The doctor’s in, but jury is out on new LA Times owner
LOS ANGELES — The struggling Los Angeles Times found a local savior in a biotech billionaire willing to buy the storied newspaper from a corporation half a continent away, but the change of ownership brings its own set of questions and uncertainty.
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong agreed to pay $500 million and assume $90 million in pension liabilities for the Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, Tronc Inc. announced Wednesday.
The news was met with a mix of optimism and skepticism by those who have seen the fourth-largest circulation newspaper in the country plagued by cutbacks and circulation declines and roiled by leadership changes in the two decades since it was sold to Tribune Co. by the Chandler family.
“Some people might think this could be the white knight, the savior, but nobody knows that,” said Steve Davis, a journalism professor at Syracuse University. “All they know is that it’s a change, that it’s somebody new who says the right things.”
Soon-Shiong, who was one of several local tycoons who have discussed throwing a lifeline to the Times in recent years, said in a statement that he looked forward to carrying on the “great tradition of award-winning journalism” at both papers. Representatives didn’t return messages seeking an interview with him.
Soon-Shiong amassed his fortune in part by developing a cancer drug in 1991. He was already a major shareholder in Tronc, one of the richest men in Los Angeles and the nation’s wealthiest doctor by Forbes’ estimate, with a net worth estimated at $7.8 billion.
The sale reflects a trend of billionaires buying up newspapers, most notably when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million, in a move that has reinvigorated that newspaper and raised its profile.
“In general this is just another example of sort of boutique buying of newspapers,” said Jack Kranefuss, a media analyst at Fitch Ratings. “It’s sort of going back to the day when captains of industry owned newspapers to get their own voice out.”
One of the big questions is whether Soon-Shiong will distance himself from the Times or will use it for influence or to advance an agenda.
While Bezos has been applauded for allowing independence at the Post, that hasn’t been the case with other rich owners.
Sheldon Adelson’s acquisition of The Las Vegas Review-Journal was followed by resignations from a top editor, a handful of reporters, and a columnist who said he couldn’t do his job after the new editor told him he couldn’t write about Adelson.
Doug Manchester, a previous owner of the Union-Tribune, used the newspaper to tout a conservative political agenda and views on local issues, like his proposal for a new downtown convention center and stadium for the NFL’s Chargers.
Soon Shiong, 65, who said his ultimate goal is to cure cancer during his lifetime, has been the subject of several unflattering reports, including in the Times, which have raised concerns about his business practices and charitable giving.
Among other things, an audit found that the University of Utah had accepted over $12 million from a Soon-Shiong foundation and then inappropriately awarded one of his company’s, NantHealth, $10 million for gene sequencing, the Salt Lake Tribune reported last year.