Los Angeles Times sold to SA-born billionaire surgeon Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong

JOHANNESBURG — Until today, I had not heard about Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. But he’s an example of yet another South African who has been hugely successful in the US. In a week in which Elon Musk dazzled Americans by blasting off the Falcon Heavy rocket into space (and in the same feat launching a Tesla Roadster into orbit), news of Soon-Shiong’s deal to buy the LA Times has also surfaced. Born in Port Elizabeth and a qualified doctor from Wits University, Soon-Shiong made his billions in the medical sector in the US. He is viewed as a trailblazer in the industry amid his visions for how technology can help boost medicine. With his deal to buy the LA Times, he’s dabbling in a different sector altogether. Apart from a rapidly shrinking circulation, the LA Times has experienced turmoil in its newsroom with an internal revolt over a controversial, disliked editor named Lewis D’Vorkin. However, at the end of January D’Vorkin was pushed out of his role at the LA Times and shifted internally within the Chicago-headquartered Tronc media group. Now Soon-Shiong is enabling what he says will be independent ownership of the paper again. In a letter to LA Times staff, Soon-Shiong spoke of the importance of a free press, especially in light of his personal experience of Apartheid in South Africa. Below is a story about Soon-Shiong’s deal to buy the LA Times as well as a letter that Soon-Shiong wrote to LA Times staff. – Gareth van Zyl

By Gerry Smith

(Bloomberg) – Tronc Inc. has agreed to sell the Los Angeles Times to billionaire investor Patrick Soon-Shiong in a $500 million deal, opening a new chapter for the 136-year-old newspaper’s staff after an outright rebellion against the current owner.

The deal includes the sale of the San Diego Union-Tribune and other smaller titles in the California News Group to Nant Capital, Soon-Shiong’s private investment vehicle, Tronc said in a statement Wednesday. Nant Capital will pay $500 million in cash and assume $90 million in pension liabilities.

Patrick Soon-Shiong, founder and chief executive officer of NantHealth, during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The transaction could solve two problems for Tronc, which also owns the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News. A new owner could appease the Times’ editorial workers, who voted last month to unionize and pressured Tronc into replacing editor-in-chief Lewis D’Vorkin. And a deal could end a standoff with Soon-Shiong, who had a public falling-out with Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro.

Shares of Chicago-based Tronc surged as much as 37 percent to $24.74, their highest since July 2014.

The sale puts another major metropolitan paper in the hands of a billionaire who may be willing to stomach the industry’s advertising freefall to support local journalism. Jeff Bezos acquired the Washington Post in 2013, and John Henry agreed to buy the Boston Globe the same year.

The sale of the Times, one of the largest newspapers in Tronc’s portfolio, is a setback in the media company’s plan to develop a national network of multimedia production built on the foundation of some of the country’s most storied media brands.

Soon-Shiong, 65, made his $8.6 billion fortune with the sale of two drug companies and owns part of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Like the rest of the industry, the Times has suffered through dwindling readership and falling advertising revenue. The newspaper was controlled for much of its history by the Chandler family, before being sold in 2000 to Tribune Co., which was taken over by billionaire Sam Zell in 2007. The parent filed for bankruptcy shortly after, then emerged from protection in 2012 and spun off Tribune Publishing in 2014.

Four years later, Ferro gained control of Tribune Publishing and renamed it Tronc — for Tribune Online Content. The Times’ daily circulation has fallen to a fraction of its April 1990 peak of 1.23 million.

Soon-Shiong’s Nant Capital made a $70.5 million investment in Tronc in 2016, a move seen then as an attempt by Ferro to fend off a hostile takeover by Gannett. Soon-Shiong became vice chairman of the board, and his Nant Capital gained a 13 percent stake at the time. Tronc agreed at the time to license technology from Soon-Shiong’s company.

The newspaper company decided last year not to renominate Soon-Shiong to the board amid questions about whether he violated company trading policies by buying Tronc shares near the time of earnings reports. Soon-Shiong had leveled his own accusations against Tronc and its chairman, saying the company rigged its trading rules to let Ferro increase his stake while denying that option to him.

Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and chief executive officer of NantKwest Inc., a cancer-research firm, said in a 2016 interview he wanted to use “machine vision” technology he had developed to transform the experience of reading a print newspaper.

For example, a reader could pan a camera across a physical newspaper and the photos could be turned into video. Focus the camera on a photo of basketball star Kevin Durant or Donald Trump and “you’d hear him speaking or Kevin Durant would be dunking,” he said.

“You’d be bringing to life whatever you see on the newspaper,” Soon-Shiong said at the time. “Every page, every picture, every commercial is merely a TV channel activated by the picture itself through machine vision recognition.”

Patrick Soon-Shiong’s early life and education, according to Wikipedia:

Soon-Shiong was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa to Chinese immigrant parents who fled from China during the Japanese occupation in World War II.[6][7] His parents were originally from Toisan in Guangdong, China,[7] among the Hakka people and language group.[6]

Soon-Shiong graduated 4th out of his class of 189 from the University of Witwatersrand, receiving a bachelor’s degree in medicine (MBBCh) at age 23.[8] He completed his medical internship at Johannesburg’s General Hospital.[when?][citation needed] He then studied at the University of British Columbia, where he earned a master’s degree, with research awards from the American College of Surgeons, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, and the American Association of Academic Surgery.[9]

He moved to the US and began surgical training at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and became a board-certified surgeon.[citation needed] Soon-Shiong is a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (Canada) and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.[9][3]

Soon-Shiong joined UCLA Medical School in 1983 and served on that faculty until 1991,[10][3][self-published source?] as a transplant surgeon.[6] Between 1984 and 1987, he served as an associate investigator at the Center for Ulcer Research and Education.[3][self-published source?] Soon-Shiong performed the first whole-pancreas transplant done at UCLA,[when?][11][12] and he developed and first performed the experimental Type 1 diabetes-treatment known as encapsulated-human-islet transplant,[when?]and the “first pig-to-man islet-cell transplant in diabetic patients.”[when?][11][better source needed] After a period in industry, he returned to UCLA in 2009,[citation needed]serving as a professor of microbiology, immunology, molecular genetics and bioengineering until this date.[when?][citation needed] Soon-Shiong served as a visiting professor at Imperial College, London in 2011.[13]

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