Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, a former surgeon, is ushering the legacy newspaper into a new era. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian
Patrick Soon-Shiong has spent decades trying to cure cancer and made a biotech fortune in the process, making him one of California’s most successful, enigmatic billionaires.
Born in South Africa to Chinese parents, he rose from humble origins and ended up in Los Angeles where he has thrived as a surgeon, scientist and entrepreneur. “The richest doctor in the history of the world,” Forbes magazine declared in 2014.
A bright, restless mind, Soon-Shiong is now seeking to remedy a very different source of malignant metastasis: news.
Fake news, superficial news, clickbait news, shrill, shouty, polarising news, he plans to tackle all these ailments in his latest incarnation as a media mogul.
Soon-Shiong has bought the Los Angeles Times and a handful of other California newspapers for $500m, vaulting him into an exclusive club populated by Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos and a handful of other proprietors.
“I’m a news junkie number one, a complete news junkie,” he told the Guardian in an interview at the LA Times’s new home, a still-under construction 10-acre campus in El Segundo, 20miles south of downtown. “It’s got nothing to do with the business analysis. It’s got to do with an analysis of what’s important for humanity.”
A flamboyant claim from a businessman who trails plaudits as well as controversies. He is widely seen as brilliant and at times bombastic, with promises outstripping reality.
Can we compete with the New York Times and the Washington Post? Not can, we must
The LA Times is a once-great newspaper battered and hollowed by its former corporate master, a Chicago-based company called Tronc. Cutbacks, layoffs and a revolving door of executives left the 136-year-old daily enfeebled and rudderless earlier this year. Journalists voted to unionise for the first time.
Soon-Shiong bought it in April for twice what Bezos paid for the Post. He also got the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spanish-language Hoy and several small community papers, now grouped under a corporate moniker, the California Times.
Soon-Shiong, 65, wants to turn his flagship daily into a multimedia leviathan of independent, innovative journalism in the Trump era – a font of essential reading, viewing and listening to rival the Washington Post and New York Times.
“Can we compete with them? Not can, must, we must compete with them,” he said. Compete in a positive way so that all thrive. “All of us have to be the bastions of democracy in this country. We have to be this fourth estate – institutions that will tell the news.”
The doctor-turned tycoon has an ambitious agenda to redress not only fake news – the “cancer of our time” – but also short-attention spans and hyper-partisan discourse.
“Because of this mobile device you have now an absence of what I call leisurely reading,” he said, tapping his phone. “You have a generation (whose) brains have been wired to look at short pieces with not long attention spans – part of a physiological change in your brain, literally.”
The old LA Times building in downtown Los Angeles. Photograph: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Bite-sized news and information was worsening attention deficit disorders, especially among young people, he said. “This is now an addictive phenomenon that gives you short pieces of paragraphs, Twitter, that then makes it impossible to separate true information, unbiased information, from what is considered fake news.”
Curing such maladies is a lot to ask of any media organisation, let alone a barely profitable newspaper with a newsroom of about 400, down from 1,300 in the late 1990s.
Soon-Shiong, worth an estimated $9bn, has moved fast. He is relocating the LA Times from its historic art-deco tower downtown – where rent was soaring – to a custom-made campus near a coastal tech hub nicknamed Silicon Beach.
High-speed fibre-optic cables, solar power and zinc air batteries will power a state-of-the-art newsroom, e-sports centre and other parts of the campus, he said. “It’s like a new generation here now. We’re at the crux of the city.”
Workmen were still painting and hammering in the main building but several floors were operational when the Guardian visited last week. A version of the LA Times’s masthead adorned the roof, the Gothic-style lettering visible from the 105 freeway and, staff said, from planes landing at adjacent LAX.
After trying in vain to lure Dean Baquet from the New York Times and Martin Baron from the Post, Soon-Shiong hired Norman Pearlstine, a 75-year-old veteran of Bloomberg, Time and the Wall Street Journal, to be the paper’s editor-in-chief.
