February 8, 2018

Few reporters know the world of the new Los Angeles Times owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, better than Rebecca Robbins of the health/science news site STAT, which has led investigations of his healthcare empire. Poynter asked Robbins a few questions about Soon-Shiong, the world’s richest doctor, a self-made immigrant who is paying $500 million for the Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune:

On one hand the sale of the Los Angeles Times looks like a win-win. A wealthy owner, a la the Washington Post model. A quintessential Southern California success story. A local owner for the first time in nearly two decades. And cheers from the newsroom. What could you tell me about Patrick Soon-Shiong that would support that narrative?

As a casual observer of media, it seems to me that the two worst qualities to have in the owner of a newspaper are: 1) a faceless corporation and 2) being cheap. He probably will be neither of those things. He’s someone local, an individual owner and also, Soon-Shiong has shown repeatedly that he’s willing and able to make big investments in a splashy way. … The caveat is that newspapers are a different business than healthcare.

What, in brief, led you and STAT to learn so much about him?

He’s long been this outsized figure in healthcare. He’s been making news in the world STAT covers for decades. He came on the scene with a bold claim in the 1990s that he had cured diabetes (the results didn’t hold up). … So, he has a long history of making headlines. We wanted to go deeper. We wanted to go behind his showmanship, penetrate his network of businesses.

Did you find transparency from him in your reporting efforts?

I’ve interviewed Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong just one time over the phone, in the spring of 2016 … Since then, however, Soon-Shiong’s team has denied our repeated requests to get on the phone with him. They’ve instead sent us email responses to our questions. … It has been challenging to get the information from his team that we would like.

Is there anything pending against Soon-Shiong on the legal or regulatory front? I recall he had campaigned, sort of, to be President Trump's drug czar. I guess that didn't happen.

In PACER, there are a number of class-action suits that had popped up, after we had done (stories) about his donation to the University of Utah. Most have been closed. One thing that remains, which Politico is reporting on, is a legal dispute Soon-Shiong is having with Cher.

I know he has waged a long struggle to gain control of this paper, as fellow L.A. mega-millionaires Eli Broad and David Geffen did unsuccessfully before. Is that type of persistence indicative?

In a March 23, 2017 story from the New York Times, headlined “Billionaire raises stake in Tronc, and Feud With Its Chairman,” there was this bizarre detail that Soon-Shiong was given the wrong number for board meeting dial-ins. That report suggested the tension between Soon-Shiong and the higher-ups at Tronc. …

What Soon-Shiong has shown is a lot of eclectic interests in different fields — he’s built up a healthcare empire, but has interest in digital health, cancer diagnostics, drug development, the Lakers (where he is part-owner) … and electronic health records. His business empire is trying to cover every corner of healthcare … Soon-Shiong spreads his net very wide. Becoming a steward of a newspaper fits that profile.

Do you recall any type of media owner akin to him? If so, who comes to mind?

The obvious thing is that we’re seeing these billionaires in other fields buying newspapers. It’s sort of an open question as to the qualities you want in your newspaper owner-billionaire.

What have you learned about his management style in your reporting?

The sense that we’ve gotten is that … in many cases, the "showman" persona he’s cultivated, we see the hype outpacing what he and his team have actually accomplished.  (Robbins elaborated with several examples — test results hyped from small samples, cherry-picking success stories.)

To be frank, Tronc — and Tribune before it — seemed like a disaster for the Times. If you were a reporter in that newsroom right now, how would you be thinking about the news outlet's future?

As a journalist, what you want in a newspaper owner is to have someone who will support hard-hitting, vigorous reporting, someone who will not back down when powerful people don’t like that reporting. … Soon-Shiong has bristled at some of our reporting. How will he react to Times investigative reporting that ruffles feathers?… I certainly saw the news that the purchase was greeted with cheers and excitement and relief. In a lot of ways it certainly makes sense to be turning the page from Tronc ownership. I think it’s, in many ways, it’s an open question what kind of an owner Soon-Shiong will turn out to be.

A postscript: After cheers on Tuesday when the news broke, the newsroom's view Wednesday on the sale, writes one senior editor, is "cautiously ecstatic."

He adds: "There's certainly an awareness that Soon-Shiong might bring his own set of problems — since he has no background as a newspaper owner, it's very difficult to know. But at least he's a local guy who presumably gets L.A. and cares about it. His statements in the past suggest he views this as more than a business investment — that he believes in the civic role of a newspaper. People here have been yearning for local ownership ever since Times-Mirror was sold to the Tribune Co. in 2000."

