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'LA Times' New Owner Plans To Compete With 'New York Times,' 'Washington Post'


All right, in an age when newspapers are struggling to stay afloat even in major cities, how do you make sure yours stands out as a leading voice? Having a billionaire owner helps. First, Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Now Patrick Soon-Shiong has bought the Los Angeles Times. Soon-Shiong is a surgeon, an inventor and also a billionaire many times over. He owns a share of the LA Lakers and now, at the age of 65, he has become a newspaper proprietor, as well.

For his first national interview since taking over the paper, Soon-Shiong sat down with NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: He offers heady ambitions for the Los Angeles Times and its smaller sister publications.

PATRICK SOON-SHIONG: I think through the vehicle of these newspapers we must and will address all these elements that will have a major impact not just on California, not just on the nation but on humanity.

FOLKENFLIK: Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times along with the San Diego Union-Tribune and several community and suburban papers in a $590 million deal from the Chicago-based Tronc newspaper company.

SOON-SHIONG: I may have overpaid, but that was OK because it gave me the opportunity to really focus on Southern California.

FOLKENFLIK: The Los Angeles Times has a remarkable modern history, offering readers tough investigations, coverage of conflict abroad, accountability journalism at its best. In recent years, such achievements often surfaced in spite of its leadership.

SOON-SHIONG: I've not gone into this transaction from a financial basis at all. There's an opportunity to make a major impact on the nation. LA Times is one of the three newspapers that could have a national, international impact.

FOLKENFLIK: Under Tronc, the LA Times was ravaged by crisis. There was a madcap corporate scheme to produce hundreds of videos a day, a rebellion against an editor-in-chief, a publisher moved aside after questions of past misconduct. Soon-Shiong is Tronc's second-largest shareholder.

SOON-SHIONG: I think it's public knowledge - right? - that I had a lot of disagreements - I hate the word Tronc, so I won't even call it Tronc. The legacy of this paper, the story paper and the story's institution really must be and should have been respected.

FOLKENFLIK: The one - constant budget cuts.

SOON-SHIONG: My fear was we needed to move very quickly because there was a danger of even further reduction, including shutting down the Washington bureau, which I thought was untenable.

FOLKENFLIK: Instead, Soon-Shiong tells NPR of fresh investments and says he'll soon name an editor-in-chief. Soon-Shiong says he's taken inspiration from his family's immigrant past.

SOON-SHIONG: I think it's forged exactly who I am and who we are in terms of what we've now done and settled as an immigrant in California.

FOLKENFLIK: Soon-Shiong's parents fled China after the Japanese occupation in World War II and settled in South Africa, where Patrick was born. He says newspapers provided a reality check about the horrors of legalized racial repression there.

SOON-SHIONG: All I knew in terms of the dignity of the black people and how we would fight this issue of apartheid was the press.

FOLKENFLIK: The press there came under brutal pressure. Now he has identified a threat closer to home here in America.

SOON-SHIONG: Fake news is the cancer of our time. Sadly, there's the good side of technology and the dark side of technology. And with social media and the ability to spread information or disinformation, it's so dangerous.

FOLKENFLIK: Soon-Shiong says his journalists should track down the truth fairly and completely.

SOON-SHIONG: I think the power of investigative reporting must be really enabled so that we have truth - both truth to speak to power, but also truth in terms of inspiration and speaking on behalf of the people.

FOLKENFLIK: The new owner promises his paper carte blanche to cover his own extensive business interests. The Soon-Shiong era has dawned at the Los Angeles Times. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.