpected popularity in China of a Finnish cartoon about introversion. These stories, the source said, focus on the surprising secondary and tertiary effects of technology in the non-Western world, no matter what the implications are for the tech giants.
Whatever the site’s tone, Schmidt will enter a digital media space hard hit by layoffs and squeezed, ironically, by the digital ad dominance of Google and Facebook — though as a self-funded nonprofit, the site will be somewhat insulated from those pressures. Foreign reporting — a costly enterprise — has been particularly hard-hit, as outlets across the country, including BuzzFeed News, have shut overseas bureaus over the past decade.
Funding from a wealthy do-gooder has also not guaranteed publications success. In addition to last week’s stunning breakup of the Markup, in 2016, Facebook founder Chris Hughes, who had purchased the New Republic, put that storied title up for sale after noting he had “underestimated the difficulty” of transitioning it to digital.
But Schmidt’s former colleagues describe a modest, diligent, and extremely sharp person who traded not at all on her father’s reputation — to the extent that most people on her 300-person team had no idea who her father was. “She’s incredibly understated, incredibly bright, and has one of the strongest work ethics that I’ve ever encountered,” Jill Hazelbaker, Uber’s head of global policy and communications, told BuzzFeed News. “She has a real intellectual rigor to her.”
The source close to Schmidt stressed that she was well-aware of the daunting prospect of starting a new media venture in 2019, and anticipated slowly ramping the site up as it develops an audience and a voice. The source added that the publication would be open to partnerships as it enters the expensive and complex world of international reportage.
“More coverage is good coverage,” the source said. “We need to do enough journalism to make an impact.”