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.

The New Yorker examines the controversial career of the L.A. Times’ celebrity owner

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2018 by Steve Devol.

The New Yorker has published a long profile of Patrick Soon-Shiong, the celebrity surgeon who moonlights as the problematic owner of the Los Angeles Times. Most of Stephen DeWitt’s article focuses on how Soon-Shiong became a billionaire — which appears to be based on a combination of brilliance and shady business practices. DeWitt writes:

Few figures in modern medicine have inspired as much controversy as Soon-Shiong. “He gets very enthusiastic, and sometimes he might exaggerate,” Hentz said. “He can embellish a little.” [Kate Hentz is the daughter of Lee Iacocca, whose first wife died of Type 1 diabetes and who was an important backer of Soon-Shiong’s work.] Outcomes for his diabetes treatment were disappointing, and one case ended tragically. While pursuing this therapy, he also began researching chemotherapy. At the center of his fortune is a cancer treatment that costs more than a hundred times as much as another drug, available as a generic, that is prescribed for some of the same conditions. Soon-Shiong has been repeatedly accused of financial misrepresentation, self-dealing, price gouging, and fraud. He has been sued by former investors and business partners; he has been sued by other doctors; he has been sued by his own brother, twice; he has been sued by Cher.

There’s a little bit on Soon-Shiong’s ownership of the Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. I love this quote from Norman Pearlstine, the editor Soon-Shiong brought on board to right the ship after years of bad ownership: “He made the acquisition with very little due diligence, because he thought that it had to be easier than curing cancer. I’m not sure whether he still believes that.”

To Soon-Shiong’s credit, he has made some investments in his papers, although his interest seems to have wavered from time to time. His choice of Kevin Merida, late of ESPN and The Washington Post, as Pearlstine’s successor was a good one. Soon-Shiong also enabled Alden Global Capital to acquire Tribune Publishing earlier this year, which is unforgivable. But he saved the L.A. Times — at least for now — and that’s an important legacy.

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Why the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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