A solid choice to stabilise the LA Times and chart a new course, Ken Doctor, a media analyst, noted in a NiemanLab article. “With Pearlstine, the Times’ staff and readers should be assured that the Times’ coverage won’t be bent to fit the owner’s own interests or beliefs.”
LA Times journalists celebrated the end of the Tronc era – nightmare, some said – with champagne. And they have given a warm but wary welcome to the new owner.
“Here’s hoping Soon-Shiong comes through on the promise to grow the paper’s staff and reach, because the city and state need more watchdogs, more eyes and ears in places where today there is no witness to the daily dramas that shape our lives,” wrote the columnist Steve Lopez. “We’ll work hard. We’ll hope for the best.”
Soon-Shiong, a trim, dapper figure with an anglicised South African accent, declined to detail future spending and staffing levels or the precise revenue model. He said he envisaged the LA Times not as a philanthropic or business venture but an “institutional public trust in a private setting” akin to Harvard or Stanford.
To endure it must be profitable, he said, citing his Catholic missionary teachers. “I was told by the nuns: ‘no money, no mission’. We need to find ways to actually value the content ... it means people understanding cloud computing, software architecture, gaming, livestreaming, podcasting. I’m looking at a hundred year plan, literally.”
Patrick Soon-Shiong inside the company’s new office. ‘I’m a complete news junkie.’ Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian
He intends to keep printing. As a boy in Port Elizabeth he delivered newspapers and fell in love with printing presses and the tactile, inky experience of reading on paper, which he considers an antidote to shortened attention spans. “Hieroglyphics started, I don’t think it’s going to end. I’m determined that printing, that paper, must continue to exist.”
Print generated lucrative advertising revenue. And it may come back into fashion. “Kids today want to buy vinyl records. So you’ll have hipster kids wanting to see paper soon,” he said, a half-joke. “I don’t think touching paper and reading will actually go away. There will be a need for leisurely reading and the tactile feel.”
There is also urgent need to tackle blinkered partisanship by providing balancing viewpoints on op-ed pages, a novelty for many Fox News and MSNBC devotees, said Soon-Shiong, who calls himself a political independent. He envisages liberal and conservative views expressed with “great civility” in a “dual echo chamber”.
For instance if the immigration debate were framed differently both sides would surely agree on granting asylum to a battered, fearful woman and toddler, and barring a rapist. “It’s fixable without anybody screaming at anybody, right?”
My audience is the reader. I can engage you and you will pay for the value and you will come
That is questionable – many readers and viewers like inhabiting ideologically fixed information bubbles – and arguably naive. But Soon-Shiong did not build a fortune being naive.
He overcame discrimination in apartheid South Africa to become a doctor before moving to Canada in the 1970s and then the US where he became a transplant surgeon and joined UCLA medical school, becoming a professor of microbiology and immunology.
He pioneered a wildly profitable cancer drug, Abraxane, and founded biotechnology and data-crunching computing firms. Supporters hailed him a humanitarian and generous philanthropist. Detractors said his medical innovations were hyped and pointed to multiple lawsuits and business feuds.
Soon-Shiong said a desire to sound the alarm about “calamities” such as climate change and drug-resistant infectious diseases influenced his move into media. “I see myself very much as an engineer-scientist-physician.”
Journalists are like scientists, he said. “Journalists love the idea of discovery, of finding news, understanding it ... they are passionate about what they do.” Despite his aversion to social media he expects his journalists to use Twitter and cultivate audiences. “I want our reporters to be stars.”
Deep investigations will bring engaged readers and with them subscriptions and advertising, he said. “Clickbait and chasing clicks is absolutely not going to be the vision of what we do. I don’t want itinerant 10-second eyeballs.”
He does not read Buzzfeed or Mashable or care for cat videos. “Their audience is the advertisers. My audience is the reader. I can engage you and you will pay for the value and you will come.”
Media’s holy grail. But how, exactly?
The answer was confident, if vague. “I can get there in entertainment, sports, healthcare, bringing value in different ways. Getting into the attention economy is what we’re going to be doing.”
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