What's Next For The LA Times, According To The Newspaper's New Owner And Editor

Biotech billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong paid $500 million to acquire the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spanish-language paper Hoy and some community newspapers from Chicago-based Tronc. (Evan Vucci/AP file photo)

It's been an eventful year for the Los Angeles Times, to put it mildly. The newsroom formed a union. The paper's publisher was pushed out following reports of innapropriate conduct. And the executive editor was replaced within months of taking the helm.

This June, after months of anticipation, biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong closed a $500 million deal with Chicago-based Tronc to acquire the L.A. Times, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spanish-language paper Hoy and some regional community newspapers. Soon-Shiong named veteran journalist Norman Pearlstine executive editor.

Soon-Shiong was born and raised in South Africa to Chinese immigrant parents. He built his fortune by creating two biopharmaceutical companies and later selling them. According to Forbes magazine, his fortune is estimated at $7.6 billion.

Pearlstine comes to the L.A. Times from Time Inc., where he served as chief content officer and earlier as editor in chief. Between those stints, he was the chief content officer at Bloomberg L.P.

Soon-Shiong said he is ready to give the long-running newspaper a fresh look to continue its local and national legacy. Both he and Pearlstine spoke to Larry Mantle on KPCC's AirTalk in a lengthy interview, where they broke down their vision for the Times and the road ahead. You can listen to the full interview here.

Here are several key takeaways (edited for clarity and context).

SO, YOU BOUGHT A NEWSPAPER. NOW WHAT?

Soon-Shiong doesn't have a number for how much he will be investing in the L.A. Times, but he does have ambition and a plan for its future. He wants to preserve the local community aspect of the newspaper and focus on capitalizing on the people who make the L.A. Times.

Patrick Soon-Shiong:

Well, it's going to take a lot of money, and the first thing we did was invest, so I don't really have a number, but what I do have is an ambition and a mission, in a funny way, and in a true way a little bit of a responsibility to give back. I don't see this as a philanthropic exercise. I see this very much as a public trust in a private setting in which we now need to contribute and bring back this legacy.

At the end of the day, it is the human capital, and this is where I am relying on Norman and myself to go out and really try to recruit the best talent we can get. Whatever it takes to have us to do it, I am committed to doing that.

Norman Pearlstine:

It is an exciting time to be in Los Angeles right now. You sit in New York — where I've sat many years — and you look to California, you very much say, "What are they doing to us?" And when you're sitting here, the feeling is really: "What are we doing to them?"

It's not just in areas of commerce. If you think about food, if you think about art, if you think about sports; there's just no more exciting city in the world right now than Los Angeles, and I think we have to capture some of that along with the very rigorous reporting, the very rigorous investigation that is a hallmark of the Los Angeles Times, and something we can certainly build on.

REBUILDING THE L.A. TIMES, INSIDE AND OUT

The Times staff is in the midst of a migration from its iconic home downtown to a new headquarters in El Segundo. For Soon-Shiong, this is an optimistic move to finally rebuild the infrastructure of the L.A. Times into a hub of interconnected activity in Los Angeles. The newly envisioned campus will be an eight-floor building with 120,000 square feet of space. There will also be a museum on the first floor showcasing the paper's 136-year history.

Soon-Shiong:

The first thing I want to do is rebuild infrastructure. The building — while it is a beautiful building we had — the building that we took over (was from DirecTV). We actually now have the most fiber-interconnected building literally in the city, with terabytes per second of speed tied to a campus of 10 acres that we want to make as a hub of activity for the community to participate in.

A FRONT PAGE FACELIFT

Some changes are coming to the front page of the West Coast's largest newspaper, with the aim of bringing back a familiar sense of community and quality long associated with the newspaper — along with optimistic improvements to the digital user experience.

Soon-Shiong:

We need to bring back Column One — it's a story of great interest. We need to show with consistency that our Page One is important news to both the nation and internationally, and within the rest of Section A, the national news and California news.

I see the opportunity to carve out the identity for the L.A. Times, in a way that it already has an identity on paper, on a national scale and on an international scale akin to the New York Times and Washington Post. Norman and I have had long conversations about this — let's just speak first to California.

If you think about California as the fifth largest economy in the world, not the country, you think of California as the innovator, the window to the future. You think of technology, you think of entertainment, you think of sports, you think of food and culture, you think of health and science. That is all unique to California. We can carve that out and own that identity in an informed, breaking news, investigative news way. We can also be the window to the Pacific Rim — to China and Mexico. We should own this discussion on immigration. We should own this discussion on climate change and, frankly, we should own the discussion on sports and entertainment.

DIGITAL DIRECTION

New teams at the L.A. Times are working on revamping the website, cultivating new ways of digital user engagement, including upgraded digital, video and streaming versions of the sports and entertainment sections. Readers will soon be able to engage across different platforms for their favorite content.

Soon-Shiong:

We clearly need to modernize the digital aspect of the L.A. Times. We need to bring in not just apps, but an app store in which you can actually land and maybe press a button and have a doctor on call maybe. Or the ability to see a preview of a movie, or get a deeper understanding of elements of a complex article, or even get access to e-sports. These are long ambitions over the course of the next two or three months with the new teams now being brought on.

Pearlstine:

It has been a difficult time for the industry and for this paper specifically. Patrick and I met several years ago when we were coming up with commerce play for media, and we've had this interest in investing and addressing the issues regarding the website.

ALL THE NEWS IS STILL FIT TO PRINT

Even though a move toward stronger digital platforms is in store, Soon-Shiong believes that many people will still want to read a physical copy and to engage in the Times' long-form journalism.

Soon-Shiong:

(Print) is not only a different experience, I think your brain is wired differently. The next generation and the millennials quite literally have been physiologically rewired because of their short attention span. I think it is physically painful for somebody who has been rewired this way to actually be able to read a long form.

Yet you [Larry Mantle] and I — our generation require length, and the ability to read — what I call the leisurely reading of the long form. We want to give both. We want the opportunity to still make tactile paper. If we are the last men standing printing, we are going to be printing.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's AirTalk.


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