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.

Julie Reynolds on Alden and the botched vote that gave it control of Tribune

On our latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I interview the investigative reporter Julie Reynolds, the scourge of Alden Global Capital. Reynolds gives us the lowdown on Tribune Publishing’s legally dubious vote to sell its nine major-market newspapers to the hedge fund as well as Alden’s relationship with Cerberus Capital Management, the “shadow bank” that helped finance that acquisition.

Other topics include Rocky, Bullwinkle and pink slime. You’ll find more details — and information on how to subscribe to the podcast — right here.

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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In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

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I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

Kara Swisher to Patrick Soon-Shiong: How could you let Alden buy Tribune?

Kara Swisher. Photo (cc) 2017 by nrkbeta.

I just skimmed the transcript of Kara Swisher’s interview with Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. It gets off to a slow start — but eventually she lets him have it in the chops over his pathetic rationalizations for not stopping the hedge fund Alden Global Capital from buying Tribune Publishing earlier this year.

The short version, for those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and medical entrepreneur, owned 24% of Tribune, which publishes nine major-market daily newspapers. He could have blocked Alden by voting no or by voting to abstain, thus giving Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum more time to put a deal together — or to see if another buyer might emerge.

Instead, Soon-Shiong declined to vote at all, which allowed the deal to go through. Here’s the heart of what Swisher told him:

So essentially you’re saying I couldn’t save them. And I’m — I don’t quite know what to say. There’s some point where you do make a stand and say, you can’t do this. And especially with Alden Global Capital having a reputation it does, you might have stood up for it. You might have said no. But you felt the current owners weren’t going to really do anything with your money. As you said, they had an agenda. It seems like you have a theory of their agenda. But they weren’t going to make it better. And so any port in the storm, is that what you’re saying?

Soon-Shiong’s hedging is pretty much in line with his recent interview with Brian Stelter of CNN. But this response screams out:

Well, it’s a little more than that, right? I think there should be enough civic responsibility in Chicago, enough civic responsibility in Florida, civic responsibility wherever these — Baltimore. And obviously, as you knew, there were certain billionaires and multimillionaires. So to be fair, it should be really the responsibility of people living in their community. I live in California. So I can’t personally be responsible for Florida or Baltimore and Chicago.

Baltimore? Baltimore? Is the good doctor kidding? Bainum originally had an agreement to acquire The Baltimore Sun from Alden after Tribune was sold and then donate the Sun to a nonprofit. After he concluded that Alden was jerking him around, he tried to put together a group that would buy the entire chain. (Bainum is now launching a nonprofit news project in Baltimore.)

Look, it’s great that Soon-Shiong seemed to be committed to the Times and his other paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. But if you look up the word “disingenuous” in the dictionary, you just might find his photo.

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Spurned by Tribune, Stewart Bainum moves ahead with nonprofit news in Baltimore

Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Patrick Gillespie.

Among the worst outcomes of Stewart Bainum’s failed bid to purchase Tribune Publishing is that he lost out on an earlier deal to buy The Baltimore Sun and donate it to a nonprofit organization.

The hedge fund Alden Global Capital had originally agreed to spin off the Sun to Bainum after buying Tribune’s nine major-market dailies. That deal fell through when Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, balked at Alden’s terms and tried to buy the entire chain.

So it’s very good news that Bainum appears to be moving ahead with a nonprofit venture that would compete with the Sun. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported earlier this week that Bainum is advertising for a chief product officer who’ll work for a “well-funded startup” aimed at becoming “a new paradigm for digital first, cross-channel local media.”

The project will include the web, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and video, both on television and online, according to the ad, which adds that the “vision is to be the leading provider of news and lifestyle content in the Baltimore area.”

Bainum was originally willing to pay $65 million for the Sun. Assuming that money is still on the table, this should be a well-funded regional news product. Bloomberg and the Lenfest Institute are involved, too, though Edmonds suggests their role will be minimal.

