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."
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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.
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