The media today: Turmoil continues at LA Times, as Tronc sells to LA billionaire

Staffers at the Los Angeles Times have been through the wringer over the past few weeks, as the paper has been hit by an unprecedented amount of turmoil at the top, including the departure of its publisher and a revolving door in the editor-in-chief’s office. Now the venerable daily is about to have a new owner: The paper’s parent company—Chicago-based Tronc Inc., which owns a number of other prominent dailies including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the New York Daily News—has agreed to sell the Times and its sister paper The San Diego Union-Tribune to Los Angeles-based billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million plus the assumption of $90 million in liabilities.

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The deal could bring an end to a long-running legal drama that has been taking place at the corporate level at Tronc over the past few months. Soon-Shiong is a former surgeon and investor who made his fortune developing a popular cancer drug, and is already a major shareholder in Tronc, formerly known as Tribune Co. Tronc CEO Michael Ferro brought him into the company as an investor in 2016, as a way of blocking a takeover attempt by the Gannett newspaper chain, which had made an $800-million acquisition offer. The billionaire physician bought about 13 percent of the company and became chairman, and after a number of attempts to sweeten its bid, Gannett walked away from the deal.

The relationship between Soon-Shiong and Tronc’s CEO subsequently deteriorated, with the LA-based investor accusing Ferro of spending lavishly and failing to follow through on the terms they had agreed to when he invested, including a promise to license some technology developed by Soon-Shiong’s company. The billionaire also at one point tried to get Ferro to sell him the LA Times, according to some reports, but Tronc’s CEO refused. The Post report suggests they have managed to come to a deal, but whether Soon-Shiong’s acquisition of the Times is enough to justify the “smiles and laughter” that some staffers reported after the news broke remains to be seen. Soon-Shiong, who had no history of investment in media or journalism before he bought into Tronc, has been critical of journalists in the past for what he called “false reporting” about his company.

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Here are some more links if you want to catch up on the saga at both the Times and Tronc:

  • The chaos factory: Veteran media analyst Ken Doctor summed up some of the upheaval at the Times just after editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin was moved out of that job and into a position as chief content officer for the paper’s parent company.
  • The Prince of Darkness: A CJR feature on D’Vorkin published just before his sudden departure as editor-in-chief has former colleagues—including some who said they actually liked the former Forbes editor—describing him as having no journalistic ethics, and of being more interested in clicks than journalism.
  • Portrait of a billionaire: A Fortune magazine profile in 2013 called Patrick Soon-Shiong the richest man in Los Angeles, and described how the South African–born doctor bought a struggling generic pharmaceutical company, patented a cancer drug, and turned the venture into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Along the way he acquired a stake in the Los Angeles Lakers and was sued by his brother.
  • Seeing the future? Soon-Shiong talked in 2016 about his vision for the future of newspapers, which involved using machine-vision technology he developed to add augmented-reality features to print. For example, he said, a reader could use their smartphone camera to scan a picture of basketball star Kevin Durant or Donald Trump, and then “you’d hear him speaking or Kevin Durant would be dunking.”
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Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s Ed Yong writes about how he spent two years trying to fix a gender imbalance in the sources he quoted for his stories, inspired by a piece his colleague Adrienne LaFrance wrote after analyzing her own stories. “I knew that I care about equality, so I deluded myself into thinking that I wasn’t part of the problem,” Yong writes. “I assumed that my passive concern would be enough [but] passive concern never is.” (A hat tip to my CJR colleague Karen Ho for this one).
  • Veteran NPR investigative reporter Daniel Zwerdling has left the company as a result of accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. At least two NPR staffers reported Zwerdling to human resources, and half a dozen told they had been subject to unwanted advances and other behavior. Zwerdling has said the allegations are untrue and that he chose to retire.
  • The Inter-American Press Association routinely visits countries where journalism is said to be under attack, and for the first time this year the organization is sending an IAPA delegation to the United States, where journalists from Venezuela, Argentina, Peru and Mexico will meet with legislators and media representatives about the undermining of press freedom in the country.
  • In interviews about the magazine’s newly-launched paywall, Wired Editor Nicholas Thompson said he believes charging readers for a subscription helps media companies  produce better journalism, but Mollie Bryant disagrees. The former investigative reporter for Oklahoma Watch and the Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi writes that having paywalls “didn’t stop the papers I worked for from favoring quick hits” or from “whittling down beats that didn’t lead to enough pageviews.”
  • CJR writer Alexandria Neason has a wonderful story about a man who lives in a small town in upstate New York and has spent the past several years digitizing the archives of thousands of small-town newspapers, to the point where he now has almost 50 million pages stored—more than a joint newspaper-digitization effort by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment of the Arts.

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Correction: The sale of the Los Angeles Times was confirmed after this newsletter was originally published, so the web version has been edited to reflect that. Also, the word “ringer” has been changed to “wringer.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.