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‘Journalists are our lifeblood,’ new Los Angeles Times owner says

Patrick Soon-Shiong, a multi-billionaire surgeon, entrepreneur and part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, finalized his ownership of the Los Angeles Times this week. Judy Woodruff talks with him about how his upbringing in apartheid South Africa drove his love of newspapers and his vision for the future of the organization despite significant past struggles.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the plans to revitalize the newspaper of note for the United States' second largest city, The Los Angeles Times.

    Patrick Soon-Shiong is a multibillionaire surgeon, entrepreneur and part owner of the L.A. Lakers. He has spent half-a-billion dollars to buy the paper, which has faced big setbacks in recent years.

    As critical as it has been to the city of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times has struggled with huge financial losses, two-thirds laid off over time, three top editors replaced in 18 months. And there've been multiple publishers.

    Soon-Shiong is also an immigrant born to parents who had fled China during the occupation by Japan during World War II.

    And he joins me now from Los Angeles.

    Patrick Soon-Shiong, congratulations.

    And you're investing in a newspaper at a time when few and fewer people are reading them. Why?

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    Well, I think it's important for democracy. It's so important for education. It's so important for this country.

    And it's an institution that I think we need to protect. And, to me, I grew up in apartheid, South Africa, and the only thing that was my respite was the newspaper, frankly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, you know, you and I had a little bit of a conversation about this not long ago when we talked.

    What is it about journalism today that you think you can make thrive? Because we look across the country, newspapers are struggling, people are moving to digital. What is your dream here?

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    Well, the first thing is, there's a fundamental need of this issue of truthful news, right?

    And I think that truly the — and, as I said in my letter, I think fake news is a cancer of our times. And, frankly, the social media allows this proliferation and metastasis.

    I think the place where we need to find truthful information and journalistic integrity is in the newspapers. But I think we also recognize that we have this problem of where technology has now taken over, where people want news where they want to read it, where they can read it, whenever, wherever they may be, and the digital mobile platform.

    I still am of the old school. I still, as I said, love the tactile feel of a physical print and what I call leisurely reading. But we need to adapt and adopt very quickly in real time into this whole new world of digital age.

    So, today, I think journalists need to have cross-technology skill sets. They need to podcast. They need to do what I'm doing here, TV interviews, and print. And it's a very different life for the journalists.

    But without journalists giving us good, real investigative reporting, I think we will have lost a lot in terms of these institutions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think you can do this and be profitable? After all, it's a business.

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    No, it is a business.

    And I have said this is not a philanthropic exercise. This is not an exercise of vanity. This is an exercise where this business has to now as an institution survive.

    The New York Times and The Washington Post have shown, in fact, if they create great, important stories with great journalists, they can adopt. And we must. And the answer is, I'm hopeful.

    We are not concerned or scared of technology. Part of my work in cancer doing genomic sequencing and cloud computing and machine vision and artificial intelligence, I think we can bring all this to bear and still create a model that thrives.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're working with a newsroom that has been — that has lost, as we said, a large percentage of its staff, of its reporters. You're dealing with a place that's been traumatized, virtually, in recent years.

    What's it going to take to turn that around?

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    I speak to my newsroom and I say this is like a battered child syndrome, right? I completely get that. They have been traumatized.

    So, the first thing we did was, yesterday, we announced Norm Pearlstine as the executive editor. The day next, we — Kris Viesselman has come in as the transformation editor.

    I think the idea is to actually strengthen the newsroom. The journalists are our lifeblood. So, this is the first time that we will have stability. This is not a one-year program, 10-year program. I see this as a lifelong program for us to really create stability.

    So, I think, if we actually are able to attract best talent — and California is a unique ecosystem to itself — we will be able to do fine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You do come to this, Patrick Soon-Shiong, as someone who didn't come out of journalism. And you said yourself your investments have been in — you're a physician. Your investments have been in health care, in pharmaceuticals.

    The L.A. Times itself has written a story about you earlier this year, controversies in your business career. Were they accurate in those stories, and do you think your background is a fit for this?

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    Well, first of all, that's one of the first things I told The L.A. Times newsroom. They should feel to write anything and everything about me, completely independent of me as the owner, as long as it is fair and truthful.

    I think that should be the standard for anybody. Fairness, honesty and truthfulness is all any person could ask for.

    But with regard to my background, I look upon journalists very much like scientists. They love discovery. We love discovery. We love the truth. We want to find the basis of the truth. And we love publishing.

    So, while my background has been in discovery, working with scientists and physician scientists, I look upon journalists as such. If we're going to do opinions, however, we should very, very clearly say, this is an opinion, and everybody should be allowed to have their opinion, whether it be right opinion, left opinion, or middle road opinion.

    So I think the opportunity for us now to create an educational forum, a forum that will inspire, a forum that will inform, and a forum that will provide entertainment, so to speak, even, sports, arts, lifestyle.

    So I'm really excited. It's a steep learning curve for me, but I'm really excited about this next episode of what I'm going to be doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the new owner of The Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union, again, congratulations.

  • Patrick Soon-Shiong:

    Thank you so much, Judy.

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