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.

Still more on the LA Times dispute

I hadn’t intended to post about the Los Angeles Times matter twice in one day. But Paul Farhi of The Washington Post has a strong article (free link), including what I believe is the first objective look at the various drafts of Paul Pringle’s story. Farhi writes:

The former Times editors shared two drafts of the story with The Post to bolster their case that it grew stronger with each round of editing. A draft from February 2017, for example, doesn’t mention a key figure in the story — a “girlfriend” of [former USC medical school dean Carmen] Puliafito’s who allegedly overdosed in a hotel room with him. Pringle subsequently tracked her down and interviewed her. The reporting team also later added descriptions of videos and photos in which she and the dean are seen using drugs.

These critical details were included in a version of the article that was written by early April. “The new reporting is tremendous,” [LA Times managing editor Marc] Duvoisin wrote to Grad on April 6 [2017]. But to Pringle’s irritation, Duvoisin and [assistant managing editor for investigations Matthew] Doig asked for more reporting, including about two figures who subsequently added eyewitness corroboration.

Earlier:

LA Times reporter slashes back in battle with his former editors

Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Paul Pringle has responded to an essay by Matthew Doig, a former Times editor who claims that Pringle falsely accused him and other top executives of slow-walking his reporting on a sex-and-drugs scandal at the University of Southern California so as not to offend an important advertiser and business partner.

Pringle made his accusations in his new book, “Bad City.” The dispute is pretty complex, so you might want to read this for background and then come back. The New York Times also has a good overview (free link). Here’s part of what Pringle has to say in a rebuttal that was published by Los Angeles Magazine:

The Times fired Davan Maharaj, Marc Duvoisin and Matthew Doig after I and four other reporters complained about their handling of the story that is at the heart of “Bad City” — corruption at the University of Southern California. The firings came after an internal inquiry and were wildly popular in the Times’ newsroom. After the editors were gone, the USC reporting team continued to produce one major story after another about the school, and three of us eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for that work.

Maharaj was editor and publisher under the Times’ previous owner, the unfortunately named tronc; Duvoisin was managing editor, and Doig was assistant managing editor for investigations. Pringle also writes:

In the months leading up to the publication of the book, the three editors were given the opportunity to respond to the manuscript, including through an interview. They ultimately chose instead to retain attorneys to threaten lawsuits, with the clear intent of stopping publication of “Bad City.” Those threats similarly contained no factual challenges to my reporting.

Doig’s Medium post links to documents that make him look good but not to others that don’t, including his failed attempts to rewrite our drafts of the story, which focused on the drug-abusing and drug-trafficking dean of USC’s medical school. His rewrites were deemed unpublishable not just by the five reporters (we would have never put our bylines on them), but also by Duvoisin, who finally took the story away from him.

Duvoisin wrote his own response to Pringle’s allegations that I missed earlier. Despite Pringle’s contention that Duvoisin overruled Doig, Duvoisin’s defense parallels Doig’s, calling Pringle’s claims “entirely false.” Duvoisin continues:

The USC story was not killed; it was sent back for more reporting, which improved it immeasurably, and it was published on the front page. The reporters who worked on the story were never blocked; they were edited. They did not fight against dark newsroom corruption; they were held to high standards — and resented it. They did not work in secret. They merely thought they were working in secret, which is kind of amusing when you think about it.

Similarly, Maharaj posted a comment to Doig’s essay that begins: “Matt [Doig] did an excellent job shooting down the endless falsehoods in ‘Bad City,’ which accuses me of ‘killing’ the initial story. That is not true.”

An explosive retort to a book about an alleged cover-up at the Los Angeles Times

Photo (cc) 2015 by Dan Kennedy

Earlier this month, The New York Times published a fascinating book review about a sex-and-drugs scandal at the University of Southern California — and about an alleged attempt by the top leadership at the Los Angeles Times to cover it up. I put the book, “Bad City,” by Paul Pringle, at the top of my reading list, thinking I might assign it to my media ethics students this fall.

Oh, but not so fast. Because one of the editors who handled the USC story, Matthew Doig, has written a retort on Medium. And believe me, you can tell he’s not worried about the possibility that Pringle will sue him. Among other things, Doig calls Pringle’s book “utter bullshit” and writes that “it’s disappointing that several media outlets have thus far failed to bring even a modicum of skepticism to such an absurd tale. The truth is that Pringle is a fabulist who is grossly misrepresenting the facts to support his false narrative.”

