A billionaire born to Chinese immigrant parents in South Africa has bought one of America’s most famous newspapers.
Patrick Soon-Shiong revealed he was inspired to purchase the Los Angeles Times by his childhood in Port Elizabeth under the country’s apartheid regime.
Dr Soon-Shiong, who studied medicine at Witwatersrand University before becoming the first Chinese student to be admitted to Johannesburg’s General Hospital, reportedly paid $500m (£357m) for the newspaper.
The physician, who emigrated to Canada in the 1970s before heading to the US, promised staff to “ensure that you have the tools and resources to produce the high-quality journalism that our readers need and rely upon”.
For more than a century, one family owned the Los Angeles Times and used the newspaper to build great wealth and exert political influence over how the city would take shape.
But over the years, the Chandler family — descendants of hard-charging Civil War veteran Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, who bought the paper in 1884 — became increasingly fractured and disenchanted with the newspaper business. In 2000, they sold Times Mirror Co. to Chicago-based Tribune Co., thrusting it into a protracted, 18-year battle with its out-of-town owners.
On Wednesday, The Times’ corporate parent, Tronc, announced that it had reached a deal to sell The Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, Spanish-language Hoy Los Angeles and community newspapers to L.A. biotech billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. His investment firm, Nant Capital, agreed to pay $500 million for the Southern California papers and it will assume $90 million in pension liabilities.
The sale will bring a return to local ownership and possibly some stability for a 136-year-old institution that, in recent years, has lagged behind its better-resourced rivals on the East Coast. It caps a particularly stormy period for the newspaper, which has seen three editors in six months, its publisher placed on unpaid leave amid a sexual harassment investigation and a historic vote to unionize the newsroom.
“It is often said that Southern California is the place where the world comes to see its future. It has welcomed generations of immigrants who worked hard, started new businesses and helped others do the same,” Soon-Shiong said in a note to The Times and other publications. “My own family immigrated from southern China to South Africa generations ago. We chose to settle in Los Angeles because this is the place that most felt like home.
“Ultimately, this decision is deeply personal for me. As someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, I understand the role that journalism needs to play in a free society,” Soon-Shiong said.
In Los Angeles, news of the change of ownership was greeted with guarded optimism.
Who is Patrick Soon-Shiong? An L.A. billionaire with big ideas — and mixed achievements
Soon-Shiong, 65, was not the first Los Angeles billionaire to express interest in buying The Times. Twelve years ago, music mogul David Geffen offered Tribune $2 billion for The Times, but the Chicago-based company refused to let go. Philanthropist Eli Broad occasionally voiced a desire to buy The Times, but in the end, it was Soon-Shiong who came up with the cash.
Soon-Shiong took a different tack than the other suitors by investing in Tronc in spring 2016, which positioned him as the company’s second-largest shareholder. Soon-Shiong attempted to buy The Times several times, but he was consistently rebuffed. But, despite friction with Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro, Soon-Shiong waited for his opportunity.
“Game, set, match — Patrick played it beautifully,” Los Angeles investment banker Lloyd Greif said. “And it happened faster than I’m sure he imagined it would. He got it done in less than two years.”
The sale to Soon-Shiong came together quickly, over the last few days, and startled many observers.
He came up with a number — $500 million — and decided that if he could fetch that price for The Times and the Union-Tribune, then it was the right time to sell.
The purchase agreement filed Wednesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicates Soon-Shiong is purchasing the papers for cash and that the transaction does not involve his holdings of Tronc stock. That suggests Soon-Shiong will retain his ownership stake in Tronc and would have an interest in both Tronc and The Times.