By Brian Stelter, CNN Business
A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
“We are a media platform and not just a newspaper.”
That’s how Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong summed up the “cultural vision” that he shares with his new editor Kevin Merida.
A “media platform” for what? Maybe poetry and comedy, maybe block parties and DJ battles, Merida said: If we can be “central to your lives,” then “we can become irresistible.”
The two men sat down with me for their first joint interview since Merida was poached from ESPN’s The Undefeated to run the Times newsroom. Merida has only been on the job for a few weeks, and hasn’t moved to L.A. yet. He seems to be in a meet-and-greet mode as he gets to know the organization. But he and Soon-Shiong clearly share a sense of what they need to do. “The opportunity,” Merida said, is “to really redefine the modern American newspaper.”
Adding to the journalism
The LAT’s journalism is “foundational,” Merida told me. “We will continue to produce that great journalism — we have some of the greatest journalists in the world — but… there’s a broader kind of ecosystem of content you can wrap around the journalism. And compete for people who would not have thought about the LA Times before.” That’s when my ears perked up — when Merida talked about live events, audio projects, and bringing in “comedy and poetry and music.”
“When you bring all of this together,” he said, “then you widen your ability to attract audiences.”
Our entire conversation is live on the “Reliable Sources” podcast. I remarked that news outlets are thinking more and more like Netflix — coming up with reasons for people to get subscribed and stay subscribed — and that’s very much what is on the minds of the Times leaders.
“There’s lots of ways to reach people,” Merida said, citing both coverage of the drought out West and possible expansions of live events. “Maybe there are great battles of DJ’s we can host,” he said. “We already have a great book festival.”
Soon-Shiong said he had a “mind meld” with Merida about this vision and noted that he has been spending money on publishing systems, studios, and live event spaces for the brand. “The infrastructure is now in place,” he said. Now, Merida added, it’s time to “widen the aperture on what we produce and create, but also widen who consumes us.”
All of this talk, of course, led me to question Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the cause. The biotech billionaire acquired the LA Times three years ago. The WSJ reported in February that he was “exploring a sale of the Los Angeles Times.” He immediately denied it — but I asked him — has he had any regrets about his purchase?
“None whatsoever,” he said. “In fact, quite the opposite.” He spoke about various LAT investments and said he sees the publication in a competition for “engagement.”
“What we are building, in a sense, is an engagement engine with true journalistic skills,” he said. “So you get news and you get engagement, you get information, you get entertainment.” Speaking of his family’s commitment to the publication, he said “we are doubling down on this organization.”
Okay — but the WSJ said he has “grown dissatisfied with the news organization’s slow expansion of its digital audience and its substantial losses.” Is any of that true?
“Well, I’ve grown dissatisfied with the rate of change,” he said. “I recognize you have losses. Having said that, the rate of change now is now escalating.” He said the Times now has 400,000 digital subscribers, “and soon, hopefully a million.” Then he hinted at a much bigger goal: “There’s 40 million people in California alone, and there’s no reason why we can’t get 1 in 10.” He also blasted Google and Facebook and urged Congress to change the bargaining rules so that news outlets can work together to strike deals with Big Tech.
>> When I asked what year Soon-Shiong is targeting profitability, I heard a sigh. He said, “It’s a long haul. This is a marathon for all of us. I’ve not looked at it that way. As soon as we can, obviously, the better. But more importantly, we need to make investments, and we’re making investments now.”
Who is the LA Times for?
Is it the California paper of record? “Well, the goal is much more than that,” Soon-Shiong said. He said the publication has a “California viewpoint,” given its home base, but “we have the ability” to extend nationally and globally, “especially to Asia, Mexico, Canada.”
Merida put it this way: “We’re competing for subscriptions” just like HBO Max. “I want to be the most exciting, innovative media company that exists anchored out in California, which is a country unto itself. And when you’re anchored there, you’re doing really innovative, creative things, you can not only get subscriptions from California, but other places.”
I also inquired about the paper’s reckoning on race; Soon-Shiong’s decision to stay on the sidelines while Alden Global Capital took over Tribune; and more. Tune in to the entire conversation via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your favorite app…
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.