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How Patrick Soon-Shiong Made His Fortune Before Buying the L.A. Times

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How Patrick Soon-Shiong Made His Fortune Before Buying the L.A. Times

Soon-Shiong’s friends told me about his compound in Brentwood. “I see it more as a campus,” Bacharach said. Everyone brought up the basketball court. “This court is the best court I’ve ever seen in my life,” Sandiford-Artest, who played in the N.B.A. for nineteen seasons, said. “It’s insane. It’s deep under the floor, and it’s a big, N.B.A.-sized court, with locker rooms and televisions. And bowling alleys. Just like a big N.B.A. practice facility, sixty to a hundred feet underground.”

Soon-Shiong and Kobe Bryant were close. When Bryant ruptured his Achilles tendon, in 2013, during a Lakers game, Soon-Shiong rushed to the locker room to meet him. An Achilles rupture can cause heavy swelling around the ankle, and the standard medical procedure is to wait until the swelling subsides before surgically reattaching the tendon. But Soon-Shiong had ruptured his own Achilles playing basketball a few years earlier, and claimed to have devised a novel approach to treating the injury. He advised Bryant to have the operation immediately.

Early Newspaper

Soon-Shiong’s surgery had been conducted by Neal ElAttrache, a sober and evidence-driven physician, whose prudence and skill have made him one of the most respected orthopedists in sports. He’d been watching the game on TV, and immediately recognized Bryant’s injury as an Achilles tear. “About forty-five minutes later, my phone rang at home, and it was Patrick, in the locker room with Kobe,” ElAttrache told me. ElAttrache was booked to operate the next morning on the ace pitcher Zack Greinke; at Soon-Shiong’s urging, he performed back-to-back surgeries, operating on Bryant afterward. Soon-Shiong, who had not performed surgery in years and had no background in orthopedics, was in the operating room. “The body’s natural healing elements are activated shortly after the tear, so it made sense to me, what he was saying,” ElAttrache said. “You know, the inflammatory elements from the injury are at their peak.”

Bryant returned to the court the following season, but never won another championship. (“He wasn’t a hundred per cent after that,” Sandiford-Artest said. “No way.”) ElAttrache said that Soon-Shiong’s input hadn’t changed his approach to surgery, but he admired Soon-Shiong’s daring, and his willingness to experiment. “Patrick functions on the edge,” he said. “You need people like that. I ask myself, ‘Is there some kernel of genius in there that can help the people I need to take care of?’ So I listen to him. I definitely listen.”

Soon-Shiong purchased his share in the Lakers in 2010, from Magic Johnson. By this time, he had returned to U.C.L.A. as a visiting professor. In 2012, he was part of an unsuccessful bid to buy the Dodgers. In 2013, he invested in the startup Zoom, which was valued at fifty million dollars. The company is now worth seventy billion dollars. Soon-Shiong invested in clean-tech ventures and marketed his own I.T. systems for health care. His wife, Michele, opened a movie studio, and he invested in an e-sports platform. Michele, a practicing Catholic, persuaded him to donate to several Christian charities. (Soon-Shiong grew up in the Anglican Church, and still occasionally attends services.) He acquired a controlling stake in the parent company of Verity Health Systems, which ran six hospitals in California. In late 2016, he and Michele gave a hundred thousand dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign; twelve days after the election, he had dinner with Donald Trump.

Not all of Soon-Shiong’s ventures have been successful. Verity Health filed for bankruptcy in 2018; critics noted that the hospital chain had spent more than twenty million dollars upgrading its I.T. system, employing a vender in which Soon-Shiong had a financial stake. After Verity failed, Soon-Shiong acquired control of St. Vincent Medical Center in downtown L.A.—the hospital where he had performed the islet-cell transplant on Steven Craig. That, too, failed, and the building was subsequently repurposed as a temporary COVID ward. (“The nuns hadn’t funded their pensions,” Soon-Shiong told me, in explanation.)

