Politico’s look at the LA Times has some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Patrick Soon-Shiong came along too late to make the cut. In mid-2018, the celebrity surgeon bought the Los Angeles Times and several other papers for $500 million. My book about a new generation of wealthy newspaper owners, “The Return of the Moguls,” had just been published.

Too bad. Soon-Shiong is at least as interesting as the owners I wrote about: Jeff Bezos, who bought The Washington Post and re-established the legendary paper as a powerhouse; John Henry, who slowly transformed The Boston Globe into a growing and profitable enterprise; and Aaron Kushner, who poured money into the Orange County Register only to fail at attracting enough advertisers and readers to pay for his profligate spending.

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Now Politico has weighed in with a lengthy story about the Times under Soon-Shiong that portrays his ownership as something of a mixed bag. He’s invested in the paper, reversing years of cost-cutting by its previous owner, Tribune Publishing (which for a time was known as tronc), and he’s put a highly regarded editor, Kevin Merida, in charge of the newsroom. But his interest in the paper seems to wax and wane, and his daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, is portrayed as interfering in the newsroom.

I have to say that I’m puzzled by some of the wailing. The Politico article, by Daniel Lippman, Christopher Cadelago and Max Tani, claims that Nika Soon-Shiong has inserted herself into the process of endorsing political candidates as though that were somehow a bad thing. Now, the Times may be making some dumb endorsements, such as its decision to back Nika Soon-Shiong ally Kenneth Mejia for city controller. Mejia, according to the Times’ own reporting, regards both Joe Biden and Donald Trump as “sexual predators.”

But a newspaper’s owners are free to insert themselves into the opinion pages as much as they’d like. A good owner will keep a distance from news operations, but the opinion section is their playground. John and Linda Henry are involved in the Globe’s editorial pages and no one thinks anything of it. Jeff Bezos’ lack of interest in the Post’s opinion operation is unusual.

Nika Soon-Shiong has also expressed her leftist views in a tweet (which she deleted) critical of her own paper’s crime coverage and in suggestions for story coverage. There is, for instance, this, which I find entirely benign, even salutory:

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Politico quotes Merida as saying that Nika Soon-Shiong has “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better,” and that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.” The fact-checker rates that statement as 100% true.

Patrick Soon-Shiong is a bit of an oddball. A profile in The New Yorker last year by Stephen Witt raised questions about his success as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur. But he has been a far better owner of the LA Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a throw-in that was part of the Times deal, than Tribune Publishing had been. Indeed, Soon-Shiong’s one unforgivable act as a newspaper owner was a non-act — his decision to do nothing to stop the sale of Tribune to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which of course began gutting its papers as soon as the deal was consummated.

Tribune owns some of our most storied newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant — the oldest continuously published newspaper in the country. Soon-Shiong, a billionaire, could have stopped the transaction and helped Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum with his bid to buy the chain. Instead, Alden wound up with Tribune, and Bainum has launched a digital nonprofit called The Baltimore Banner. In an interview with Brian Stelter, then of CNN, Soon-Shiong protested that he was a “passive investor,” adding: “I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.”

The Los Angeles Times is far better off under Soon-Shiong family ownership than it had been under years of Tribune mismanagement — mismanagement that would have turned into a rout under Alden. The Politico piece contains some interesting tidbits, but it’s hardly a takedown.

Alden’s latest move may be the final act in Warren Buffett’s newspaper misadventure

Warren Buffett. Photo (cc) 2011 by Fortune Live Media.

The final act is about to be consummated in Warren Buffett’s disappointing dalliance with the newspaper business. Despite the legendary investor’s self-professed love for newspapers, he ran the newspapers he acquired starting in 2012 as a hopeless cause rather than investing in them as his fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos did with The Washington Post and John Henry did with The Boston Globe.

Buffett eventually sold his papers — including his hometown Omaha World-Herald — to Lee Enterprises. And on Monday we learned that the predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital is now attempting to purchase Lee’s 90 daily newspapers, which are located in 26 states. The death watch has begun.

