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Tensions rise between the LA Times and its billionaire owner

This past May, a young reporter for the Los Angeles Times working a weekend shift filed a 190-word story about people suspected of stealing expensive watches before fleeing in a black Rolls-Royce.

The item by Jeong Park enraged activists. They were upset not by the crime, but by how the Times framed the incident in West Hollywood. Online, advocates pushing to slash police budgets derided it as a “press release” for law enforcement.

But it was one activist who joined the pile-on that turned heads across the newsroom.

Nika Soon-Shiong, the 29-year-old daughter of Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, posted a critical tweet atop a screenshot of the article bearing Park’s name. In her post, which has since been deleted, the younger Soon-Shiong suggested the Times was helping to “protect the Rolls-Royce and luxury watches” while turning a blind eye to the sheriff’s department “overcharging, manipulating crime stats, or lying about the cost per deputy…”

The tweet quickly circulated among newspaper staffers, who were taken aback that the ownership family would publicly call out a junior reporter.

The situation produced whiplash the next day when Nika Soon-Shiong’s parents appeared at a newsroom-wide meeting to celebrate the Times winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography. There, staffers recalled how Patrick Soon-Shiong lauded the winning photographer along with the entire staff.

For journalists at the newspaper, the moment was a vivid display of the awkward and at times tense relationship that has developed between the newsroom and the ownership family.

In conversations with POLITICO, more than three dozen current and former staffers said that the paper experienced growing pains relating to its novice billionaire owner. Soon-Shiong, the wealthy pharmaceutical executive, has tried to bring an era of revitalization and reinvestment to the Times. But his stewardship has also witnessed internal discord and concerns over priorities.

Those staff, many of whom were granted anonymity to assess the masthead candidly, said Soon-Shiong’s attention can be ephemeral. They note that leadership issues have extended to the D.C. bureau, resulting in a staff exodus and tense clashes between the bureau chief and a star reporter. And there are accusations that ownership, including Nika Soon-Shiong, is meddling in news coverage.

“Every media company has its challenges,” said Kevin Merida, the paper’s executive editor. “We’re building a brave modern media company at the L.A. Times. Actively experimental, restructuring ourselves organizationally, amping up our journalistic and storytelling ambition—not shrinking it. … I am extremely confident about our future, our leadership and the extraordinary collection of journalists I get to ride with.”

The Times is one of the country’s most historic and formidable journalism institutions, with digital subscriptions growing by more than 360 percent since the Soon-Shiongs purchased it in 2018, according to a representative for the newspaper. It is regularly praised for its coverage on issues of climate change, politics and culture, having scored at least one Pulitzer Prize each year under its new ownership. And it scored a coup when Merida, one of the most sought-after editors in the business and a former top editor at the Washington Post and ESPN, came on board last year.

Like other papers, however, it’s a fraction of the size it was decades ago. In its heyday, the paper had more than 1,200 journalists. Today there are 550 people in the newsroom. The family has grown its staff ranks by 20 percent, newspaper representatives said. But they declined to detail the financial status of the Times, save to say: “The business is still in an investment period. We’re working to become self-sustaining with the support of the Soon-Shiongs.”

Despite Merida’s optimism, Times journalists continue to fear that the paper is stuck in a helpless middle ground: identifying as a national player but without the readership of its biggest competitors; eager to adapt to the digital era but uncertain about how best to do it; blessed with a billionaire benefactor but unclear on his vision.

“Neither [Nika] nor her parents have any idea what it means to run a media institution,” one former Times executive said of the Soon-Shiong family. “And they have in their own way resisted efforts to learn. They don’t care that much about the institution’s history. They’re not super interested in the media in general, in terms of how it works.”

When Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper had been languishing for years, struggling to compete with better-funded national outlets while under the stewardship of the Tribune Company.

The Tribune Company (later Tronc) had become an avatar for the collapse of the newspaper business, shuttering various local properties across the country. Soon-Shiong was seen as a savior: He promised a new office, serious investment, and stability. He professed to be motivated by civic duty. His tinkering would be on the business side of matters, not the editorial.

