LESSONS FROM THE PAST

The LA Times’ new owner says apartheid South Africa taught him the value of a free press

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Patrick Soon-Shiong became the latest billionaire trying to rescue a struggling newspaper. The South African-born billionaire bought the LA Times in a deal that closed Wednesday, the first time in nearly two decades that the paper will return to local LA-based ownership.

The $500 million deal means the medical entrepreneur will take over a group of newspapers including the LA Times, the San Diego Tribune and the Spanish Hoy Los Angeles.

The LA Times is cautiously optimistic about its new owner, describing him as a “billionaire with big ideas—and mixed achievements.” Either way, it ends the decorated newspaper’s tumultuous relationship with questionably branded publisher Tronc.

“Ultimately, this decision is deeply personal for me,” Soon-Shiong said in a note to staff. “As someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, I understand the role that journalism needs to play in a free society.”

Under apartheid, which started in 1948, the news was tightly controlled by the white minority government, and dissenting voices were silenced until apartheid officially ended in 1990. Soon-Shiong was born in 1952, in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth to immigrant Chinese parents, as South Africa’s segregationist legislation was taking full effect.

Soon-Shiang’s parents arrived after World War II, but most Chinese arrived in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century as contract laborers. Those who stayed on were racially categorized alongside South Africa’s mixed-race population and denied the vote and other economic opportunities as most non-white South Africans under apartheid.

The Soon-Shiang family lived in the North End, a poor working class neighborhood in the city. Soon-Shiang attended the segregated Chinese High School while the family of seven lived up their father’s grocery story, the Herald reported, Port Elizabeth’s local newspaper.

Soon-Shiang studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, before moving to Canada to pursue his post-graduate degree. As a young doctor in South Africa, he recalled a white South African cancer patient who refused to be treated by a “Chinaman.” He moved to the United States in 1983 and went on to found his own medical research company, the source of his estimated $7.8 billion fortune.

Soon-Shiong describes his own professional background as “building artificial intelligence and trying to understand the human genome.” When he bought a major stake in Tronc in 2016—then a $70.5 million investment—Soon-Shiong told CNBC that he hoped to bring together the skills of editors and reporters and data and machine learning. That vision faded when Soon-Shiang was removed from the Tronc board after his relationship with the biggest shareholder Michael W. Ferro Jr. deteriorated.

While Soon-Shiang’s accent may still hint at his South African upbringing, there was no immediate evidence of investments in the country of his birth. Soon-Shiang heads Nant Capital, a California-based “ecosystem of companies” that includes lucrative cancer treatments and communications technology. Soon-Shiang also owns a 4.5% stake in the LA Lakers. In South Africa, news of the new LA Times’ owner’s background has made headlines.

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