LA Times’ New Owner Plans Big Moves. First Up, Relocating to the Suburbs.
Posted April 13, 2018 2:58 p.m. EDT
LOS ANGELES — As a son of Chinese immigrants growing up in apartheid South Africa, Patrick Soon-Shiong spent his afternoons racing through the streets of Port Elizabeth selling the evening newspaper. The job, he likes to say, shaped his views on the power of the press and the plight of the underdog.
“The newspaper is really important to bind the community,” he said in a recent interview at his biotechnology company’s sprawling headquarters in Culver City, California. “It bound us in my world of South Africa, and it’s really a voice for the people.”
It is a conviction that Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire who is considered the richest man in Los Angeles, has relayed often in the days since he agreed to buy The Los Angeles Times from media company Tronc for $500 million. But if his purchase was motivated by a nostalgia for his paperboy days, those who know him say he also wants to secure his place among the city’s power brokers, win credit for restoring the paper to its former glory and establish his legacy.
Addressing reports that the sale had stalled, Soon-Shiong spoke to the paper’s employees for the first time Friday and dropped a bombshell that is sure to prove controversial in the newsroom: He is moving the newspaper from its historic art deco building in downtown to the suburban city of El Segundo.
But overall, employees seemed impressed and hopeful by his plans, and the meeting ended with a standing ovation.
Negotiations over the purchase of the paper, which some people familiar with the deal had expected to be completed by the end of March, have dragged. Part of the issue is that the deal was put together quickly — in just a matter of days — and due diligence is taking longer than expected. Tronc’s technology had also been supporting The Times, and the two sides are trying to reach an agreement to keep the paper running until it can build its own capabilities, according to one of the people.
On a recent afternoon, Soon-Shiong, dressed in a dark suit and light blue Ferragamo tie, laid out an ambitious vision for The Times that involves leveraging technology, extending the paper’s video and podcast abilities and moving its headquarters to a new campus. At turns jocular and loquacious, he discussed hiring a top editor and stressed the importance of editorial independence and tolerance. Among the prominent editors he has pursued are two Los Angeles Times veterans — Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, and Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post.
“I look upon the newspaper — on the newsroom side of it and the editorial chief side of it — to be completely independent, factual, honest, fair,” he said. “It also needs to be inspiring, compassionate and caring.”
Journalists in the newsroom, which is exhausted by years of tumult under previous ownership, are cautiously optimistic that Soon-Shiong will reinvent the paper and return it to financial strength, just as another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, has done at The Washington Post.
The city’s political and cultural elites see Soon-Shiong as the last, best hope to restore the paper’s place as an important civic institution in a sprawling region that lacks a true center of gravity, with a mayor whose powers are smaller than in other big cities, and where economic power is diffuse, spreading across industries like Hollywood and tech.
“I see it as a mechanism of binding the community,” Soon-Shiong said. “And sort of a grounding force.”
For now, at least, Soon-Shiong’s purchase has achieved one goal long held by civic leaders — and Times journalists: Return the paper to local hands.
Since the Chandler family sold The Times Mirror Co. to the Chicago-based Tribune Co. in 2000, The Times has operated under corporate control, weathering cost cuts, severe layoffs and, for a time, a frat house culture that spilled from the top ranks.
Despite the renewed buoyancy in the Times newsroom, it is not clear whether Soon-Shiong, who moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and built a fortune in health care, can reinvigorate a once-storied news organization whose newsroom is so hard-pressed for resources.
He has no experience running a newspaper, though he had been a major shareholder in The Times’ parent company, Tronc. While he has amassed a fortune from a successful cancer drug, Abraxane, and built an array of health care companies that deal with artificial intelligence high-speed computer networks, he has been dogged by detractors. Scientists have met with skepticism his stated ambition to cure cancer by stimulating a patient’s immune system. And he has been accused of steering philanthropic donations to entities that do business with his companies.
“I’m ambitious,” he said. “I want to cure cancer, I want to find a universal flu vaccine, I want to find the cause of Alzheimer’s, I want to figure out how to regenerate your tissue. That is an ambitious program.”
“I think if you are trying to do a cutting edge, complex, ambitious project, that may be perceived as overpromising,” he added.
His plans for The Times are certainly grand, if undefined.
