Nervous members of the newsroom staff of the Los Angeles Times have been trying to get a meeting — or at least have a conversation — with Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong ever since he was announced last month as the buyer of the Times. They want to know what his intentions are for the paper, and also to bend his ear about crucial issues like where to invest in more journalists, leadership of the paper and relations with the new newsroom union.
A sizable number on the staff in particular want to make sure that Soon-Shiong understands that the former editor-publisher, Davan Maharaj, would be an unwelcome presence for many in the newsroom. Soon-Shiong is reportedly being cordial but non-committal about anything when contacted via email, and at least one staffer is believed to have sent him a letter laying out why the return of Maharaj would be unpopular. He was fired by Tronc after an internal investigation into dissatisfaction brought to higher-ups by a number of staffers.
I'm guessing all of these jitters help explain why a new letter from Soon-Shiong was distributed in the Times newsroom Thursday evening. In it, Soon-Shiong explains that he's not allowed to talk with the staff until the deal closes. As he said in his first communication last month, Soon-Shiong says he's a fan who is looking forward to owning the LA Times.
To the staff of The Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union Tribune and The California News Group:
Since the announcement of our acquisition, I have received countless calls to meet with many of you. I welcome the opportunity, but legal guidelines prevent me from visiting with you until the close of the sale. I am eager to hear your thoughts about how we will grow this treasured news organization together.
We have now completed the required filing with the Federal Trade Commission and are hopeful to have the purchase completed by April, at which time I will meet with each of you. Until then, I thought it would be helpful if I shared with you some thoughts as to our aspirations for the future of our papers in California and how important I believe your work is to society.
Many of you have asked why we bought the California News Group. First, let me provide some background about my lifetime love of news and the printed paper. I grew up a son of a working-class shopkeeper in Port Elizabeth, a city in South Africa. When I was 14 years old, I began earning money to fund my college education. My job was to distribute the Evening Post in Port Elizabeth. I still recall sitting by the printing presses waiting for the first bundles of papers to roll off the conveyer belt. I would grab them, about 800 papers a day in bundles of 100, then dash off with my cadre of “runners” to timely deliver the Post to local businesses and to doorsteps of homes, six days a week. To this day, I hear the “clackity-clack” sounds of those metal printing presses. I still smell the oils of the machines and see the ink smeared on the pressmen’s uniforms. I vividly recall the excitement of being among the first to read the headline of the day, hot off the presses.
So there you have it. Newspapers are in my blood. Sadly, in the year 2000 the Evening Post closed its doors and fell victim to the transformation besieging the industry.
Together, we will not allow that to happen to the LA Times and the San Diego Union Tribune. As I shared with you in my first letter, my family and I fervently believe that the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, Hoy and other titles in the California News Group must continue to serve as the beacon of truth, hope and inspiration binding our communities.
We purchased the California News Group because we wanted to preserve the integrity, honesty and fairness we’ve observed in our decades as avid readers of the LA Times. The titles in the California News Group will be the voice and inspiration not just for California but also for the nation.
Our newsrooms are the lifeblood of our institution. The last few years have been difficult, as we have watched many talented journalists and staff walk out the door. The success and growth of the California News Group depends on a strong editorial team that can continue to the tell important stories for our community. I am committed to support and grow our organization.
I am confident that we can meet the challenges of what has been coined the fourth industrial revolution, where digital technology has disrupted the world of print. As digital technology continues to shape the future of publishing, our newsroom has shown that we can adapt and achieve great results. Dirty John, developed by LA Times Studio, is but one example of this new kind of journalism, a blockbuster non-fiction story in print, digital, podcasting and soon to be made into a television series. I am extremely proud of this innovative work by our journalists who have embraced this new world of publishing and look forward to expanding this evolution at the LA Times Studio.
I cannot express enough how humbled we are to assume the stewardship of the LA Times, the San Diego Union Tribune and the California News Group.
We anticipate closure of the transaction by April. Thus, I appreciate your patience, your optimism and your partnership. We look forward to meeting you soon.
With respect and gratitude,
Patrick Soon-Shiong, M.D.
The latest twist at the paper is that the last remaining obituary editor at the Times, Steve Marble, emailed editors on Wednesday saying that "I’ll be shifting back for the foreign/nation desk next week." That will put more onus on the editors in other sections, such as Metro, National and Sports, to produce obituaries on key news subjects in their areas.
The problems with that, as the Times recognized a generation ago when it first created a desk dedicated to specialists in obits, then expanded it greatly before cutting it way back in the last couple of years, are many. Editors and reporters deeply immersed in covering today's news are not the best at appreciating yesterday's newsmakers. The priorities of the news desks is news, not obits, so in the competition for time, space and resources obits tend to lose out — even though readers value obits, especially of local figures who won't get as much attention nationally.
Also, not everyone deserving of a news obit in the hometown paper falls neatly into the Times organizational structure, so it's easy to miss worthy subjects. You only have to look at today for examples.
I posted a tweet about the passing of Joseph Scott III, a third-generation Angeleno whose famous lawyer grandfather (I believe) has a statue in the Civic Center. Joe Scott, who died last month at age 87, was well known in California political circles as the creator of the Political Animal and California Eye newsletters and the Body Politic column in the late Herald Examiner. He also columnized for a time at the Times itself, blogged on LA politics, and was the director of communications for two Los Angeles County District Attorneys in the 2000s. I happened to see his name in the paid, non-news obits in the Times. He would probably have merited at least a small news obit in the Times in the past, but I'm not sure which desk editors would realize it.
An easier call to me would be Eugene Loh, 97, a retired aerospace engineer, but known to many as the Malibu-living father of author and playwright Sandra Tsing Loh. The elder Loh was an LA character and beloved through the stories that Tsing Loh told about him on "This American Life," in her books and magazine writings, and in a video for KCET. I have no idea which news desk at the Times would have responsibility for knowing about a life such as Eugene Loh's then ordering up an obit. My tweet about Loh is getting attention all over town, and from other writers such as Cheryl Strayed, Samantha Dunn, Patt Morrison and Hank Stuever. Times assistant managing editor Shelby Grad also retweeted my post, so I suspect there will be some kind of acknowledgement of Loh's passing in the Times eventually.