The Media Today

Q&A: Anup Kaphle on Rest of World, three years in

March 8, 2023
Image via Pixabay.

When it comes to technology coverage, many media outlets spend the bulk of their time paying attention to what happens in the United States, with occasional articles about what’s happening in the rest of the world. For the news startup Rest of World, covering how technology is affecting those non-US countries is the point. The site launched as a nonprofit in the spring of 2020 and gets most of its funding from Sophie Schmidt, whose father, Eric, is the billionaire former chairman and CEO of Google. Schmidt has said that her intention was to bring attention to parts of the world that are rarely present in technology coverage. Three years later, Rest of World has twenty-two full-time editorial staffers and was recently named as a finalist for a National Magazine Award for the first time (in the design category); yesterday, meanwhile, the site announced that it had received a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to fund a reporting fellowship focused on the tech world’s relationship with labor.

Anup Kaphle joined Rest of World as its founding executive editor in 2020, after working for the Washington Post and BuzzFeed and running the Kathmandu Post in Nepal as its editor in chief. He is now Rest of World’s editor in chief. This week, I spoke with Kaphle about the site’s editorial focus, as well as some of the challenges it might face as a nonprofit funded by a single benefactor. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MI: How have things changed since you joined Rest of World? Are there any insights you brought from your experience editing a newspaper in Kathmandu, or from the Washington Post?

AK: When I first joined, we were still very much in a building-and-learning mode. We had a concept for what the publication was going to focus on and a pipeline of stories that were planned for launch. Three years after joining and then launching Rest of World, in May 2020, we’re more clear-eyed about the themes we want to focus on and more confident about our ability to find the stories we want to pursue. As a startup, we will always be experimenting, but at this point, we have a collective understanding of our mission and values, how we want to operate as a publication and our ambition.

One of the most significant insights that I’ve carried from my previous journalism experiences is that who gets to tell the story really matters. Whether it is covering the war in Afghanistan or discrimination against women and ethnic minorities in Nepal, training and trusting the journalists from those communities adds tremendous value to your stories. But more importantly, it ensures our readers that by leaning on native journalists, we are accurately representing the diversity of cultures and views held by the people we’re writing about, in a way that is always dignified and factual.

What made you want to take the helm of Rest of World, and has that vision been fulfilled? And, aside from the stories that have been nominated for a National Magazine Award, what are some of the stories that you are most proud of during your tenure as editor? 

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I’ve spent most of my career working in international news, which I wanted to do long before I came to the US as a student. When I was first introduced to the publication, the name Rest of World—a tongue-in-cheek response to the corporate catchall for “everyone else”—really resonated with me. I’ve always felt like an outsider in the US, so I felt it represented me and millions of people like me whose stories were being ignored—or, when those stories were told, they were condensed in ways that did a disservice to them. The mission and the motive behind the publication were aligned with what I’ve tried to instill in my work: reporting from and on places that often get ignored; telling—or at least trying to tell—those stories without imposing a Western gaze; and really allowing the local views and perspectives to play out. That way, I think we can better understand what is really happening and why it is happening.

I feel like we’re only getting started and our work can make a huge difference for readers, who want to understand how technology and related businesses change people’s lives. Some of the stories I’m really proud of, just from the past year, include a deep dive into the environmental devastation in Indonesia linked to China’s electric-vehicle boom, a long read on what peak production season is like inside a Foxconn factory that makes about half of the world’s iPhones, a feature on YouTube pranksters who traveled from Los Angeles to India to harass call-center scammers, an exclusive on the implosion of Pakistan’s first unicorn, and detailed reporting on allegations of mismanagement inside Nigeria’s biggest fintech champion.

You arrived at Rest of World just as New York was going into covid lockdown. Did the pandemic affect how the organization works now, or has it always been all Zoom calls?

I got here in late February 2020, and a week or two after I arrived, we had to shut down our office, and everyone began working from home. We ended up setting up much of the editorial operation and planning our launch remotely, without many of us ever having spent time together in the office. Given the nature of our coverage, we were always going to be more of a distributed team around the world, but covid-19 certainly prepared us to adjust to that mindset early on. All of our editorial meetings, including a weekly story pitch meeting, have been Zoom calls from the start, with reporters and editors joining the call from Bengaluru to Tokyo to Lagos.

How does Rest of World work in a practical sense? It looks like about half of the senior editors are based in New York. Is that odd for a publication that is all about other countries? How many freelance writers and editors do you have versus the number on staff?

We have a team in New York, which is a mix of the editorial staff, audience and product teams, and operations team. On the editorial side, it includes myself, our executive editor, our US tech editor, and one reporter. One of our deputy editors, who also oversees our visuals, is based in Texas. So only five of our twenty-two full-time editorial staff are in the US. The vast majority of our editorial staff is from the countries they’re assigned to cover.

We have regional editors who oversee our five core geographic areas of coverage: Latin America, Africa, Asia, South Asia, and China. The respective editors are based in Mexico, Nigeria, Japan, India, and Hong Kong. These editors are in charge of assigning stories to a combination of full-time reporters and freelancers. Our twenty-two full-time journalists include four reporters, and we’re in the process of hiring two more this month. Since launch, we have worked with over two hundred and fifty freelance reporters and over two hundred freelance photographers, many of whom now contribute regularly. We also have four editors on contract, for fact-checking and visual editing.

You mentioned that the name Rest of World is a sarcastic reference to the way that North Americans see countries outside of the West. Do you think people get that it’s supposed to be a satirical take on that idea?