"There has always been a culture clash with Chicago. The Tribune/Tronc folks saw people here as arrogant, entitled and resistant to change — basically, a pain in the ass. Times people believed the Chicagoans had lesser ambitions, journalistically, and were destroying a great institution through a combination of budget cuts and stupid management. They also believed that the Chicago execs never understood California's complexity." 

Quick hits

BREAKING DOWN NEWSWEEK'S FALL: Writing for POLITICO, former Newsweek journalist Matthew Cooper describes watching the decline of the once-respected newsweekly from within. "One of the most embarrassing for me as a political reporter is a story from January 2018 announcing that Hillary Clinton, she of the 2016 election, could still become president 'if Russia probe finds conspiracy evidence.' What followed was a farfetched theory of Trump’s removal and Mike Pence handing the reins to Hillary, which seems a tad unlikely." Cooper resigned from the magazine earlier this week after two of its top editors were fired.

NEWSEUM'S TROUBLES: The Washington Post reports that executives of the media museum will be meeting today to discuss possibly selling the building or moving to another location because of revenue shortages. From the story: "The museum’s financial woes, including lackluster fundraising and the weight of its primary benefactor’s $300 million debt burden, have long prompted speculation that it would be forced to leave its grand location on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the Capitol, or close altogether. But Chief Operating Officer Scott Williams insisted in an interview Wednesday that its biggest supporter, the Freedom Forum, intends to keep the museum alive."

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW: Publishers of a high-value newsletter and news site offer this prescription for local news: Hire great reporters, one or two at first, write actionable stories — no movie reviews, no Super Bowl reaction — and charge $5 to $10 a month. No ads. “You’re selling people a feeling of being informed, of being good citizens — that’s what you’re selling,” Stratechery’s Ben Thompson tells Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times.

BUT FIRST, MAKE SUBSCRIPTIONS EASIER: In a Twitter thread, Brian Boyer experimented with subscribing online to three newspapers — and found the task needlessly daunting. “This ain’t magic. Ask a SINGLE person, maybe at the Starbucks tomorrow, to use your website to subscribe to your newspaper. Watch them try. And if they fail,” fire your vendor, concludes Boyer, vice president for product + people at Spirited Media.

ANOTHER LOCAL NEWS ‘SAVIOR:’ From his living room, this Trump-supporting retiree has digitized nearly 50 million pages of newspapers, CJR reports. That’s a collection much larger than that of Chronicling America, the joint newspaper digitization efforts sponsored by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment of the Arts. For Tom Tryniski, it’s a race against time — to preserve local history from being lost, as some local outlets close.

SEX, LIES AND HUMAN RESOURCES: The #MeToo movement is not over. Marie Claire and Esquire teamed up with 21 people to tackle 21 questions the media industry — and all of America — must deal with to end a work culture of harassment. The joint project is running in both magazines.

CLEARED: In a footnote to the L.A. Times sale, Tronc reinstates Ross Levinsohn after an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct — and makes the departing Los Angeles Times publisher the CEO of a newly reorganized Chicago-based Tronc Interactive. The announcement followed the company’s $500 million sale of the Times.

'A DIFFERENT PATH:’ Monica Drake is the brains behind the NYT’s popular "52 Places To Go" feature and will help define the Times’ Olympics coverage. She’s also, after working her way up for 20 years from intern, the first African-American woman on the Times masthead. Of that new promotion, Drake says: “Any barrier being broken is a signal that society and institutions have progressed, so I celebrate that.”

TRUMP INC.: First came Slate’s "Slow Burn," an absorbing and popular podcast about one troubled president’s legal problems. Now WNYC and Pro Publica have launched “Trump Inc.,” a podcast trying to figure out where the presidency ends and Donald Trump’s businesses begin. Paging David Fahrenthold — get your legal pads ready. 

NEW YORK TIMES CO. RESULTS: Times earnings for the fourth quarter and full year of 2017 are out this morning. Expect digital-only paid subscriptions to be up again, but the pace is slowing, and the company has been running fast to show revenue gains as the number of more expensive print subscriptions declines. The Times advertising base (lots of entertainment and national brands) is different from the industry norm (grocery store inserts, etc.), but the print portion fell 20 percent year-to-year in the third quarter. Digital advertising is expected to be flat. Any improvement will be welcome.

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  • Indira Lakshmanan, our ethics chair, is guest hosting NPR's national current affairs call-in show “On Point” from WBUR in Boston all week. Tune in live online from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. or whenever it airs on your local NPR station. Today's shows: SpaceX and the future of private space exploration, and hour two on women's friendships — from Oprah and Gayle to you and your BFF, what makes them special and challenging.

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