Is it time to Make Los Angeles Great Again? After almost two decades of corporate ownership, the Los Angeles Times will revert back to private control — under an owner with professed skepticism about journalism. Billionaire doctor and investor Patrick Soon-Shiong will cough up nearly $600 million to take full control of the paper, a figure that dwarfs what Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post a few years back:
Tronc said Wednesday it has struck a deal to sell the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and other titles in the California News Group to billionaire biotech investor Patrick Soon-Shiong.
The agreement with Soon-Shiong, a major shareholder in Tronc and chief executive of NantHealth, includes $500 million in cash plus the assumption of $90 million in pension liabilities.
Soon-Shiong was part of the ownership at Tronc, so he’s not exactly a newcomer, but he still inherits a precarious work environment. The Times had been rocked by a sexual harassment scandal that erupted just as the paper started doing some hard reporting on Hollywood’s own and darker scandals. That made the timing of this announcement seem rather strange, too:
The company also announced that Ross Levinsohn has been reinstated as LA Times CEO, after he agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence last month following disclosure of sexual harassment allegations against him while he worked at other companies.
The org chart may require quite a bit of unwinding. Over the past few weeks, Levinsohn got put on leave while Tronc investigated those claims. The former owners brought in a new editor-in-chief, Jim Kirk, from the Tronc-owned Chicago Tribune, replacing Louis D’Vorkin. At the same time, management had a huge mess on its hands with a staff that had just voted to unionize, thanks to cutbacks and wage issues, which Tronc had attempted to thwart by having content produced by non-union personnel.
Putting Levinsohn back into this fraught mix would be explosive enough, but Soon-Shiong himself carries other baggage into his new role. Last May, Politico published a less-than-flattering picture of Soon-Shiong’s philanthropy, which appears to benefit organizations that spend lots of money on his own companies. Other media organizations also reported on the unusual relationships between Soon-Shiong’s charitable efforts and business interests, which got under his skin to a remarkable degree. In a subsequent earnings call for investors, the new owner of the Times blasted “false reporting”:
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong opened a routine report on his company NantHealth’s first quarter results with this: “Before I go into the details about our business, I would like to take this opportunity to get something off my chest.”
In a remarkable minute-long speech, the biotech billionaire then railed against what he characterized as “all this false reporting” — a reference to a series of critical investigative reports from STAT and other media organizations. The articles have been followed by a plunge in NantHealth’s stock price in recent weeks. …
“We will no longer be distracted or even to react to all this false reporting, and the details of this particular egregious statement will be put on our website for all to review,” Soon-Shiong said.
There are other controversies surrounding Soon-Shiong, too, from the serious (questions about misleading claims regarding his research and successes) to the bizarre (a feud with Cher over stock sales). Those might have been enough to scare off the White House, which reportedly considered the entrepreneurial doctor as a candidate to lead the National Instituts of Health. His complicated finances would probably have made that impossible anyway, but Soon-Shiong did meet with the transition team in January 2017 for discussions. He’s had plenty of contact with Democrats too, including a spot on then-VP Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” board.
The LA Times has been dysfunctional for years, which corporate ownership didn’t do much to cure, but this seems akin to pouring nitroglycerin on an already raging flame. If nothing else, it should be almost as entertaining as the local industry the paper covers.