LA Times ‘Trapped in a Mess’ as Owner Patrick Soon-Shiong Pulls More Newsroom Strings | Exclusive

The Los Angeles Times newsroom continues to feel the invisible hand of owner Patrick Soon-Shiong in coverage of his pharma research, home page choices and in pushing for livestream video, TheWrap has learned.

Times staffers were “very uncomfortable” with an order this week to cover FDA approval of a cancer treatment developed by ImmunityBio, a biotech company owned by Soon-Shiong, according to two insiders who spoke to TheWrap.

The FDA decision was considered minor and not newsworthy, and the initial story published on Monday this week had no byline.

“People are upset. They did not think this merited coverage. This made them very uncomfortable. Having an un-bylined story is almost worse than no one covering it,” said the Times insider.

A second insider confirmed that the story had no byline when it was first published and that, according to the paper’s publishing system, executive editor Terry Tang edited it “multiple times.” Said the staffer, “That’s not normal.”

The article was updated on Tuesday with bylines credited to Monte Morin, the paper’s environment, health and science editor, and staff writer Karen Kaplan.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Times did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.

Added the second staffer, “It’s weird to have the editor of our environment, health and science section as the main byline. He isn’t in the union and thus doesn’t have the same protections to say no to this.”

Soon-Shiong, a billionaire who made his fortune in the biotech industry, has stoked tension in the newsroom in recent months by interfering in decisions that would usually be left to the editorial team, as TheWrap has reported exclusively before.

The interference is among the main reasons former executive editor Kevin Merida exited in January. Following the news organizations’s devastating layoffs in January, when 20% of the staff was let go, having staffers write up what is essentially a press release for Soon Shiong’s other business is “depressing” because “morale is already in the gutter,” the first insider said.

As Merida said at the time of his departure: “I came to my decision based on a number of factors, including differences of opinion about the role of an executive editor, how journalism should be practiced and strategy going forward.”

As TheWrap previously reported, Merida’s clashes with Soon-Shiong included a story the owner put on hold about a lawsuit against a billionaire friend whose dog allegedly bit someone. The Times finally published it last week nearly four months after Merida left.

“Patrick is involving himself in a lot of highly minute decisions. People are freaked out because these are minute, random things. There’s no broader strategy,” the first insider told TheWrap of Soon-Shiong’s hands-on approach.

The insider added, “Terry has been calling individual journalists left and right to do things and not going through the chain of command. They like Terry, but it’s causing a lot of discomfort.”

Aside from the ImmunityBio story, TheWrap has also learned that Soon-Shiong’s decision to expand the Times’ e-newspaper, even though it often contains outdated information such as “two-day-old sports scores,” was decried as baffling according to the first editorial insider.

“[News] is published day-of on digital, but we have such a backlog of print stories that stuff gets too old to print. It can be days before it is in the paper,” the second insider told TheWrap.

“They’ve been promoting the e-paper like hell. Patrick is obsessed with it, so is Terry. There’s a permanent promo at the side of the home page. It’s beyond useless,” the first insider said. They added that the owner has suggested a video that “explains how to use the e-newspaper” as proof that Soon-Shiong is hopelessly out of touch with the modern newspaper business.

Soon-Shiong’s pivot to video — a concept that was cutting-edge in 2015 — with the soon-to-be launched publishing outfit LA Times Stream also puzzles staffers.”Patrick is now commanding a 24-7 livestream,” said the first insider.

Soon-Shiong touted the LA Times Stream to Yahoo Finance on Tuesday, “We actually have to find innovative ways to become a media platform, not just a newspaper.” The owner cited the live-stream of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which was held last weekend, as a successful test of the product.

The first insider noted that the new video mandate sounds very reminiscent of LA Times Studios, which was hit hard by the January layoffs.

“Patrick is now commanding a 24-7 live stream,” said the first insider. “He’s capricious and chaotic.” 

Masthead Bingo

According to this insider, there are only four video journalists left at the paper. In March, the production studio division’s VP, Sharon Matthews quietly exited, just one month after celebrating the Oscar win for the LA Times Studios’- produced short film “The Last Repair Shop.”

Deputy managing editor Christian Stone also left the paper in March, as TheWrap exclusively reported.

In fact, a staffer shared the “Masthead Bingo” card that was created around the time Shani Hilton and Sara Yasin left, which was shortly after Merida stepped down. While writers and editors are not actually laying money on who’s going to leave the paper next, the bingo card, which features headshots of senior editors, is good for laughs, said the insider.

Of the 24 editors on the card, two were laid off in January, seven have since resigned and 15 are still on staff.

LA Times "masthead bingo"
Current and past senior editors of the Los Angeles Times in a “masthead bingo” created by staffers in January. Of the 24 editors on the card, two were laid off in January, seven have since resigned and 15 are still on staff.

Pictured in the image are:

Row one: Kevin Merida (resigned in January), Julia Turner (resigned in February), Shani Hilton, Sara Yasin (both resigned in January) Scott Kraft (editor at large)

Row 2: Hector Becerra (managing editor), Shelby Grad (deputy managing editor), Amy King (creative director and deputy managing Editor), Sharon Matthews, Christian Stone (both resigned in March)

Row 3: John Canalis (assistant managing editor), Steve Clow (assistant managing editor overseeing coverage of the 2024 presidential election), Angel Jennings (assistant managing editor), Kimbriell Kelly (laid off in January)

Row 4: Iliana Limón Romero (assistant managing editor for sports), Ben Muessig (resigned after Hilton and Yasin), Craig Nakano (assistant managing editor for entertainment and arts), Samantha Melbourneweaver (assistant managing editor for audience), Ruthanne Salido (assistant managing editor)

Row 5: B.J. Terhune (assistant managing editor for news), Laurie Ochoa (general manager of food), Angel Rodriguez (laid off in January), Terry Tang (named executive editor in April), and Mariel Garza (deputy editor of the editorial page)

Ben Muessig, the paper’s former assistant managing editor for storytelling who is now at The Intercept, “got iced out,” said the second insider.

“Trauma and chaos are relative terms at the LA Times,” said the first insider when asked how the current situation compares to the “masthead massacre of 2017,” which saw four senior editors ousted in one day.

“Talented journalists are looking at exits. It’s in free fall,” the insider said, adding that everyone has been ordered to write more stories, which staffers are doing “mindlessly” as productivity becomes an issue.

“The problem is the complete absence of strategy,” lamented the first insider.

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