One aspect I find interesting is the cross-platform nature of the project. The biggest challenge facing online-only media is getting the word out that they exist. As a former newspaper executive once told me, the problem with dumping the print edition in favor of digital is that print is essentially a billboard for digital. If print goes away, you disappear to non-subscribers. Bainum might avoid that problem by moving into radio and television as well as digital.

I also wonder whether there’s an underlying strategy to wrest the Sun away from Alden. Given the way the hedge fund is already decimating its holdings, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant, there is little doubt that the Bainum project will be a better, more comprehensive news organization than the Sun on the day that it debuts.

If the Sun’s audience and advertisers (yes, nonprofits can accept ads) move en masse to Bainum’s venture, Alden might prove willing to walk away.

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With Alden destroying the Hartford Courant, Hearst goes statewide and digital

The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.

Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.

CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.

The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.

It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.

The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.

Things went from bad to worse at the Courant earlier this year when Alden added Tribune to its holdings despite efforts by the staff to find a local buyer.

It’s great to see Hearst now upping its game in Connecticut as well.

Despite spinning off a few papers, there are no signs that chains are walking away

Nantucket, where The Inquirer & Mirror is once again locally owned. Photo (cc) 2007 by Michael Galvin.

From time to time I’ve taken note of rare instances when Gannett has sold some of its 1,000 or so papers to local ownership. In Massachusetts, for example, The Inquirer & Mirror of Nantucket was acquired last fall by a group headed by the editor and a local businessman.

Kristen Hare of Poynter asked Gannett for some numbers, it turns out that the chain has sold 24 papers to community interests. (Be sure not to miss the correction. As you’ll see, Gannett can’t even keep track of how many papers it owns.)

Not that there’s any benevolent motive at work here. Gannett is going to do what’s best for its bottom line, and a few isolated weeklies don’t fit with its strategy of regional groups, dailies and stories shared across papers regardless of whether they have any local interest.

Just recently, Gannett shut down two weeklies west of Boston — the Marlborough Enterprise and the Hudson Sun. Maybe there weren’t any local buyers available. But those towns are also covered by Gannett’s MetroWest Daily News, so there was an incentive not to empower any possible competitors.

Writing for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, Mark Jacob speculates that the hedge fund Alden Global Initiative might sell off some of the nine major-market dailies it acquired when it gobbled up Tribune Publishing earlier this year. I suppose anything is possible, but that seemed to fly out the window when Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s efforts to buy Tribune fell short. Bainum planned to break up the chain, starting with The Baltimore Sun, which he wanted to donate to a nonprofit. In the end, though, Alden’s offer prevailed, even though it was loaded with undisclosed debt.

Jacob also profiles The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a rare instance of a newspaper that Alden was willing to sell to local interests, and The New Bedford Light, launched despite Gannett’s refusal to sell The Standard-Times.

And then there is this odd observation by Jacob:

In some ways, large chains can be beneficial for local news consumers. They often bring website expertise, technical support and consistent business practices. And they may have a greater ability to recruit talent.

No. Some chains are better than others, but all of them are dedicated to the proposition that newspapers exist mainly so that the owners can squeeze out profits that could otherwise be invested in news and technology. Even in terms of digital publishing, I have rarely encountered an independent news website that is as clunky and intrusive as a typical chain site.

As the old saying goes: Local doesn’t scale.

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The Capital Gazette overcame mass murder only to be done in by corporate ownership

Photo via “On the Media”

The public radio show “On the Media” offered a terrific special hour-long broadcast over the weekend — a deeply reported piece on the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five journalists were killed in a mass shooting three years ago today.

The story follows the newsroom through the shock of the shooting and the newspaper’s halting recovery. Sadly, as the last part of the hour unfolds, we learn that the journalists overcame the worst horror imaginable only to be done in by their corporate owner, Tribune Publishing. In the closing minutes, things go from bad to worse, as the hedge fund Alden Global Capital purchases Tribune.

By the way, what “On the Media” ran was a compressed version of a two-hour series that was part of the NPR podcast “Embedded,” which had not been on my radar until now. Outstanding and important work.