The term is still actively used by big multinationals like Meta in their reports today [see page 2 of Meta’s 2022 Q4 earnings report]. A lot of people in the US don’t even recognize the term, even though they’ve seen it for years, because it’s intended to be glossed over. A big “everyone else” lump. And that’s noticed and felt by the people it is describing, since they’re used to being treated like peripheral actors in a Western world. We actually get a lot of readers from these regions reaching out to us to tell us how much they appreciate finally being seen. So far we haven’t had any issues with readers misunderstanding our intention. We chose the term because it encapsulates the problem we’re fighting: this casual disregard for billions of people, with a Western-centric worldview that leaves an unimaginable number of insights and nuances out of a global conversation.

In 2021, Insider wrote a story in which they mentioned reports from former staffers about internal tension over editorial processes at Rest of World and the site’s vision for the future. Do you have any thoughts about that?

I don’t think disagreements over processes or visions that take place at a nascent publication like Rest of World are very different from the conversations happening at other startup publications—or, as a matter of fact, very established publications. Are all the decisions the leadership makes popular? Probably not. Building a newsroom from scratch isn’t easy, and we’re still learning. But I’m proud of the work we’re doing and feel confident about the state and health of our newsroom.

Is Sophie Schmidt very involved in the editorial side of the business, or the journalism side? Does she come up with or veto ideas for stories?

We’re a small team, so like any CEO, Sophie interacts with a wide range of colleagues over time. But she is not involved in the day-to-day editorial process or production of stories. She has no oversight of what stories are commissioned, and has certainly never vetoed a story. She focuses on growth, impact, and other needs on the operational side.

Sophie has committed to spend at least sixty million dollars on Rest of World and described it as her life’s project. But other billionaires have made similar promises and then changed their minds. Does that prospect worry you?

No, it doesn’t. I’ve never been given any reason to question Sophie’s commitment and support for Rest of World. We started out with five people in a coworking space; now we have a team of more than thirty people, everywhere from Hong Kong to Lagos. We’ve published more than a thousand stories, invested in art and photography and fact-checking, have a really innovative product team and, most importantly, a substantial operations infrastructure that allows us to work with journalists all over the world. We couldn’t have done it if she wasn’t seriously committed to the project.

As journalists, we all work in an industry that is unpredictable and impacted by factors outside of our control. Sophie and I share a strong belief in building lean, being very careful about where we invest resources, and doing everything we can to insulate our organization from those volatile outside forces. Sophie’s been very clear about why she wanted to set up Rest of World as a nonprofit: so that our journalists can tell stories that are otherwise difficult to greenlight in a for-profit newsroom dictated by clicks, eyeballs, and advertisers. There was a clear coverage gap in technology reporting when we launched. Sophie saw it, stepped in, and has been in the trenches at Rest of World with us for four years. She’s a true believer in the power of serious journalism to drive change, and she’s invested in it.

Sophie’s letter to readers when the site went live talks about technology and how its effects are different based on where it exists and who uses it. Is that still a core thesis of the site’s coverage? And would you say it’s pro-tech?

We’re a publication that is solely focused on covering technology. Sophie’s background is obviously in tech, and she’s talked publicly about how her frustrations with Silicon Valley and its approach toward users outside of big Western countries led her to create Rest of World.

We’ve said since our launch that our primary goal is to write about the impact of technology on people outside the West using narrative, character-driven stories. Our journalism is about the discovery of tech’s usage as much as it is about its implications. Our mission is simple: to challenge expectations about whose experience with technology matters. We’re neither pro-tech nor anti-tech in our coverage; we’re pro-humanity.

Other notable stories:

  • Documents from Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit over Fox News’s coverage of Trump’s election lies continue to drop—yesterday brought the publication of a rich and varied cache of filings that showed again that most people at Fox knew Trump’s claims were false, only for network hosts to broadcast them anyway, while also attesting to internal tensions between Fox opinion hosts, reporters, and the data-driven team at the network that calls election results. According to one filing, Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox, said that he “hates” that team and hoped that its projection that Joe Biden would win Arizona would prove incorrect; meanwhile, other filings showed Tucker Carlson privately dumping on Trump. (Fox has claimed that the filings are “distortions.”)
  • Also yesterday, Carlson faced a widespread, bipartisan backlash after he aired security footage from the January 6 insurrection that was handed to him by Kevin McCarthy, the House Speaker, and falsely characterized the riot as largely peaceful. After Tom Manger, the Capitol Police chief, slammed Carlson’s claims as “offensive and misleading,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, backed him up; meanwhile, McConnell’s colleague Thom Tillis described Carlson’s conclusions as “bullshit.” And Fox itself ran a reported news segment casting doubt on Carlson’s claims; Mediaite has more.
  • Gigi Sohn, who was selected by Biden to serve on the Federal Communications Commission, withdrew her nomination following a protracted confirmation fight and mounting opposition in the Senate—a blow to Biden’s internet regulation plans. Sohn told the Post’s Cat Zakrzewski that her nomination had been derailed by “unrelenting, dishonest, and cruel attacks” funded by “powerful cable and media companies.”
  • Reggie Ugwu, of the New York Times, caught up with Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser, who took over as hosts of WNYC’s Radiolab last year and have since “wrestled with how to describe their version of the show, which, among other changes (even more science stories, an added dose of whimsy), they are working to make less hierarchical and more collective.” The pair summed up their duty to the show in three words: “Don’t break it!”
  • And Ralph Nader, the veteran activist and former presidential candidate, won headlines recently when he pledged to help launch and finance the Winsted Citizen, a nonprofit newspaper in his Connecticut hometown. Already, however, the paper appears to be in financial peril, with payroll going unmet and its leadership accusing Nader of failing to follow through on his funding promises. The Hartford Business Journal has more.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.