The new owner of the Los Angeles Times has a very L.A. story: Patrick Soon-Shiong was born in another country to immigrant parents, made his way to Los Angeles to become a doctor and entrepreneur, and even married an actress along the way.
The 65-year-old is a living nexus point of many of the toughest issues in America, from immigration to the fight to cure cancer. But one of his missions now, he says, is to defend the free press.
When he first invested in Tronc, the Chicago-based parent company from which the biotech billionaire is buying the Times, he said growing up in South Africa during the apartheid era taught him the importance of journalism.
“I believe it is critical to our democracy and to our way of life that we have a strong, vibrant media and that it continues to function as the fourth estate,” he said.
He will pay $500 million for the paper — twice what Amazon’s Jeff Bezos paid for the Washington Post in 2013 — and he can afford it. Forbes estimates his worth at $7.8 billion, making him America’s richest doctor. He’s also the richest owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.
News industry analyst Ken Doctor, who has been reporting on the LA Times for the journalism-focused Neiman Lab, said on L.A. public radio station SCPR Wednesday that Soon-Shiong has had the Times in his sights for a while.
“He wants his hometown paper, he wanted it to be locally owned, he wanted to take it private,” Doctor said.
He has been an investor in Tronc since 2016, when his deep pockets helped prevent the sale of the company to Gannett.
Since then, the paper has suffered multiple changes in leadership, the staff just voted to unionize, and publisher Ross Levinsohn was suspended during a sexual misconduct investigation. Tronc cleared him of wrongdoing on Wednesday.
Doctor said the turmoil at the Times in recent weeks made Soon-Shiong want to buy the paper all the more, and that Tronc chairman Michael Ferro knew it. The two have clashed before.
Tronc spent $2.7 million on a private plane, sublet from Ferro’s own investment firm Merreck Ventures, while the company was laying off employees and cutting budgets, according to the New York Times. Soon-Shiong was alarmed by Ferro’s spending, the paper said.
“But as has happened in the past, there are certain corporate rules about when you can challenge management,” Doctor said. “That time has passed, Mr. Ferro knew that, and he was able to extract a really high price at this point. And it’s really at top of the market. Dr. Soon-Shiong is paying really twice what most buyers of daily newspapers are paying these days in terms of the earnings of the Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune,” the Times’ sister paper.
Soon-Shiong leads NantWorks, an umbrella organization for several other companies with the goal of bridging “people’s desire for knowledge with their ability to access it,” according to its website. NantWorks operates six California hospitals, including St. Vincent Medical Center and St. Francis Medical Center, and includes NantKwest, which went public in 2015, and NantHealth, which went public in 2016.
A story broke last year that the University of Utah spent most of a donation by Soon-Shiong on genetic testing services from NantHealth — in other words, that Soon-Shiong’s donation went right back into his pocket. He called the report “maliciously false.”
Both NantHealth and NantKwest have been hit with fraud lawsuits from investors after stock plummeted from $14 a share to $3 a share, though Soon-Shiong has denied their claims of fraud.
Among his legal antagonists, curiously enough, is Cher. She sued him in 2017, saying that she was tricked into selling shares at a fraction of their value. Soon-Shiong’s spokersperson said the suit had “no merit” at the time.
Soon-Shiong was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa after his parents fled China during World War II. He earned his medical degree there at the University of Witwatersrand, and was the first Chinese intern at Johannesburg’s General Hospital. His next move was Canada, where he accepted surgical residency at the University of British Columbia, according to the LA Times.
During this time, he met his would-be wife Michele Chan, who was an aspiring actress working at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. After they moved to the United States, Chan was cast in the TV series “MacGyver” and “Danger Bay.” The couple founded the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation in July 2010.
Soon-Shiong continued his medical career as an assistant professor in UCLA’s gastrointestinal surgery division, and later became director of the university’s pancreas transplant program.
In 1991, Soon-Shiong left UCLA and founded his own medical research firm, and during that decade dove into cancer research. He developed a drug called Abraxane, which was approved by the FDA in 2005. While the drug was said to hold promise in cancer therapy, it is essentially a revision of an already common cancer fighter called paclitaxel, according to a medical report published in “The Annals of Oncology” titled “Novel formulations of taxanes: a review. Old wine in a new bottle?”
Soon-Shiong sold the company to Celgene in 2010 for an estimated $2.9 billion. He also sold another company, APP Pharmaceuticals, to German Fresenius for $4.6 billion, the Times said.
Soon-Shiong’s latest venture is Cancer Breakthroughs 2020, which launched in 2016 with the goal to end cancer. Originally called Cancer MoonShot 2020, the initiative changed its name after a lawsuit from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which had already been using the tagline “Cancer Moonshot.”
His latest moonshot is only slightly less ambitious: Calming the tumult at the Los Angeles Times.