Los Angeles Times sold to local billionaire for $500 million

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong has become the first local owner of the Times in 18 years, but is buying the paper in a time of turmoil. (AP)
Updated 07 February 2018
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Los Angeles Times sold to local billionaire for $500 million

LOS ANGELES: A billionaire doctor struck a $500 million deal Wednesday to buy the Los Angeles Times, ending the paper’s quarrelsome relationship with its Chicago-based corporate overseers and bringing it under local ownership for the first time in 18 years.
The agreement between Los Angeles-based medical entrepreneur Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and Tronc Inc. marks the latest instance of a rich, civic-minded individual buying a newspaper from a big corporation.
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 deal includes The San Diego Union-Tribune, various titles in the California News Group and the assumption of $90 million in pension liabilities.
Soon-Shiong takes over in a time of turmoil at the paper. The Times just replaced its top editor, the third switch at the position in the newsroom in six months. Publisher Ross Levinsohn had been on unpaid leave after revelations that he was a defendant in two sexual harassment lawsuits elsewhere. Tronc announced Wednesday that Levinsohn has been cleared of any wrongdoing and would be reinstated as CEO of its newly reorganized Tribune Interactive division.
Journalists voted last month to unionize for the first time in the paper’s 136-year history.
Clashes between the Los Angeles Times and Tribune Co., which changed its name to Tronc Inc., erupted not long after it acquired the West Coast paper in 2000. Staff at the Times bristled over what it considered a string of bad decisions made from hundreds of miles away in Chicago. Tronc owns the Chicago Tribune.
The editor of the Los Angeles Times, John Carroll, who led the paper to 13 Pulitzer Prizes, resigned under heavy pressure to cut staff. Before he left, he asked an old friend and billionaire philanthropist if he would consider buying the paper.
Publisher John Puerner stepped down at the Times, as did his successor, Jeffrey Johnson, shortly after.
Dean Baquet, who took over for Carroll, left after 15 months. He is now the executive editor at The New York Times.
The sale of the Los Angeles Times is 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. 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.”
Soon-Shiong also holds a minority interest in the Los Angeles Lakers, acquired 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 acknowledged that as a major stockholder, he was unhappy with the way the Los Angeles Times 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.”
After The Washington Post first reported a potential sale Tuesday, cheers spread through the Times newsroom.
Tronc said the deal will allow it to follow a more aggressive growth strategy focused on news and digital media. Acquisitions will continue to be a big part of its plan, Tronc said Wednesday, and the company announced that it’s buying a majority stake in online product review company BestReviews for an undisclosed amount.
The sale comes 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. D’Vorkin will stay on with Tronc as Chief Content Officer of Tribune Interactive, the company said Wednesday.
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.
A return to local ownership 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.


Google employees demand more oversight of China search engine plan

A Google sign is seen during the China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference (ChinaJoy) in Shanghai, China August 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 17 August 2018
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Google employees demand more oversight of China search engine plan

  • Hundreds of employees have called on the company to provide more “transparency, oversight and accountability
  • Employees have asked Google to create an ethics review group with rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to provide independent review and internally publish assessments of projects

SAN FRANCISCO: Google is not close to launching a search engine app in China, its chief executive said at a companywide meeting on Thursday, according to a transcript seen by Reuters, as employees of the Alphabet Inc. unit called for more transparency and oversight of the project.
Chief Executive Sundar Pichai told staff that though development is in an early stage, providing more services in the world’s most populous country fits with Google’s global mission.
Hoping to gain approval from the Chinese government to provide a mobile search service, the company plans to block some websites and search terms, Reuters reported this month, citing unnamed sources.
Whether the company could or would launch search in China “is all very unclear,” Pichai said, according to the transcript. “The team has been in an exploration stage for quite a while now, and I think they are exploring many options.”
Disclosure of the secretive effort has disturbed some Google employees and human rights advocacy organizations. They are concerned that by agreeing to censorship demands, Google would validate China’s prohibitions on free expression and violate the “don’t be evil” clause in the company’s code of conduct.
Hundreds of employees have called on the company to provide more “transparency, oversight and accountability,” according to an internal petition seen by Reuters on Thursday.
After a separate petition this year, Google announced it would not renew a project to help the US military develop artificial intelligence technology for drones.
The China petition says employees are concerned the project, code named Dragonfly, “makes clear” that ethics principles Google issued during the drone debate “are not enough.”
“We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building,” states the document seen by Reuters.
The New York Times first reported the petition on Thursday. Google declined to comment.
Company executives have not commented publicly on Dragonfly, and their remarks at the company-wide meeting marked their first about the project since details about it were leaked.
Employees have asked Google to create an ethics review group with rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to provide independent review and internally publish assessments of projects that raise substantial ethical questions.
Pichai told employees: “We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record here” on Dragonfly, according to the transcript. He noted the company guards information on some projects where sharing too early can “cause issues.”
Three former employees involved with Google’s past efforts in China told Reuters current leadership may see offering limited search results in China as better than providing no information at all.
The same rationale led Google to enter China in 2006. It left in 2010 over an escalating dispute with regulators that was capped by what security researchers identified as state-sponsored cyberattacks against Google and other large US firms.
The former employees said they doubt the Chinese government will welcome back Google. A Chinese official, who declined to be named, told Reuters this month that it is “very unlikely” Dragonfly would be available this year.