Along the way, his daughter became more actively involved at the newspaper. A Stanford graduate who was focused on community development projects in Los Angeles, Nika Soon-Shiong had grown interested in improving the paper amid criticism of its coverage of nonwhite communities. Several years before her father bought the Times, she was an intern on the photo team.

In 2020, Nika Soon-Shiong started participating in staff meetings about the paper’s failures in covering race and how it could become more inclusive in hiring. She suggested the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the unrest over police brutality, which inspired the paper to tweak style guidelines.

Times company leaders at the time asked then-top opinion editor Sewell Chan to brainstorm ways that Nika Soon-Shiong could get more involved in the paper. He talked with her about whether working with the opinion section would be a possibility. (Chan declined to comment.)

Many staffers thanked her for publicly pushing back on a Wall Street Journal article that said her father was thinking of selling the paper.

But those positive feelings have largely evaporated the past year. Some journalists at the Times and well-known political figures recoiled as the younger Soon-Shiong’s political views and activism became more visible and — they believe — crept into her relationship with the paper. After Nika Soon-Shiong received an appointment to serve as a West Hollywood Public Safety Commissioner — which advises city government on public safety reforms — Times journalists said she had, on at least two occasions, pitched them on the commission’s work and complained about headlines.

One senior reporter at the Times said it’s hard to know “where Nika starts and the paper stops.”

“People who had good will toward the paper don’t and it’s because of her and what she’s doing,” another reporter said.

Addressing staff concerns over Nika Soon-Shiong, Merida said she had “a right to critique our journalism, offer story ideas and other suggestions she believes will help make us better.” He noted that the “same right is extended to those we cover and to those who read us.”

In her own statement to POLITICO, Nika Soon-Shiong acknowledged that she does, in an advisory role for the paper, “advocate” for her interests, specifically on criminal justice reform and poverty. “There are profound problems with the media’s coverage of safety issues,” she said, “and these problems sometimes manifest themselves at the LA Times, just as they do at virtually every other major outlet.”

But she dismissed the “suggestion that I control the editorial decisions of the paper, which are made by independent and experienced journalists based on their own judgment.” She did not, she stressed, “have a formal role in the LA Times.”

In her bio page for her organization Fund for Guaranteed Income, a nonprofit focused on building technologies for recurring cash payments to vulnerable people, Nika Soon-Shiong is described as a “special adviser” to the Times. She also has a Times email address and an active profile on the paper’s Slack messaging network, according to shared screenshot images.

As Nika Soon-Shiong’s political activism grew, it became harder for the paper to chart out coverage that converged with her interests. Staffers grew alarmed when she clashed with an editor on the Metro desk earlier this year over the Times’ reporting on the LAPD. It was not lost on staff that they did not initially report on the public safety commission’s decision to reduce funding for the LA County Sheriff’s Department — a move she pushed for aggressively and one that was covered widely by other Los Angeles outlets.

There were internal grumbles after the paper endorsed Democratic West Hollywood Council member Lindsey Horvath for the powerful LA County Board of Supervisors. Horvath had a close relationship with Nika Soon-Shiong — she defended her publicly and said attacks on her were “rooted in racism” — and helped appoint her to the public safety commission.

More recently, the Times endorsed Kenneth Mejia, a self-described radical and Nika Soon-Shiong favorite, for the job of city controller. Two days after the endorsement, City Hall reporters David Zahniser and Julia Wick wrote a story detailing how Mejia, as a Green Party member, said he considered both Joe Biden and Donald Trump to be “sexual predators.”

The ownership of a paper retains the right to endorse whichever candidates they want. Often, they exercise that liberty. Merida said that Nika Soon-Shiong has no “say in endorsements.”

But the Mejia editorial sparked immediate backlash over the perception that she had a hand in it. City Council member Paul Koretz, a Democrat and Mejia’s opponent in the race, accused the paper of acting “as if it were run by the Mejia campaign itself.”

“People are just scratching their heads about their editorial board and how they can come to these decisions,” Koretz told POLITICO. “I have never seen an election where the newspaper is the story.”

Though Nika Soon-Shiong in recent weeks publicly announced plans to leave Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate at Oxford University, questions persist over where the line should be drawn—if at all—between the Soon-Shiong family’s interests and the editorial product of the Times.