Whoa. To provide a bit of background, Pringle was part of a team of reporters who looked into the matter of Carmen Puliafito, the dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine, who was video-recorded taking crystal meth and heroin with a group of young people and who turned a young woman into essentially his sex slave. This is pretty explosive stuff. In “Bad City,” Pringle claims that the LA Times’ leading executives, publisher and editor Davan Maharaj and managing editor Marc Duvoisin, tried to squash the story because USC was one of the paper’s most important advertisers. As NY Times reviewer Katie Benner puts it:

Pringle’s fast-paced book is a master class in investigative journalism, explaining how a reporter wrestles information and documents from reluctant sources and government officials. It is a stark look at the weakening of local news, especially at The Los Angeles Times.

I should add that this played out in 2016 and ’17, when the paper had been suffering from years of chaotic ownership. The billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the paper in 2018, bringing a measure of stability as well as some much needed financial resources.

According to Pringle, Maharaj and Duvoisin may have been forced out as a consequence of their bad behavior. Doig, the assistant managing editor for investigations, also departed. Although he’s not named in Benner’s review, he is identified in several excerpts from Pringle’s book that have been published elsewhere. Here’s what Doig has to say about how the USC story actually played out:

And on and on Doig goes, including a mind-boggling anecdote in which he claims that Pringle became enraged after Doig referred to a draft of his story as “good” rather than “great.”

So who’s telling the truth? I’m not going to touch that one, especially since I haven’t read the book. But it seems significant that Doig not only used what lawyers call “actionable” language in writing about Pringle but that he’s also landed on his feet — he’s now investigations editor at USA Today. Likewise, Duvoisin is now editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Express-News, which has done so much good work on the Uvalde massacre. Maharaj has had his own problems, but those appear to have nothing to do with his handling of the USC story.

One question that’s worth asking is what responsibility news organizations have in passing along accusations such as those leveled by Pringle in his book without doing any fact-checking of their own. Doig goes into some detail about that in his essay. Among other things, he laments the lack of fact-checking by the book’s publisher (welcome to the wonderful world of books) and writes that the NY Times should have done some reporting:

The New York Times wrote a cloying review of Pringle’s book that included a character assassination of Duvoisin and Maharaj (I wasn’t named in the review), but the reporter failed to contact Duvoisin and Maharaj for comment. When I emailed the reporter and her editor about it, the editor responded that it was a review, not a reported story, and that I should contact Pringle’s publisher.

I have to say that the NY Times editor is right. Reviews are not reported pieces, and it would be unheard-of for a reviewer to re-report the facts in a book they are reviewing.

So what’s next? Personally, I’ve crossed “Bad City” off my reading list and am not going to assign it to my students — though I may pull together some readings, including excerpts from “Bad City,” Benner’s review and, of course, Doig’s essay. I’m also interested to see whether the controversy dies down, or if instead there’s much more to come.

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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The Los Angeles Times may be on the verge of falling into Alden’s clutches

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gerald Angeles

Rick Edmonds of Poynter weighed in on Thursday with devastating news: it’s looking more and more like Patrick Soon-Shiong will sell the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital as the most likely buyer.

If you’ve been following this story for a while, you know that Alden — notorious for cutting newsrooms and even closing them down, leaving reporters to work out of their homes and their cars — is on the verge of pulling off a complicated deal to buy Tribune Publishing.

Soon-Shiong bought his papers from tronc, Tribune’s predecessor company, just a few years ago and is still in a position to block Alden’s acquisition of Tribune. Edmonds, though, believes it is far more likely that Soon-Shiong will let the deal go through and throw in his newspapers as well.

Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon, faces a potentially debilitating lawsuit, Edmonds reports. He also notes that the Times has gone without an editor for several months now, and that several candidates withdrew because of a possible sale. Moreover, Edmonds says, Soon-Shiong just doesn’t seem to be having much fun playing the benevolent newspaper owner, unlike Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post and John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe.

After The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Soon-Shiong might be looking to get out of the newspaper business, Soon-Shiong denied it. But it seemed likely then that there might be something to it, and Edmonds’ piece only adds to the growing body of evidence that the L.A. Times, one of the most important news organizations in the country, may soon be eviscerated by Alden.

Edmonds also notes that the sale could result in Alden’s owning all three of Southern California’s major dailies — not just Soon-Shiong’s properties, but also the Orange County Register, which it already owns. Ironically, tronc was blocked from acquiring the Register several years ago because of antitrust concerns, thus paving the way for Alden. Apparently those concerns have now vanished as the number of plausible buyers continues to shrink. All roads, it seems, lead to Alden.

If Soon-Shiong is determined to get out, there’s one more step he can take: Donate his papers to a nonprofit organization, or perhaps to different nonprofits in L.A. and San Diego. This being the newspaper business that we’re talking about, he wouldn’t be leaving that much money on the table, and there would be tax advantages as well.

He could also ensure that he’d be remembered as the savior of the L.A. Times rather than the villain who paved the way for its destruction. I hope he cares.

‘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.

Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

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

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.

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