Dr. Soon-Shiong and His New ‘Patient,’ the L.A. Times: Will His Rx Be ‘Local’?

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What biotech billionaire and philanthropist Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong will do with his hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, which he has agreed to purchase (with the San Diego Union Tribune) for $500 million, is a big unknown, perhaps even to him.

His message to the staff of the Times certainly had to soothe rattled nerves: “I will work to ensure that you have the tools and resources to produce the high-quality journalism that our readers need and rely upon.”

Compare that to what Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell told the then-demoralized Times staff after he acquired the Times in his debt-laden purchase of its parent Tribune Co. in 2007: “The challenge is, how do we get somebody 126 years old to get it up? Well, I’m your Viagra.”

It’s also good news that Dr. Soon-Shiong is an Angelino, but without any of the disadvantages of the Chandler family’s 83-year local ownership that had morphed into a curse in its last years as the acquisitive family sought to squeeze out every dollar of return. The curse lingered after Tribune Co. bought the Times and its multi-media Times Mirror company for $8 billion in cash and stock in 2000 because the Chandlers ended up owning 20% of Tribune and holding three board seats until they cashed out in 2007, severing the last strands of their relationship with the Times.

It is interesting that Soon-Shiong is an immigrant — like more than a third of Angelinos. His family is from South Africa and his forebears are from China.

While we don’t know what Soon-Shiong will do with the Times, my guess is that he will emphasize local, despite many earlier failed attempts by the Chandlers to bring Times dominance to all of Southland.

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, next owner of LA Times.

No Times publisher was able to figure out how to cover the L.A. region, whose 4,850 square miles include 470 neighborhoods that today are home to 14 million people. Even the legendary third-generation scion Otis Chandler, who elevated the paper from mediocrity to greatness during his furious 20-year reign from 1960 to 1980, was frustrated in his bold and expensive attempts to win Southland’s readers and markets.

During Otis Chandler’s tenure as publisher, the Times launched zoned editions in the San Fernando Valley to the north and Orange County and San Diego to the south. They all failed. (The San Diego Union-Tribune that was bought by Tronc and which is part of Soon-Shiong’s deal is not an editorial appendage of the Times — it focuses on covering greater San Diego.)

In post-Chandler 2009, the L.A. Times launched “Mapping L.A.,” whose main feature is chronicling crime by neighborhood and jurisdiction within LA County. Community pages also include in-depth demographic information, but there is no day-to-day news coverage of the neighborhoods and no interaction with their residents. It’s pretty dull.

Facebook does a better job with most L.A. neighborhoods. Its pages are alive with photos, videos and news in the form of reader comments and posts by FB Groups. Compare Facebook’s page for “We Are Boyle Heights” – featuring a community east of downtown with a long and rich history – with the Times’ Boyle Heights page. Still, there’s room for much better community coverage, and it would take a newspaper, not Facebook, to do it. That paper inevitably would have to be the post-Chandler, post-Tribune, post-Zell, post-Tronc LA Times.

Soon-Shiong, owing nothing to the previous owners, will bring to the Times expertise in and passion for technology, especially how to create what he calls a “wisdom database.” He uses such a database to speed medical advances, especially in the treatment of cancer — with mixed success. His Cancer 2020 Breakthroughs program aims, ultimately, “to win the war on cancer.”

When President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, which set up the National Cancer Institute, he used that same martial phrase. Since then, the NCI and most of the cancer research community have avoided the phrase as cancer has proved to be a formidable disease that takes many complicated and elusive forms. Cancer resists targeted approaches to cure it, such as chemo- and hormone therapy and, more recently, stem cell transplants.

My hunch is that Soon-Shiong will find that applying advanced technology to local news is not as challenging as conquering cancer, especially if he and his Times newsroom team listen to what Angelinos say is their biggest concern by a wide margin – getting from their home to work or other day-to-day destinations. The late-1950s engineering miracles of four-level freeway interchanges are not very miraculous in the high congestion of 2018.

One way to listen might be for the newsroom team to set up a “Mobility Meter” that would be tailored to each neighborhood in greater LA. Highly visualized and using real-time data, the meter would show how long, on average, it takes to get from each neighborhood to major work locations and leisure-time destinations, like the Staples Center or Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown. It would also reflect improvements that have been made since the City of LA adopted its highly touted Mobility Plan 2035 in August 2015.

One of the plan’s key initiatives plays right into Soon-Shiong’s expertise in and passion for technology:

“Increase the use of technology (applications, real time transportation information) and wayfinding to expand awareness of and access to parking options and a host of multi-modal options (car share, bicycle share, car/van pool, bus and rail transit, shuttles, walking, bicycling and driving).”

Like Soon-Shiong, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is a strong believer in deploying technology as the driver to solve big problems — on a human, not abstract, scale. He has set up a GeoHub to use technology to interconnect the more than 40 city government departments, including transportation, that have been saddled with disconnected computer platforms.

“GeoHub will help us reinvent the way that we deliver services and broaden our ability to engage residents and businesses to improve the quality of life in their city,” Garcetti said.

The Times should be able to tap into the resources of GeoHub to create a Mobility Meter in each neighborhood and feature ongoing present tips on how residents can make less-congested commutes to work and reach other destinations. Feedback from traveling residents  on how effective the city’s Mobility Plan 2035 is proving would be a big part of Mobility Meter.

Last November, Los Angeles joined the Smart City Consortium to use the “Internet of Things” (IoT) to accelerate solutions in making the city more livable, preeminently in mobility. This is how the consortium proposes to meet the challenge:

“Community-based IoT networks are built from groups of independent citizens, companies and other entities that voluntarily work together to create powerful data ‘rivers’ or consolidated data streams from many IoT device owners into one common flow. In the future, individuals or companies may consent to volunteering the data from their devices so the data can be used for applications that manage energy use, transit, garbage collection, air quality, parking or leak detection in pipes.”

This advanced approach adopts the new fifth generation of wireless technology called “5G” to create a “network of networks” to interconnect among the existing 50 billion mobile devices across the globe. It should appeal to technologist par excellence Soon-Shiong as he focuses on how to make the LA Times a 21st-century newspaper, a goal which does not have to be a war to be won.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.