I wrote about Buffett’s track record as a newspaper owner in my book “The Return of the Moguls.” Here’s an excerpt.

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When Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company purchased 63 newspapers from the Media General chain in 2012 for $142 million, the news was greeted with the hope that the legendary octogenarian might be just the person to show the way forward. Buffett bolstered his new holdings by extending loans to those papers totaling $445 million. It was a generous gesture with which Aaron Kushner and his investors, who also wanted the papers, could not compete. A year earlier Buffett had bought his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, along with six other papers for $200 million. He already owned The Buffalo News. And in those pre-Bezos days, he held a substantial number of shares in The Washington Post Co. “Does Warren E. Buffett want to be a media mogul?” asked The New York Times.

Certainly Buffett had the right pedigree. Not only was he a brilliant financial thinker, but he had long loved newspapers and had been a close adviser to the Graham family at The Washington Post for many years. He even had a hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize: in 1973, when he was the owner of the Omaha Sun, he helped his reporters investigate a local charity by finding documents, providing financial analysis, and even assisting with the writing. Katharine Graham praised Buffett fulsomely in her autobiography, saying that he became a trusted confidant after he invested in the Washington Post Co. “By the spring of 1974,” she wrote, “Warren was sending me a constant flow of helpful memos with advice, and occasionally alerting me to problems of which I was unaware.”

Yet Buffett, astute financier that he is, expressed skepticism about prospects for the newspaper business after it entered its long decline. In 2009, for instance, he said he had no interest in purchasing papers, because their financial outlook was so grim. “For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price,” he said. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.” And though he later reversed himself, his acquisition strategy gravitated toward papers of the type that still do reasonably well: those in medium-sized markets where the local paper is the principal source of regional and community news and where competition from the internet is less a factor than it is in large cities. Buffett’s papers carry little debt and are profitable. In the spring of 2016, though, he admitted that the picture was continuing to darken for the newspaper business and that he was no closer to finding a way out than anyone else.

“We haven’t cracked the code yet,” he told USA Today. “Circulation continues to decline at a significant pace, advertising at an even faster pace. The easy cutting has taken place. There’s no indication that anyone besides the national papers has found a way.” He added that even though all of his papers were making money (at that time he was up to 32 dailies and 47 weeklies), that might not be the case in future years. “If you have a problem in five years, you have a problem now,” he said. Buffett doubled down on those remarks in early 2017, telling CNBC that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and possibly The Washington Post were the only newspapers he believed had an “assured future,” explaining, “They have developed an online presence that people will pay for.”

Less than two months later, the hammer came down at BH Media, the company Buffett had set up to manage his newspapers. BH Media announced the termination of 289 positions throughout the chain, including the elimination of 108 vacant jobs. The BH Media president and chief executive officer, Terry Kroeger, told the Omaha World-Herald that Buffett had been informed of the reductions but that “his opinion was not sought or offered,” in keeping with Buffett’s hands-off investment philosophy. Kroeger blamed the papers’ declining revenue on changes in retail advertising, and especially on the move to online shopping — an irony given how the most successful of the new breed of newspaper owners, Jeff Bezos, made his money. Buffett’s World-Herald did not suffer any cuts at that time. But then, in May, BH Media reduced the size of the Omaha paper and eliminated three jobs, according to a memo to the staff from the executive editor, Melissa Matczak.

For a self-confessed newspaper fan whose net worth was roughly the same as that of Bezos (more than $60 billion apiece in mid-2016), Buffett’s role in helping to figure out the future of journalism might be considered disappointingly modest. Perhaps it would be too much to expect someone in his mid-80s to dedicate himself to figuring out the future of the newspapers he had acquired. But he was ideally positioned to bring in the sorts of minds who might apply themselves to the task of saving smaller papers in much the same way that Bezos and Henry were attempting to reinvent their much larger properties. Surely Buffett understands as much as anyone that readers and advertisers will put up with an ever-diminishing paper for only so long before an irreversible downward spiral sets in.

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‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH News.