Staffers privately expressed concern about the paper’s coverage of Los Angeles’ mayoral contest. Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, the mayoral frontrunner, won the Times’ backing in the primary against billionaire developer Rick Caruso while being cheered on by Nika Soon-Shiong and wooing her father.

Before the endorsement, Bass chaired a March congressional hearing on the Covid crisis in Africa, at which the elder Soon-Shiong, who is working to manufacture vaccines on the continent, was a witness.

Months before then, Bass announced her plan to combat homelessness at an abandoned building that housed the old St. Vincent Medical Center. The building, long identified as potential housing for homeless people, is owned by Soon-Shiong. Later, in a debate sponsored by the Times and radio station KCRW, Bass again raised using St. Vincent. She noted that she would have no problem getting “the owner” on the phone after being told others had trouble reaching him.

“It’s almost like she became a real estate agent for Patrick Soon-Shiong,” said one Democratic official who worked in the mayoral primary.

In a statement, Bass campaign spokesperson Sarah Leonard Sheahan said the congresswoman was highlighting “an empty hospital right here in Los Angeles she believes can be used to safely and compassionately house mentally ill homeless Angelenos.”

“We are in a crisis, and the situation needs an all hands on deck response,” Leonard Sheahan said.

As for the congressional hearing, Leonard Sheahan said Bass has called dozens of witnesses to testify on issues pertaining to health care and human rights on the continent. “Committee staff invited Mr. Soon Shiong, who was born and raised in Africa and had just opened a vaccine manufacturing plant in Botswana.”

Some staffers defended the Times by pointing to tough stories on Bass, particularly a recent piece looking at the free degree she received from University of Southern California.

Still, the perception that Nika Soon-Shiong and her father were rooting for Bass — and that Bass encouraged it — was internalized by staffers. One reporter tried to share Caruso’s personal concerns about slanted coverage with his editor only to accidentally send it to Caruso himself, according to text messages obtained by POLITICO.

Other Times staffers experienced the dynamic more directly. After reporter Benjamin Oreskes wrote a story about Bass’ campaign launch that noted, in the headline, the absence of an indicted city council member who is a close ally of Bass, Nika Soon-Shiong expressed displeasure to him, according to a Times journalist familiar with the matter. Nika Soon-Shiong encouraged the reporter to get in touch with Bass’ campaign manager. The paper did not change the headline. Oreskes declined to comment.

“As owners of the Los Angeles Times, the Soon-Shiongs have the prerogative to make decisions about all aspects of the organization,” said Hillary Manning, vice president of communications at the paper. “One decision they made and have been vocal about since the time the acquisition was announced is that maintaining an independent newsroom is vitally important to them, to the L.A. Times itself and to the community as a whole. We can appreciate that staff have differing opinions about how involved the Soon-Shiongs should be in the day-to-day operations of the organization.”

Patrick Soon-Shiong’s level of engagement at the Times has been a long-running source of intense interest inside the building, with sightings used as a measure of his commitment.

Those who have worked for Soon-Shiong say his focus is fleeting and that he can be impulsive. He is frequently tied to other ventures (he owns the San Diego Union-Tribune and his name has popped up as a potential buyer of the Los Angeles Angels). With so many initiatives and commitments, he often parachutes into newspaper matters, usually with sweeping proposals for moving the business forward or coverage priorities to emphasize.

The former executive described Soon-Shiong as both an “absentee landlord and also a micromanager” who can be deeply indecisive.

That has been particularly true during Covid. Several Times employees said Soon-Shiong has been distracted since the start of the pandemic. In private, he indicated to the former executive that he’d become “obsessed” with Covid and to another person it would be diverting his attention. Still, he has personally contacted multiple Times journalists during the pandemic to urge them to write specific stories featuring people he has worked with on vaccines, according to a person directly familiar with the matter. That person added that those interactions left the reporters and editors feeling uncomfortable.

Manning said Patrick Soon-Shiong is passionate about many subjects and “often” discusses coverage with news staffers. “With the onset of the COVID pandemic, he has also had discussions with reporters to highlight the science underlying the virus, concerns of long COVID, consequences of mutations and studies coming out of his home country, South Africa,” Manning said.

