Now that biotech billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong’s investment firm Nant Capital has agreed to purchase The San Diego Union-Tribune from its parent company Tronc, what can local readers expect?
For starters, the 65-year-old Los Angeles resident is not new to the newspaper business. Soon-Shiong has been an investor in Tronc since 2016. (He is also buying Tronc-owned Los Angeles Times and Spanish-language Hoy as part of the deal.)
Two years ago, when he made his $70.5 investment in Tronc, Soon-Shiong told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to “save the integrity” of the publication.
“We need newspapers,” he said. “We need this intellectual integrity. We need writers and editors who are passionate about this work.”
Fast-forward to this week’s purchase agreement and a note from Soon-Shiong to U-T and Times employees, reaffirming his commitment to news.
“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,” he said.
Is his commitment real? Soon-Shiong attempted to buy The Times several times and was rebuffed. It’s unclear who made the first move this time around, but The Times reports talks began less than a week ago and “reached a fever pitch over the weekend. That’s when the contours of a deal came together.”
Certainly the doctor-turned-entrepreneur’s media purchase is expanding his vast business holdings. His fortune is estimated by Forbes magazine at $7.8 billion, with much of his pursuits focused on healthcare and engineering — as well as a minority stake in the Los Angeles Lakers (he himself being an avid basketball player).
His impressive medical resume includes various international stints before joining UCLA Medical School in 1983 as an assistant professor in the gastrointestinal surgery division. From there his star continued rising, including the founding of his own medical research firm in 1991, his work with cancer treatments, and his first billion-dollar breakthrough involving the cancer drug Abraxane.
That upward trajectory kept on, but not without controversy. Criticism that Abraxane was just a repackaged and more expensive version of an existing drug dogged him. There was a 2014 whistleblower lawsuit, and over the last year his companies have put up weak stock performances prompting shareholder lawsuits.
How will all of this translate to the U-T, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year? Can Soon-Shiong offer the same attention to San Diego as he will for his hometown Los Angeles?
The U-T currently employs about 260 people, down from nearly 2,000 when the Copley family owned the paper before it was sold in 2009. Much of the downsizing has reportedly come from production and distribution outsourcing, but news and advertising departments have also experienced layoffs.
So there is reason for cautious optimism. In his note to employees of U-T, The Times and other publications, Soon-Shiang said, “I want to assure you — everyone from the press room to the newsroom — that I will work to ensure that you have the tools and resources to produce the high-quality journalism that our readers need and rely upon.”
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