Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

My Digital Hero: Katie Vanneck-Smith, Co-Founder and Publisher, Tortoise

We’re asking some of our industry’s leading figures to nominate their digital hero and to explain what’s so special about them.

Katie Vanneck-Smith is a pioneer of online publishing. The former president of The Wall Street Journal is one of the founders of ad-free news title Tortoise. She co-founded the brand with James Harding, formerly editor of The Times and director of BBC News, and Matthew Barzun. Credited with News UK’s paywall transformation, she previously held senior roles at The Telegraph.

Who is your digital hero?

Assuming I can’t have Ada Lovelace (only child of Lord Byron who casually became the world’s first computer programmer in 1815), I’ll go for Mary Lou Jepsen.

What have they done to win hero status in your eyes?

Her One Laptop Per Child project was truly visionary. It’s not without flaws, but something with such a big ambition would never be perfect.

I love the simplicity and boldness of her thinking. I’m obsessed with education.

Digital wizardry is incredibly exciting, we have fun with it – but unless you focus on the basics – like getting functioning, sustainable hardware into the hands of people who can’t easily come by it – there’s no point.

How has their heroism helped drive digital?

As if One Laptop wasn’t enough, she’s gone on to hold senior positions at pretty much all the major platforms. What she is doing at OpenWater is interesting too – I don’t really understand it but it’s in the healthcare space, using a new type of imaging to create better MRI scans.

She is very purposeful about how she approaches the technology – solving real problems, rather than innovating for innovation’s sake.

What the biggest challenges in digital we need another hero to solve?

How to make sure digital solutions enhance real life, not replace it. We can’t be in a world where we’re constantly feeling we have to detox from our devices.

What is your most heroic personal achievement so far in digital?

I wouldn’t call it heroic because that implies it was some singular moment of bravery, but being part of the team who implemented the paywall at the Times took some guts I think.

People genuinely thought we were mad.