The Los Angeles Times is being sold to a local billionaire for $500 million, ending its strained tenure under the owner of the Chicago Tribune.
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a major shareholder of Chicago’s Tronc Inc., one of the richest men in Los Angeles and, according to Forbes, the nation’s wealthiest doctor, with a net worth of $7.8 billion.
The announcement Wednesday means that for the first time in 18 years the Times will be under local ownership. Soon-Shiong takes over in a time of turmoil at the paper.
The paper just replaced its top editor, the third switch at the top job in the newsroom in six months. Publisher Ross Levinsohn is on unpaid leave after revelations that he was a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits elsewhere.
Soon-Shiong made the bulk of his fortune selling two of the drug companies that he founded for a total of nearly $9 billion a decade ago.
He owns more than a quarter of shares in Chicago-based Tronc, the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing. It owns 10 U.S. newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and New York Daily News.
The move would be in keeping with one of two trends in media ownership: big companies getting bigger and wealthy investors taking on newspapers as philanthropic endeavors, said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute.
In 2013, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought the Boston Globe for $70 million.
“We find ourselves returning to where we were a century ago when a handful of wealthy owners controlled big influential newspapers,” Tompkins said. “Here’s the difference: The ownership today does not promise lucrative returns. You take it over knowing it isn’t nearly as profitable as it might have been 20 or 50 years ago. Today it’s a thinner margin and it gets thinner every day.”
Sale negotiations were first reported Tuesday by the Times and The Washington Post.
Word of the possible sale was met with cheers in the Times newsroom, according to tweets from reporters.
Soon-Shiong’s holdings include not only his Tronc stock but also a minority interest in the Los Angeles Lakers that he purchased in 2011 from Magic Johnson, the team’s former superstar and current president of basketball operations.
In an interview with the Times last year, Soon-Shiong declined to say if he planned to buy the newspaper, although he acknowledged that as a major stockholder he was unhappy with the way it was being run and felt a need to ensure its survival.
“I am concerned there are other agendas, independent of the newspaper’s needs or the fiduciary obligations to the viability of the organization,” he said at the time. “My goal is to try and preserve the integrity and the viability of the newspaper.”
If approved, the sale would come about a week after veteran Chicago journalist Jim Kirk was named editor in chief to replace Lewis D’Vorkin, whose short tenure was marked by clashes with staff.
Kirk, 52, had briefly served in the job during a management overhaul from August until November, when D’Vorkin joined the paper.
Reporters at the Times were alarmed by recent hiring of several news executives who reported to business executives and not to news editors. That sparked fears the business side would wield undue influence in editorial matters. Traditionally, the editorial and business sides of a paper work separately to maintain journalistic credibility.
Local ownership for the first time in 18 years would restore pride at the Times, said veteran media business analyst Ken Doctor.
The question is whether a new owner will do more than halt cutbacks by reinvesting, as Bezos and Henry did at their newspapers, to set the Times on a new path.
“Given the huge challenges still faced by news publishing in the age of Google/Facebook ad duopoly and still-onrushing digital disruption, even a billionaire has his work cut out for him,” Doctor said.
John Rogers contributed to this report.