Still, both Manning and Merida disputed that Patrick or Nika Soon-Shiong had explicitly ordered certain stories or editorials be written.

“Patrick does have interests he cares about. And what owner doesn’t? He has never compelled us to do a single story on any of his interests,” Merida said. “That decision making authority resides with me.”

Patrick Soon-Shiong acknowledged but did not return a request for comment.

The blurry intersection of his interests was evident in the winter of 2021 when he published a video about Covid on the newspaper’s website. In it, he appeared to promote a vaccine his own company has been working on, even though it’s not approved in the U.S.

Soon-Shiong’s indecisive but micromanaging approach has been evident at other times, too. In one oft-recalled anecdote, he told staffers he wasn’t pleased with what he saw as favorable editorials about then-candidate Biden. “He couldn’t stand Biden,” one of the former executives recalled.

But Soon-Shiong struggled over who else to endorse. The Times editorial board had done multiple interviews with 2020 Democratic hopefuls, but he refused to tip his hand despite prodding.

The paper didn’t endorse in the primary. It endorsed Biden in the general election.

For seasoned Times watchers, it’s been vexing — a dash of positive movement for the paper clouded by uncertainty about the owner’s approach and commitment.

“Clearly Patrick Soon-Shiong brought stable ownership to the paper,” said Gabriel Kahn, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. “What has not emerged is any clear business plan beyond newspaper 101 and, though this might be changing, a full-throated explanation of what their editorial mission is going to be.”

Perhaps Soon-Shiong’s biggest breakthrough was the hiring of Merida. There was universal acclaim from the newsroom over the announcement. Soon-Shiong himself heralded it as a chance to bring stability to the paper — “to grow and be around for another 139 years” — and broaden ambition.

“His mandate will be to maintain the highest level of journalistic strength and find ways to grab the attention of our community,” Soon-Shiong said, “not just Los Angelenos but also readers in the western region and hopefully even the nation.”

No sooner did Soon-Shiong hail Merida’s hiring than he made his job more difficult. The owner did not call some of the other internal candidates to thank them for applying, according to a person familiar with the matter, creating some bitterness within the newsroom.

Merida appeared to understand that maintaining Soon-Shiong’s attention was a top priority. As LA Magazine noted, he moved into a Brentwood guest house across the street from Soon-Shiong. He also took on much of the responsibility for managing the relationship between the family and staff.

Both before Merida started and after he came on board, the paper was lauded for its work, including coverage of the rise-and-fall of superlawyer Tom Girardi and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Erika Jayne; for reporting on the deadly shooting on the set of the Alec Baldwin film “Rust”; for scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Department; and for coverage and major projects on climate change.

But creating the stable work environment that Soon-Shiong outlined has been elusive, particularly in the paper’s Washington bureau.

A fixture in political coverage, the D.C. office was celebrated when it brought on board Kimbriell Kelly, a Pulitzer-winning reporter at the Washington Post, to serve as a top editor in 2019. In the fall of 2020, Kelly was promoted to the bureau chief role. She became the first person of color, and only the second woman, to serve in that post.

Her directive was to expand the scope and impact of the bureau’s reporting. But her approach quickly created problems.

Shortly after the election, Kelly began butting heads with one of the bureau’s best known staffers, Jackie Calmes. Calmes had taken over as White House editor around that time. But Kelly informed her that she wanted to hire her own deputy before making a decision about who would occupy the editor role permanently. On that call, according to four people with knowledge of the incident, Kelly told Calmes that her grief over two recently deceased family members was affecting her work.

The friction escalated. When Calmes asked for two weeks of comp time in late January, Kelly said she had not authorized her to work extra hours for the preceding three months. That soon led to several Zoom calls with Kelly, as well as human resources and union representatives. On the first call, Kelly reiterated that she had not authorized Calmes’ extra work. Calmes responded by saying the bureau had been short-staffed during a news cycle that featured ongoing election objections and the January 6 riots and that she had to pick up the work.

People close to Kelly said Calmes was openly disrespectful. Kelly was a newcomer to the job and a Black woman joining a bureau that was largely white and male. Calmes, for her part, refused to speak with Kelly without a union representative present. In early summer, Kelly filed a disciplinary action accusing Calmes of insubordination and suggesting it could lead to her termination.