In the weeks since the deal was announced in February, Soon-Shiong has been on something of a listening tour, calling on former staff members and seeking out advice from luminaries in journalism. He has spoken, for instance, to Baquet of The New York Times and Baron of The Washington Post, as well as Donald Graham, the former publisher of The Post, and Norman Pearlstine, a former top editor at The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Time Inc. In private conversations, Soon-Shiong has mused about trying to lure a big name editor to lead The Times.
“He’s swinging for the fences, and I think that’s a good strategy,” said Matt Toledo, former publisher of the Los Angeles Business Journal and a friend of Soon-Shiong’s.
Though he had not yet addressed the Times newsroom before Friday, he had met with the paper’s top editors, telling them he planned to invest in the paper, make Washington reporting a priority and expand the paper’s foreign coverage, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
He also told them he had decided to buy the paper after hearing Tronc planned to close its Washington bureau so it could afford an expensive new lease for The Times’ headquarters.
In the interview, Soon-Shiong expressed interest in expanding Times journalism beyond the written word and said he would build a state-of-the-art studio for video and podcasts. He has been particularly enamored with “Dirty John,” a true-crime podcast produced by Times reporter Christopher Goffard, and attended a Lakers game recently with Goffard.
Though much of his plans are still unclear, he spoke excitedly about goals for his newspaper’s new space.
He wants lots of light, a day care center, a museum to honor the newspaper’s history and modern technology. Eventually, he said, he would like to build a basketball court — he has one below his Brentwood mansion, as well — and open the campus up to the public to allow readers to see how the newspaper is put together.
And while he is still grappling with whether The Times should be a local or regional newspaper versus a national or global news outlet, he said he thought the country needed a major news organization on the West Coast to countervail the powerful institutions, like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Post — on the East Coast.
“I think we will make each other’s boats rise and save this whole industry,” he said. Several people who have spoken to Soon-Shiong about the newspaper characterized him as smart, tech savvy and eager to learn about a business in which he has until now largely admired from afar. But many of his inquiries have revealed his inexperience in running a newspaper: He has, for instance, asked how journalists put together coverage and whether the same newsroom staff can work on print and digital.
Soon-Shiong’s wife, Michele Chan, a former actress, has accompanied him to some of the meetings about The Times, and also seemed to be involved in decision-making, Pearlstine said. “She talks really eloquently about wanting the workplace to be more diverse and more reflective of the community it covers,” he said.
Pearlstine said that in their discussions about the newspaper, Soon-Shiong “talked a lot about this desire for a legacy.”
Not exactly an unknown in Los Angeles, Soon-Shiong remains a largely obscure figure in a city that values celebrity and personal achievement. His philanthropy has been mainly focused on health care — his name adorns a hospital in Santa Monica. And he prefers to pal around with ballplayers (he owns a piece of the Lakers) rather than Hollywood types. He is, though, close to Mark Burnett, the reality television producer behind “The Apprentice,” who sits on the board of one of his biotech companies, NantHealth.
Soon-Shiong said that his focus will remain on his day job — trying to cure cancer. But he has suggested to others that he may appoint himself as publisher of The Times. He dismissed that out of hand in the interview, saying, “I see myself as an owner who can approach the challenges facing the industry with a fresh set of eyes.”
Still, there are questions of whether or not he will seek to influence the positions of the editorial page. The Los Angeles Times, once a conservative paper, is now a liberal voice in a city and state that is solidly progressive. Much like the state and city it covers, the editorial pages have been a voice of opposition in the Trump era.
Soon-Shiong describes himself as an independent, and he has supported both Republicans and Democrats. He said he has a fondness for Rudy Giuliani, a Republican and the former New York mayor, whom he met when Giuliani was treated for cancer.
During the transition after the 2016 election, Soon-Shiong met with Donald Trump and discussed a job overseeing health care. A job offer never materialized, according to a person apprised of the talks, because of the controversies over Soon-Shiong’s charitable giving, which were laid out in Politico last April.
When asked about the paper’s position on Trump, and if he would impose his own views on the editorial board, Soon-Shiong said, “I need to set the tone of compassion and caring. I don’t want a vindictive paper.”
Of Trump, he said: “I think my best response is he’s our president. I’m here to say that what we need to do is ensure that we can do everything we can for the president to succeed because I think it’s good for our nation.”