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

The Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on a Spotlight reporting project

The Boston Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on an unspecified investigative reporting project, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. The partnership will produce “a multi-part investigative report that will be published by both organizations this fall.”

The project will be funded by the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, established by the Globe and Participant Media, the producers of the movie “Spotlight.” Grants of up to $100,000 are awarded to reporters or teams of reporters. This is the first time the Globe has partnered with another news organization. The series will be published by both papers.

Scott Allen, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects, declined in an email to say what the topic of the reporting would be — but when I noted that the Press Herald reporter who’ll be working on the project, Penelope Overton, covers the lobster industry, Allen said that “we expect to take full advantage of her considerable expertise.”

There are some interesting intersections between the Globe and the Press Herald. The E&P story points out that Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee worked at the Globe for 12 years. But it goes beyond that. Lisa DeSisto, who is chief executive officer of the Press Herald and its sister papers, was previously a high-ranking business-side executive at the Globe (and, before that, a colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix).

The two papers also have the distinction of having been pursued by Boston-area businessman Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe in 2010 and nearly succeeded in buying the Press Herald in 2012. Kushner and a team of investors ended up purchasing the Orange County Register in Southern California later in 2012. They spent considerable resources in building up the Register and acquiring and launching other papers — only to tear it all down in short order when the hoped-for revenues failed to materialize. Today the Register is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (I tell the story of Kushner’s newspaper adventures in my book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Today the Press Herald is owned by Reade Brower, a printer, who’s built a small chain of Maine newspapers and gets generally high marks for his stewardship. The Globe, of course, is owned by billionaires John and Linda Henry.

Twitter battle rages over ‘Moguls’; journo tells followers to ‘BUY THIS BOOK NOW’

“The Return of the Moguls” hasn’t been officially released yet (that will come on March 6), but it’s already generated a Twitter battle between the Southern California-based journalist Gustavo Arellano and Eric Spitz, who, along with Aaron Kushner, are former owners of the Orange County Register.

I interviewed Arellano, then the editor of the OC Weekly, and Spitz (and Kushner) about the Register, which under Kushner and Spitz’s leadership added about 150 newsroom jobs only to go bankrupt just three years after their investment group bought the paper. The Twitter action began earlier this afternoon:

What fun!

Arellano also offered an endorsement:

Yes. Please do.

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Talking with Bob Schieffer about the future of news

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Recently I had the opportunity to record a podcast about my Shorenstein paper on the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos with CBS News legend Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our conversation was posted on Thursday.

Schieffer and I met last spring at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow and he was the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow. Schieffer was a friendly, gregarious presence, and my fellow fellows and I enjoyed his company immensely.

My Shorenstein paper is part of a book project with a working title of The Return of the Moguls, which will be about the Post under Bezos, the Boston Globe under Red Sox principal owner John Henry, and the Orange County Register under entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, to be published by ForeEdge in 2017.

Schieffer and Schwartz’s podcast, “About the News,” offers regular updates about various media topics. It’s available at iTunes.

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Millionaires, billionaires, and the future of newspapers

tumblr_static_policycast_logoHard to believe, but my time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School will be ending soon. Recently I recorded an HKS PolicyCast podcast under the expert guidance of host Matt Cadwallader. We talked about my research regarding wealthy newspaper owners and whether the innovations they’ve introduced may show the way for others. I hope you’ll give it a listen.

As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book that will largely be about three such owners—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in 2013; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who announced he would purchase the Boston Globe just three days before Bezos made his move; and greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, whose time as publisher of the Orange County Register ended in 2015, but whose print-centric approach made him perhaps the most closely watched newspaper owner of 2012-’13.

Bezos and the Post will be the subject of the paper I’m writing for Shorenstein, so—in case any of you folks at the Globe were wondering—I’ve suspended my reporting on the Globe for the time being. I’ll be back.

Rob Curley out, jobs eliminated at Orange County Register

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy

Digital news pioneer Rob Curley is out as editor of the Orange County Register, whose acquisition by Digital First Media was completed earlier today. The story was broken by the Orange County Business Journal.

Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly, adds that some 50 to 70 employees are losing their jobs at the Register and its sister paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise. These are “mostly on the sales, circulation, and marketing side,” Arellano writes, a sign that Digital First—which also owns several other papers in Southern California—is consolidating its business operations.

A little more than a year ago I spent a good chunk of a day at the Register as part of my book project. Curley, who made his bones as an early digital guy at the Lawrence Journal-World a dozen years ago, followed by stops at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun (among other places), allowed me to spend a considerable amount of time with him and answered all questions. However, it was completely off the record, so I can’t share with you anything I learned. I can tell you it wasn’t all that eventful.

The next day, Kushner—who had tried to purchase the Boston Globe and Maine’s Portland Press Herald before leading a group that bought the Register in 2012—stepped down a day before I was to interview him. Kushner’s emphasis on print, and his head-turning moves to hire staff and buy and launch newspapers (including a short-lived daily in Los Angeles), earned him national recognition. Unfortunately, a shortage of funds led him to dismantle what he had built in very short order.

Digital First bought the Register and the Press-Enterprise for $49.8 million after the US Department of Justice convinced a federal judge that a higher bid by Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune, should be rejected because it would reduce competition.

It struck a number of observers, including me, that the government was engaged in outdated thinking that no longer applied to the shrinking, money-losing newspaper business. Tribune has gone through numerous gyrations over the years, but the LA Times has remained an excellent newspaper. It almost certainly would have been a better steward of the Register and the Press-Enterprise than Digital First.

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What I’ll be doing in the coming year

I thought I should say a few words about what I’m up to.

For the next year, I’ll be on sabbatical from Northeastern as I work on a book about how three business people who are passionate about newspapers are using their wealth to reinvent their papers and possibly to show the way for others. They are John Henry of The Boston Globe, Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register. Kushner is no longer running the Register, but the print-centric orientation he took during his time at the helm has much to tell us.

My project actually became public two years ago when the Globe somehow got word. That item has proved useful in helping me to line up interviews. But only now am I embarking on the bulk of my reporting. I lost a year when I agreed to serve as interim director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism following the death of my friend and mentor Steve Burgard. Steve’s death was a difficult blow. In terms of the book, though, the delay may prove to be a good thing, as it seems to me that Henry’s and Bezos’ visions are still coming into focus.

I have a contract with University Press of New England and a year that should be (I hope) free of distractions. I’m excited to push ahead.

Former Globe suitor Aaron Kushner steps down at the OC Register



Late Tuesday afternoon I was at the Los Angeles Times, interviewing people about the state of the Orange County Register, when suddenly the word came down.

Aaron Kushner, who’d bought the paper in 2012 and presided over a dizzying expansion and stomach-churning retrenchment, was stepping down from his executive role. His co-owner, Eric Spitz, was moving to a reduced role. And Richard Mirman, a former casino executive who’d been brought in as publisher last fall, would become president and chief executive officer of the Register’s parent company, Freedom Communications.

The Register covers the story here; the Times here; and OC Weekly here.

I had traveled to Southern California to do some reporting on Kushner’s stewardship of the Register. I visited the paper on Monday and sat in on a news meeting. I am — no kidding — scheduled to interview Kushner later today, a meeting that took weeks to set up. I’m going to keep my appointment and see if he or anyone else will see me.

Kushner, who tried to buy The Boston Globe and then the Portland Press Herald of Maine, was widely portrayed as either a savior of the newspaper business or a naive idealist after he assumed the reins at the Register. He emphasized print over digital and more than doubled the size of the newsroom. But his moves became increasingly hard to understand. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, then launched new dailies in Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Starting more than a year ago, the expansion was reversed. Layoffs and buyouts commenced. The LA and Long Beach papers were closed. And the Register’s plant in Santa Ana was sold for $27 million.

The situation right now is confusing and fluid. In reading the Times’ and the Register’s coverage, it seems that Kushner, Spitz and Mirman all have ownership shares. Media business analyst Ken Doctor tells the Times that Mirman’s job “is to steady the place and to get it ready for another owner.”

Strange days in Orange County for sure.