Saturday, February 20, 2021

Publisher Denies L-A Times Is On the Block

Billionaire biotech investor Patrick Soon-Shiong is exploring a sale of the Los Angeles Times less than three years after buying it for $500 million, reports The Wall Street Journal citing people familiar with the matter.

The move marks an abrupt about-face for Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Times said Mr. Soon-Shiong and his family “continue to invest in and plan for the future of the Los Angeles Times, and do not plan to sell.” A tweet on Mr. Soon-Shiong’s account said: “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

When Soon-Shiong acquired the Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune and a handful of weeklies from Tribune Publishing Co., then called Tronc Inc., in 2018, it was met with great fanfare from staff and media watchers after years of turmoil and downsizing at the publications. At the time, he said that the sale represented the beginning of a new era and that he intended to do what it took to make the business viable for the next 100 years.

He has since grown dissatisfied with the news organization’s slow expansion of its digital audience and its substantial losses, the people said. He also has increasingly come to believe that the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune—together known as the California Times company—would be better served if they were part of a larger media group, they said.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
Soon-Shiong has been heavily focused on efforts by his immunotherapy company to develop a Covid-19 vaccine and has had little time to devote to the Times, people familiar with the matter said. “Covid really brought him back to the lab,” said one of the people.

The options being considered include an outright sale of the entire company, bringing in an additional investor or transferring management of the properties to another media group, people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Soon-Shiong has also considered selling or transferring management of the San Diego publication to another company, possibly Alden Global Capital Inc.’s MediaNews Group, which owns several papers in the areas between the two cities.

The L-A Times reports the WSJ article unnerved journalists who work at Soon-Shiong’s properties. The mention of Alden Global Capital, which has a reputation for deep cuts at the papers it has acquired, alarmed reporters in San Diego who immediately questioned whether Soon-Shiong was committed to continuing his stewardship of the Union-Tribune because he did not mention the San Diego paper in an initial tweet. (A follow-up tweet did mention the Union-Tribune.)

While profitable, the Union-Tribune has a challenging finance picture due to significant pension liabilities left over from past ownership regimes. Newsroom leaders said they were told Soon-Shiong wasn’t looking to unload the San Diego outlet.

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