In 2015, Soon-Shiong bought a stake in Tribune Publishing, the media conglomerate that controlled the Los Angeles Times. By 2018, Soon-Shiong had emerged as the sole owner of the paper. In our initial conversation, he recalled his first real job, as a teen-ager, delivering copies of the Evening Post off the back of a truck in Port Elizabeth. “The first thing I did with the L.A. Times, I drove to the printing press,” he said. “I wanted to hear the clickety-clack.” I was surprised by the respect he held for journalists, who have given him a mixed reception through the years. (Soon-Shiong has been the subject of laudatory features on “Nightline” and “60 Minutes,” but a 2014 profile in Forbes presented him as a daffy eccentric, and the biopharma trade publication STAT News has run a series of highly critical articles about him.) When I asked him about his ideas for the paper, he invoked the appropriate buzzwords—“podcasting,” “storytelling,” “test kitchen”—without mentioning anything that sounded like a business plan.

“It was supposed to be ‘John loves Lisa.’ ”
Cartoon by P. C. Vey

The L.A. Times has long been a trophy for the city’s élite. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Harrison Gray Otis, a former Army general, used it to promote his vision of Los Angeles as an exclusive paradise for the “Anglo Saxon” ideal. Otis’s son-in-law Harry Chandler, the man responsible for the Hollywood sign, treated the paper like a real-estate circular. The paper’s politics were initially quite conservative—its offices were once bombed by labor activists. In the nineteen-sixties, along with the rest of California, the paper tacked left. An era of liberal respectability followed: the paper won numerous Pulitzers and carried a thick classified-advertising section. At its peak, in the eighties, the Times’ offices downtown took up a city block. By the time Soon-Shiong acquired control, the paper was much reduced. Declining revenues from local advertising had led to cuts in staff, and the paper’s Art Deco headquarters had been sold.

The modern news business relies more on paid digital subscriptions than on display advertising. That model is well suited for large platforms like the New York Times, which tripled its subscriber base while Trump was in office. Such growth can come at the expense of local papers; the Times now has more subscribers in Dallas than the Dallas Morning News does. The middle ground is vanishing, and, to survive, the L.A. Times needs a national audience. “You’re not going to compete with the Washington Post, but you don’t have to be the San Jose Mercury News, either,” Pearlstine, the former executive editor, said. But the paper’s growth has been disappointing, particularly relative to the size of Soon-Shiong’s investment. The Los Angeles Times currently has four hundred thousand paying subscribers; the New York Times has eight million.

After the murder of George Floyd, in 2020, when Pearlstine was the editor, the L.A. Times Guild’s Black Caucus wrote a public letter addressed to Soon-Shiong. “The nation’s reckoning over race has put a much-needed spotlight on inequities at The Times,” the letter read. “Most of us who do work here are often ignored, marginalized, under-valued and left to drift along career paths that leave little opportunity for advancement.” A similar letter from the Guild’s Latino Caucus followed.

Erin B. Logan, the twenty-six-year-old chair of the Black Caucus, told me that Soon-Shiong was receptive to the journalists’ concerns. “Shortly after I arrived, we did a head count, and I was, like, ‘Wow, there are not a lot of Black faces here,’ ” she said. “And Patrick, with his background, I think, was immediately in touch with that.” After receiving the letter, he hired more Black journalists; he also commissioned an apology for the paper’s past coverage, which was often racist. Logan was impressed. “Newspapers tend to be owned by a certain kind of person,” she said. “But Patrick is different. He’s personally experienced discrimination like this.”

This February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was considering selling the Times. The next day, Nika, Patrick’s twenty-eight-year-old daughter, tweeted, “WSJ is 100% wrong.” Journalists at the Times told me that Nika, who runs an experimental basic-income program in Compton and is a doctoral candidate at Oxford, has taken an interest in the paper. “​​A light switch has gone off for me, in the past year, of understanding the influence that public perception and mass narratives have over public-policy decisions,” she told me.

In December, 2020, Pearlstine left the Times. Still, he remains fond of Soon-Shiong, who, he said, had never interfered in editorial coverage. This May, Soon-Shiong announced that Kevin Merida would succeed Pearlstine. Merida, who is Black, previously ran the multimedia platform the Undefeated, at ESPN, which focussed on the cultural intersection of race and sports. He told me that he thought the Times could reach a million subscribers. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t feel good about Patrick and Michele,” Merida said.

