Story updated after publication.
One of Los Angeles' richest billionaire investors, the former UCLA medical researcher Patrick Soon-Shiong, is near a deal to acquire the Los Angeles Times from Tronc, the Washington Post reported Tuesday afternoon. The LA Times followed up with a story confirming the talks are close but cautions they are not yet complete. In a later update, the LAT says the talks "accelerated over the weekend" after bad press about Tronc's handling of the Times and that story in the New York Times about how LA's billionaires weren't stepping up to save local journalism.
If the sale goes through, Soon-Shiong would become the first Los Angeles-based owner of the Times since the Chandler family sold the Times-Mirror company to Chicago's Tribune Company in 2000. It would end the bizarre run of Tronc and Chicago investor Michael Ferro as California media owners. The San Diego Union-Tribune would also be part of the deal, which the LAT story says could be worth close to $500 million.
But Soon-Shiong has less media chops in his past than even Tronc's people. He is another wild card whose plans for the Times (and Union-Tribune) are completely unknown.
Soon-Shiong has talked about owning the Times before and became a large minority investor in Tronc, only to be squeezed aside by Ferro. He was told last year that the Times was not for sale. How Soon-Shiong would actually operate a newspaper is mostly unknown. He bristles at coverage of his own companies and controversies, but he appears to see the value in hometown ownership of the Times. His daughter Nika was a reporting intern at the paper for two summers a few years ago.
Soon-Shiong, 65, was born in South Africa to parents who fled China during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Forbes pegs his net worth at $7.8 billion, putting him at number 55 on the Forbes 400. He sold the drug companies Abraxis and American Pharmaceutical Partners for a combined $9.1 billion and currently owns NantWorks, a network of health startups. His biotech startup, NantHealth, went public in 2016, Forbes says — his cancer drug maker, NantKwest, listed in 2015. He also owns a stake in the Los Angeles Lakers. Here's a 2014 cover story by Forbes.
Depending on the year, he is sometimes listed as the richest man in Los Angeles or somewhere in the very top tier. He has complained in the past about media coverage of his companies and their practice of paying his foundation "for the Los Angeles area property where his companies are housed," the health site StatNews says.
Stat last year also said that its investigation found that Soon-Shiong’s plan to eradicate cancer under his Cancer MoonShot 2020 project has made “very little scientific progress.” Per Axios, "the publication said it appears to be a marketing ploy for the doctor to promote his expensive new cancer diagnostic tool."
Stat and others wrote in 2016 and 2017 about Soon-Shiong's attempts to get close to Donald Trump and become a health advisor to the Administration. How Washington’s favorite cancer fighter helps himself, in Politico, reported that Soon-Shiong "believes the United States is fighting a flawed war on cancer, 'stuck in dogma.' His bracing critique caught the attention of Joe Biden and, more recently, Donald Trump, who met privately with Soon-Shiong twice during the transition, as he reportedly angled for a role in the administration."
Read How the world’s richest doctor gave away millions — then steered the cash back to his company, by Stat last March.
From Politico's story today on the potential sale of the LA Times:
Soon-Shiong, who was born in South Africa to parents of Chinese descent, is best known for his high-profile crusade to fight cancer by matching genetic drugs to particular tumors through a high-powered database. But he has recently expanded his assets to include management over seven hospitals, two public companies, and a stake of the Los Angeles Lakers, among other holdings.
Soon-Shiong has also been moving in political circles, having worked on a blue-ribbon panel for former Vice President Joe Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot.” After the election of President Donald Trump, Soon-Shiong was reportedly considered for multiple administration roles, including the head of the National Institutes of Health. He did not receive a job in the administration, but House Speaker Paul Ryan recently appointed him to an advisory panel on health-information technology.
While Soon-Shiong owes his fortune to a successful cancer drug, Abraxane, and a pair of pharmaceutical companies, he has scientific and economic interests in many areas. After his upbringing in South Africa, he moved to British Columbia and then Los Angeles to pursue a career as a surgeon. In Los Angeles, he developed an interest in curing type 1 diabetics with transplanted pancreases. After a transplant with one diabetic patient raised hopes of a cure, laudatory media attention followed – which some, including the president of the American Diabetes Association at the time, felt overstepped the facts.
While a company built around diabetes research failed – and brought with it lawsuits from investors and family – Soon-Shiong was able to create a pair of successful drug companies. From there, he developed an interest in using genomics and information technology to combat cancer.
