Microsoft’s former top artificial intelligence executive, Harry Shum, has signed on as chairman of the board of News Break, the tech startup founded and led by former Yahoo engineering executive Jeff Zheng, and best known for its popular local news apps.
The privately held company, based in Mountain View, Calif., announced the appointment Wednesday morning. Shum, who oversaw the Redmond company’s large AI and Research Group, was exposed to the technology side of the news industry during prior roles as the leader of Microsoft’s Bing and MSN groups.
“In this day and age, and in the AI era, especially as we face the pandemic, we have this opportunity and responsibility to really think about local communities and do a better job to serve local communities,” Shum said in an interview with GeekWire this week. “That’s what is really exciting for me and for the News Break team.”
News Break is working to open an engineering center in the Seattle region as it expands its technical workforce, Shum said. The office is expected to be located in Bellevue, Wash., but further details aren’t yet available.
Shum acknowledged that major technology platforms such as Google and Facebook have been a double-edged sword for local news providers and media organizations, with the potential to boost their audiences while simultaneously undercutting their business models. He said he and News Break are committed to finding ways to support local journalism and improve the underlying economics for publishers.
“We have to figure out a way to grow together,” he said.
In a statement, Zheng called Shum “one of the brightest minds in the technology industry,” saying he brings a “wealth of technical leadership and business savvy to the company” and the development of its intelligent news technology.
The company, founded in 2015, also boasts Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang as its chief advisor.
News Break personalizes the content it shows based on factors including user preference and location, using technology in an effort to deliver news relevant to individual readers. It serves up webpages from content providers, including their ads, and also makes money from ads displayed separately in its apps. The apps for iOS and Android aggregate coverage from 10,000 content providers and news organizations.
Operating under the corporate umbrella of Particle Media Inc., News Break employs 107 people as of this week, and competes with other startups such as SmartNews and news apps from major tech providers such as Google and Apple.
The company’s apps have surged in popularity since they were launched in 2016 on iOS and Android. News Break now has 10 million daily active users and 23 million monthly active users, and says it covers more than 20,000 local communities.
Shum said he originally met Zheng when he tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit him from Yahoo to Microsoft. They’ve stayed in touch, and Zheng reached out after Shum left his day-to-day role at Microsoft earlier this year.
The former Microsoft executive remains an adviser to the company. Shum has separately invested in Asensys, a Seattle startup promising to build a more scalable and efficient blockchain infrastructure.