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LA Times Billionaire’s Daughter Is Tinkering With the Paper. And Staffers Welcome It.

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 4/1/2021 Maxwell Tani
text: Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/handout © Provided by The Daily Beast Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/handout

When the Wall Street Journal reported in February that Los Angeles Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong was thinking of selling the paper, the news sent shock and alarm through the paper’s newsroom.

Soon-Shiong and a spokesperson for the West Coast’s largest newspaper quickly attempted to tamp down the speculation and quiet the unease among staffers, releasing statements downplaying the report as “inaccurate” and declaring that the owner was “committed” to the paper.

But for many LA Times employees, the clearest reassurance that they would not be in for a third new owner in as many years came from a seemingly unlikely source: the billionaire media mogul’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong.

“WSJ is 100% wrong,” the Stanford graduate succinctly declared on Twitter.

Several LA Times staffers publicly tweeted their sighs of relief in response. “Thank you,” wrote the paper’s Houston bureau chief Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “exactly how I like my statements: short; sweet.” Staff writer Joel Rubin cheered Nika’s certainty, tweeting: “Any questions?” And immigration reporter Cindy Carcamo added: “Thank you for weighing in, Nika!”

“It felt important to speak out because of how disruptive that kind of misinformation can be to people who have entrusted us with the stability of the paper,” Nika, who is in her late twenties, said in an email to The Daily Beast. “It’s a lot easier to plant rumors that something might happen than to assure people it won’t, so a Tweet seemed like a very small thing to do.”

To media observers who hadn’t been paying much attention to palace intrigue at the West Coast paper, it may have been a bit surprising that the firmest denial came not from the paper’s owner, but from his daughter, who is nowhere to be found on the masthead and has thus far kept a relatively low profile.

Over the past year, however, the pharmaceutical executive’s daughter has emerged as a surrogate between the paper and its ownership family. LA Times insiders say Patrick Soon-Shiong has been somewhat less engaged in the paper during the COVID-19 pandemic—two of his pharmaceutical companies have been developing a vaccine that is currently in clinical trials—but his daughter has taken on a larger informal role and become a familiar presence in some newsroom affairs.

While she has no official title or duties at the paper, the LA Times itself reported that Nika has become increasingly involved in high-level management decisions, acting as another representative for the family in decisions about the paper and its direction.

The Daily Beast spoke with LA Times staffers across multiple levels of the company, many of whom said that Nika’s increased involvement has been a welcome addition to the newsroom.

Unlike members of the Sulzberger family, who have served as both owners of the New York Times and writers and reporters for the paper, Nika Soon-Shiong isn’t a journalist and harbors no desire to be a glitzy media executive.

Though she briefly had a stint as an intern at the paper nearly a decade ago, she has made a name for herself in the philanthropic world as a full-time community activist in Los Angeles. Since graduating with a master’s degree in African studies from Stanford, she’s led multiple nonprofits geared at promoting local universal basic income projects in Los Angeles, heading up the Fund for Guaranteed Income, and serving as the co-director of the Compton Pledge, a philanthropic partnership that provides direct cash transfers to several hundred low-income LA-area residents.

In the year after Soon-Shiong’s family bought the LA Times and several other Southern California papers from Tribune Publishing for $500 million, she largely remained removed from newsroom business. But following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year, she saw an opportunity to help ease tensions within the newsroom amid national conversations around race, policing, and institutional injustices in the news business.

Soon-Shiong made several noteworthy editorial proposals, encouraging the paper to vastly increase its coverage of nonwhite communities in the Los Angeles area, and suggesting the paper avoid using the word “looting” when covering the civil unrest over police brutality and racial injustice. The Times subsequently changed its style guidelines to specify when the paper felt it was appropriate to use the word.

Floyd’s death set off an internal reckoning within the LA Times, specifically around the mistreatment of and lack of upward mobility for Black, Latino, and Asian staffers, a disproportionately white leadership, and “dehumanizing” coverage of nonwhite communities in Southern California—one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in America. As some of the details spilled out into public view last year, Soon-Shiong recalled to The Daily Beast, she was inspired to reach out to the Black and Latino staff caucuses to initiate conversations between her family and those groups. And over the past several months Nika has continued to keep in touch with staff from the caucuses, forging personal relationships and earning the respect of a number of employees in the newsroom.

“I saw clear alignment between the demands which they voiced and the ambitions that my family has for the paper,” she said. “And I did not want that to get lost in translation, especially if I could encourage a franker dialogue.”

Since the flare-ups at the paper last year, Soon-Shiong has become more engaged in newsroom affairs on the opinion side as well. Multiple LA Times insiders familiar with the situation told The Daily Beast that she has been active with the paper’s editorial board, sitting in on meetings throughout the past year.

“I don’t represent a point of view other than my own, but am continuously learning about how representation in mass media articulates entrenched biases at the same time as it can dismantle them,” she wrote in an email to the Beast.

However, increased involvement for the Soon-Shiong family with the editorial board has already proven to risk potential conflict with staffers.

Last year, for example, the paper was preparing to endorse a candidate in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary—which it had done in previous years—arranging calls and meetings with candidates including Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar, and others. According to sources familiar with the situation, when the board brought its selection to Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire businessman who serves as both the paper’s owner and publisher rejected it, arguing he did not want the paper to back a candidate in the primary.

The move caused friction between the publisher and some editorial board members, including editor Nicholas Goldberg, who has since moved into an editor-at-large role. Ultimately, on Sept. 10, the LA Times endorsed Joe Biden in the general election.

Still, the ownership family remains popular among staff, not least in part thanks to Nika’s efforts.

While some employees were initially skeptical of Patrick Soon-Shiong when he bought the paper in June 2018, newsroom staff now overwhelmingly view the family’s purchase as a relief from Tribune, the company’s previous owners, and as preferable to alternatives—including the teetering national brands, backed by ruthless hedge funds seemingly intent on squeezing money out of dying regional newspapers.

Even privately, LA Times staffers at multiple levels of the paper who spoke with The Daily Beast—under condition of anonymity to speak freely about their employer—had fairly positive things to say about Nika’s increased presence, emphasizing that she has been receptive to employees’ mission for greater inclusivity in the newsroom and its coverage, is closer in age to many reporters, and could prove a welcome liaison between staffers and the family.

And Soon-Shiong said she has been encouraged by the warm reception from staff, and described how she sees parallels between her philanthropic work and her aims with the family newspaper.

“Society’s inheritance of patriarchal, white-led institutions shouldn’t condemn us to pernicious cultures or processes,” she said. “Not if we figure out together what it would look and feel like to lead differently—from the heart.”

Ultimately, Soon-Shiong said, she has no overarching editorial agenda other than to foster stronger ties between the paper and its ownership.

“My hope is to be an empathetic ear for staff at all levels of the company,” she said.

Lachlan Cartwright contributed reporting.

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