More recently, Soon-Shiong has faced accusations of conflicts of interest. Reporting by POLITICO and STAT News questioned whether Soon-Shiong used his not-for-profit foundations’ resources to benefit his for-profit businesses. In one case, Soon-Shiong’s not-for-profits donated money to the University of Utah, which in turn purchased his company’s products. The deal led to Utah’s legislative auditor general concluding that the school violated state procurement laws.
The performer Cher has also sued Soon-Shiong, alleging that he and others duped her into selling shares in a promising drug company at a fraction of the stock's value. Here's the LAT story from last October.
The Times itself said in a 2017 story that Soon-Shiong "is a medical entrepreneur, anti-cancer crusader, scientist, inventor, philanthropist, visionary, negotiator and a basketball nut."
With his fortune and cutting-edge cancer research, Soon-Shiong enjoys a global status at the same time he's increasingly weaved himself into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles, where he's one of its wealthiest residents.
Soon-Shiong has met with President Trump and Pope Francis, and he’s also friends with Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and a familiar courtside presence at Staples Center after buying a minority stake in the team....
But Soon-Shiong, 64, lately has been battling turbulence surrounding his business interests, which is nothing new for the South Africa native. He's faced skeptics and short-sellers – traders who bet on stock prices to drop – with his past companies, yet ended up making huge sums for himself and shareholders who stuck with him when the companies were sold.
This time around, two cancer-fighting start-up firms that he took public in the last two years have rolled up major losses and each of their stocks has tumbled more than 70% from their highs.
The companies also are the target of shareholder lawsuits that allege management misled investors by artificially inflating results, claims Soon-Shiong and the companies flatly deny.
There also have been published reports that contended Soon-Shiong's research foundations made grants that ended up benefiting his for-profit businesses or entities that have business deals with his firms. Soon-Shiong vehemently denies those claims as well and said the reports were "maliciously false."
In 2013, he talked to Gabe Kahn of Los Angeles Magazine about his charitable giving and the role of wealthy leaders in the community. He pledged $100 million to reopen Dr. Martin Luther King Hospital in South LA, among other gifts. "We never give and walk away. We choose organizations to give to that we feel we can contribute to both financially and intellectually," he said then. Soon-Shiong also praised Los Angeles: "I don’t think the entrepreneurial capacity and risk taking—the ability for people to really execute their dreams—exists anywhere else in the world, whether it’s China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, or Europe. That’s the beauty of this country. I think of L.A. as truly the melting pot. It’s basically a mini country unto itself."
In 2006, by the way, David Geffen reportedly made a $2 billion cash offer for the LA Times and was rejected by Tribune.
And, chiming in here, Patrick Soon-Shiong's past FEC contributions pic.twitter.com/zMipfMDhaN— Rob Pyers (@rpyers) February 6, 2018
Of Soon-Shiong's role as a newspaper owner, CNN's Dylan Byers quotes an unnamed source saying Times "he's not Ferro, he's also not Jeff Bezos." Remember, he joined Tronc's board as an evangelist for some kind of news-reading technology that didn't make a lot of sense at the time. Also this:
No surprise then that on social media Times staffers are sounding cautious. Hopeful but wary.
Lots of smiles and laughter in the LA Times newsroom for the first time in a very long time. https://t.co/W9LNQrV3JD— Mitchell Landsberg (@LATlands) February 6, 2018
L.A. Times: NO YOU HOLD OURS https://t.co/rehtXn2bKC— Jessica Roy 🦅 (@jessica_roy) February 6, 2018
To recap LA Times life over the past 2 1/2 weeks:— Colleen Shalby (@CShalby) February 6, 2018
-Newsroom elected to unionize
-Publisher placed under investigation
-Former interim editor becomes the new editor-in-chief, 5 months after old EIC was ousted
-Tronc in talks of selling paper to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong
In which I prepare for Publisher #5 in my not-even-four-year tenure at the L.A. Times. https://t.co/C5wz4Y28Sh— Carolina A. Miranda (@cmonstah) February 6, 2018
Imagine a newspaper that tells the story of LA -- a city 40% immigrant and just 30% white -- being owned by guy who was born in South Africa to Chinese parents, and who came to California to make it rich.— Kate Linthicum (@katelinthicum) February 6, 2018
All I ask is that I don't have to learn another content management system. https://t.co/15VXl6PR6x— Dan Beucke (@DanBeucke) February 6, 2018