Soon-Shiong seems less interested in the news business in general than in the L.A. Times specifically. To buy the paper, he had to take a substantial minority stake in Tribune Publishing, the parent company of the Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, and several other regional newspapers. Earlier this year, he approved—or, at least, did not contest—the sale of Tribune Publishing to Alden Capital, a hedge fund that the columnist Joe Nocera called the “destroyer of newspapers” for its cost-cutting tactics. “Local benefactors should manage local papers,” Soon-Shiong said of the deal. “I couldn’t manage the Baltimore Sun.”

Before my first conversation with Soon-Shiong, his representative sent me a one-page fact sheet listing areas in which he is currently active. Of the twenty-five business lines, the L.A. Times was in the twenty-third spot, alongside a bioplastics company, a cloud-computing venture, a water-purification system, and a “next generation urban scooter.” Journalists looking for a savior may have to settle for the occasional pep talk from a distracted billionaire. “He’s like Bill Clinton. When Bill Clinton is talking to you, you get the feeling that you’re the only person in the world,” Scott King said. “He gives you the impression that he’s instantly there for you, all out, even though you know that can’t possibly be true.”

In satellite photographs, the town of El Segundo looks like an abandoned game of SimCity. Some sixteen thousand people live there, in a small rectangle of tract housing, penned in by LAX, an oil refinery, an industrial park, and a sewage-treatment plant. El Segundo is also the sandbox for the second phase of Soon-Shiong’s business career, which involves numerous ventures gathered under an umbrella organization called NantWorks.

Inside the NantWorks galaxy, there is NantHealth, which builds diagnostic medical software; NantCloud, which offers cloud-computing services; ImmunityBio, which develops immunotherapy treatments for cancer; and NantStudios, a movie soundstage and visual-effects studio. There are also NantMobile, NantBioScience, NantEnergy, NantOmics, and NantGames. In 2018, Soon-Shiong relocated the Times to a nondescript office building in this industrial suburb, facing the highway, steps from the airport.

Soon-Shiong’s COVID effort, which is based in El Segundo, is run under the ImmunityBio business line. In July, I visited ImmunityBio’s vaccine factory, where genetically engineered virus cells are grown in stainless-steel tanks. The facility looked a bit like a brewery. “I always joke with Patrick that, if we don’t succeed, we’ll make the best I.P.A.,” Leonard Sender, the company’s C.O.O., said.

Soon-Shiong manages activity at NantWorks virtually. Our first conversation took place in June, 2021, after L.A. County had loosened its mask requirements. Soon-Shiong thought that this was foolish. “The Delta variant hasn’t hit here yet,” he said. “When it does, with all these unmasked people, it’ll spread like wildfire.” He was right. When we spoke a month later, amid a spiking caseload, the mask mandate had been reinstated. Soon-Shiong also predicted that the vaccines would be less effective against the Delta variant; this proved true as well.

Soon-Shiong’s vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson’s, uses a neutralized adenovirus to deliver a genetically engineered payload that stimulates an antibody response. His innovation, he told me, is to further stimulate the body’s T-cell response. “The antibodies you get with a vaccine are merely bait,” he said. “The virus will look for the antibody and mutate around it.” He pulled up a virtual whiteboard, and his video-chat window shrank into a thumbnail in the upper-right corner. Using his finger on a touch screen, he drew a color diagram of the COVID virus, with the famous spike protein labelled “S.” “Everybody knows this guy,” Soon-Shiong said. He then drew a structure within the virus, which he labelled “N.” “But this is the nucleocapsid. This is actually the factory, where the virus reproduces itself.” Soon-Shiong said that, if vaccines did not target the viral nucleocapsid, manufacturers would be playing an endless game of catch-up. “I know Moderna’s trying to make another antibody that will go after the Delta variant,” he said. “But you’re chasing your own tail, because next week you’re going to have a Delta-plus.”

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How Patrick Soon-Shiong Made His Fortune Before Buying the L.A. Times