Ultimately, both sides moved on after fellow D.C. staffers wrote a letter to Kelly encouraging her to retract her insubordination accusation, which she did.

Eventually, Calmes shifted from an editorial role under Kelly to the paper’s opinion section. Calmes declined to comment beyond saying she had never shown any disrespect to Kelly.

In a statement to POLITICO, Kelly did not directly address the Calmes incident, but touted the changes she’s brought to the bureau, including increasing diversity among staff covering the White House and Congress.

“We’ve … built one of Washington’s most inclusive reporting staffs as we work to realize the shared vision of Kevin Merida and the Soon-Shiong family for a new LA Times. Like many news organizations, we have had staffing changes,” she said. “I’m incredibly proud to work with our amazing staff, and I look forward to continuing to lead our Washington coverage and serving our LA Times audiences everywhere.”

Frustration in the bureau has lingered, however. At least eight journalists out of a staff of 30 have left the bureau since Kelly took over, though she noted that eight had been added “within the last year.”

This March, the D.C. bureau held a virtual meeting with Merida and Kelly in which higher-ups were grilled about staff leaving. One staffer told him the exodus was a “five-alarm fire.” Merida didn’t address how the paper was handling the departures, save to say he cared about Washington coverage and knew the bureau was having issues, according to a person in the meeting.

“They continue to swing way above their weight and the LA Times still covers stories that others in Washington do not,” said Bob Drogin, the paper’s former deputy Washington bureau chief who spent nearly 38 years at the paper. But, he added, “It’s unfortunate that there’s been so much turmoil in the bureau over the last two years … I fear it has distracted from the core mission of the Washington bureau, and the loss of so many experienced and talented reporters clearly has hurt the daily production of news.”

To a large degree, the tensions inside the D.C. bureau have mirrored problems throughout the Times, as leadership has struggled to bring the institution into the modern age of publishing.

Despite Soon-Shiong’s deep pockets, several former staffers complained about the company’s antiquated publishing technology and the small engineering staff. The former executive said the search system is “still very janky” and that the paper still doesn’t have control over its complete archives, with some having been transferred by prior owners to “other entities,” as Manning phrased it.

Other staff have been confused by editorial priorities. Earlier this year, the paper launched the 404, a social team dedicated to content creation for TikTok and Instagram. Times employees winced when, within just a few days, the paper faced criticism over creating factually inaccurate memes that mocked Caruso.

The Times also spent significant money building a test kitchen designed by Soon-Shiong’s wife, Michele, in anticipation of enhancing food offerings. Recipes have been an enormous success for other publications. But the kitchen saw little use because of the pandemic.

Manning said costs associated with the kitchen do not impact the Times’ operating budget and that the kitchen has added value to the organization. She noted that the Times also produces the largest literary festival in the country and several culinary events during the year. She added that since the 404’s Caruso snafu, it has worked more closely with the editing staff and multi-platform copy desk.

“The unwavering commitment, investments and thoughtful stewardship of our owners has radically improved the current state and future prospects of the Los Angeles Times,” she said.

And, indeed, despite the hurdles and hiccups, few, if any, Times staffers are eager to return to the era of Tribune/Tronc. Then, the papers’ future was clouded by a seemingly endless series of cuts. The hollowed-out institution that was left had far less promise, many employees say, than the one today.

But doing better than Tribune/Tronc is considered a low bar for Times journalists. Instead, a few years after Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the paper to great fanfare, they’re left hoping he doesn’t lose interest and that he is preparing the next generation of his family to be good stewards. A member of the publishing family most closely associated with the Times’ glory days suggested the Soon-Shiongs had bought into something much bigger than just a newspaper — and that they needed to better appreciate that the public trust they control is vital to the health of the city, Southern California and the landscape of journalism writ large.

“Running a big metropolitan paper like the Times requires constant oversight, support and encouragement,” said Harry Chandler, a former executive at the paper. “And I hope that Patrick and his family go back to how my father Otis and my other ancestors who were publishers ran the paper, where they were very involved and supportive.”

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