Newsmedia and a COVID pill: Making a difference with news and healthcare

When Patrick Soon-Shiong isn't fixing California's most influential newspaper, there's a problem with a virus that's been exercising his mind.

So virtual delegates to WAN-Ifra's Asian Media Leaders eSummit probably shouldn't have been surprised that the owner and executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune should take the opportunity to drop some potentially world-shattering news... and leave it right to the end.

"The good news is we think we shall have not only an injectable (for COVID-19) but a capsule which will be a game-changer to help for long-term durable immunity," the billionaire sometimes described as the world's richest doctor disclosed.

Look elsewhere for that announcement - moderator Ken Doctor chided him for leaving the big news until last - and also for news that day that his paper's 'LA Times Today' TV show had scored an Emmy and four additional nominations.

Last month Soon-Shiong - who has been called the "dark horse entrant" in the race for a COVID-19 vaccine - announced that an experimental vaccine being developed by two of his companies was on the short list of 14 candidates being evaluated by the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed push to deliver 300 million doses of vaccines by next January.

The messaging reinforces that though it's not yet two years since Soon-Shiong acquired the west coast paper from Tronc for a reported US$500 million plus pension costs - and he's focused on its potential, he's having fun making a difference.

"It was impossible that this newspaper should not survive," he said at the start of WAN-Ifra's four-day event, to which 400 delegates tuned in via Zoom.

To a world before COVID-19 was thought of, Soon-Shiong brought different tech skills - as a result of his work developing supercomputer techniques to "solve the problem of the cancer genome" - which could play a role in fixing the ailing newsmedia industry.

"The paper was in a mess, morale depleted, the infrastructure archaic, revenue was depressed and there had been a huge loss of good people," he said. "We needed to start from scratch."

Coming "from the outside in", he was able to apply the supercomputing ML skills from one problem to solve another. Created by a development team from his own Nantworks business, the content management system - dubbed Graphene - tied print, advertising, web, mobile and other platforms together, and has helped "change the paper" which, from "almost nothing", now has 300,000 digital subscribers.

"It was the beginning of the beginning," he said.

Soon-Shiong repeats his commitment that the newspaper and its publisher "not only inspire, engage and encourage, but also provide truthful news.

"Tech alone won't change it," he says. "More important are its people."

Some 140 have been added to the newsroom team, led by new executive editor Norman Pearlstine. However, Soon-Shiong also is especially proud of the LA Times app which loads three times as fast as its predecessor and has improved discoverability and search by 80 per cent.

"When I took over the paper, we were launching a platform I won't name, but we saw a 40 per cent loss on the day of the launch," he says. "I scrapped it, and when we relaunched the new Graphine and we saw immediate increase, which is unusual. We have doubled subscription revenue, and the mobile app and podcast has millions of viewers."

Now there's the Emmy award, and Soon-Shiong's ideas are behind a 'button' to have the doctor on call, and to get your COVID and cancer results.

"We want it to be a different way of thinking of the newspaper, to add value through these utilities," he says.

The new Times RX facility - using knowledge of healthcare brought to the platform - delivers savings in pharmaceutical costs, and Zoom-driven telemedecine, bring value to readers.

He recalls the role of newspapers when he was growing up in South Africa during apartheid, earning pocket money from delivering newspapers in Port Elizabeth: "There needs to be a voice that people can trust," he says, criticizing the lack of responsibility of social media platforms. "I've said before that fake news is the cancer of our times, and social media is the cause of the metastasis. You should be able to turn to us for inspiration."

Soon-Shiong says in a competition for engagement, it hasn't been enough to be just a newspaper. "Trust is the most important, but we've had to think of ourselves as a media brand," he says, "so we've launched podcasts - you've heard of Dirty John - and build into a TV show, with the LA Times news station just winning an Emmy."

New developments will bring real time video to the mobile app, and see the launch of a test kitchen. A new editorial feature will focus a 'second opinion' feature to differentiate news from opinion.

"Importantly I want a voice in healthcare, where truth matters and lives will be lost unless truth comes out, even if it's in the form of opinion.

"Wherever we can engage, we need to do so," he says. "Graphene has given us the most agile platform, which can tie into Slack, into print, into mobile and the web."

With California's geographic position, he sees a role for the LA Times not just as a regional publisher, but as "a window to the future, a portal to the Asian community, and for Asia and Mexico," he says. "So yes, it's important that this newspaper not only survive but thrive."

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Patrick Soon-Shiong (top); and consultant Ken Doctor (above)

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