L.A. Times’ Billionaire Owner (and His Family) Ignite a Tug-of-War Over Paper’s Future

According to his resignation announcement, Kevin Merida’s abrupt Jan. 9 exit as executive editor of the Los Angeles Times came about through a “mutual agreement” with the paper’s owner, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech magnate turned publishing dilettante. This may well be true. From everything that can be gleaned about Merida’s less-than-three-year bumpy tenure as Soon-Shiong’s No. 1 at the 143-year-old publishing institution, there was plenty of mutual dissatisfaction, mutual distrust and maybe even mutual disdain.

Times watchers will recall that Merida’s arrival at the paper in 2021 was greeted with great fanfare. The 66-year-old former Washington Post editor and Pulitzer finalist had been hired after a grueling months-long head-hunting expedition that involved some 30 aspirants, including New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and former Hollywood Reporter editor (and Ankler co-founder) Janice Min, as well as a slew of in-house contenders (deputy managing editor Julia Turner, New York Times managing editor Carolyn Ryan and editorial page editor Sewell Chan). At the time, Merida was said to have been among the more reluctant candidates, supposedly uneager to leave his longtime home in Silver Spring, Maryland, for L.A. But the chance to lead one of the few remaining city papers with national clout — as well as a reported $1 million salary and free lodging in one of Soon-Shiong’s luxe Brentwood guesthouses — must have tipped the scales.

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What went wrong? And why so quickly? Some sources point to friction with Soon-Shiong’s 30-year-old daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who in recent years has apparently appointed herself the paper’s unofficial ombudsman, publicly upbraiding journalists when their politics don’t fall in line with her own progressive thinking.

The most recent clash — and the one that might have been the last straw for Merida — involved the paper’s coverage of the war in the Middle East. According to insiders, a group of senior editors approached Merida to express outrage that more than three dozen Times reporters had signed a Nov. 9 statement severely critical of Israel’s invasion of Gaza but barely mentioning the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel launched from the Hamas-controlled territory. Insiders say Merida initially was reluctant to insert himself into the matter but decided to restrict, for 90 days, signers of the petition from participating in future coverage of the conflict. That decision reportedly did not go over well with Patrick Soon-Shiong, and couldn’t have thrilled Nika, either; she has made her pro-Palestinian views clear on her Twitter feed, where she has pinned a picture of the Palestinian flag and posted instructions to journalists to refer to Israel as an “apartheid state,” and even followed (and frequently “liked”) Quds News Network, a news agency often accused of being affiliated with Hamas.

The Times’ coverage of Israel has appeared, at least to some readers, to have grown noticeably more hostile since Nika began poking around the newsroom. On Oct. 9, shortly after the Hamas attack, for example — during which some 1,200 Israeli men, women and children were killed, with hundreds more kidnapped and dragged back to Gaza — the Times illustrated its front-page report on the assault with a photo of an injured Palestinian child, a decision that triggered furious pushback on social media. After a Times reporter attempted to debunk reports that Hamas fighters had committed rape and other atrocities during its Oct. 7 rampage, a pro-Israel group sent a billboard truck to the Times offices, which circled the building playing videotaped testimony from survivors of the attack.

Politics aside, the Times’ apparent pivot away from Israel doesn’t make a lot of business sense. Though the paper has been trying to broaden its appeal to Latinos (with a new Latinx Files newsletter and a new De Los section of the online edition) as well as younger readers (which explains that Instagram feed featuring a zany sheep puppet delivering commentary on L.A.’s fires and floods), its core subscribers remain older, more affluent, frequently Jewish Westsiders. Those are readers the paper can ill afford to alienate. Last year, the Times lost 13 percent of its newsroom to layoffs, and another $10 million in cuts are expected this year, with more layoffs in the offing. (On Jan. 17, the Times‘ union called for a meeting in response to management’s plans for layoffs, with the bargaining committee describing those plans as “the Big One” in a memo.)

But it’s not just Jewish readers the Times has been upsetting. Just before Merida was brought on board, famed Time and Wall Street Journal editor Norman Pearlstine ran the paper, and he too took heat from Nika. During the BLM protests and riots in L.A., Nika was calling out staff writers on Twitter and clashing with Times leadership over the use of the term “looting” in headlines. Later, she slammed a Times news item on the rash of smash-and-grab robberies that had been afflicting the city’s high-end department stores by claiming that by reporting on the crimes, the Times was “doing the bidding” of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

As it happens, Nika isn’t the only member of the Soon-Shiong family who’s been meddling in the Times’ content. Her mother, Patrick’s wife, Michele, has also shown an interest in its editorial direction, although in her case it had more to do with food than social justice politics. Right before the pandemic, she urged her husband to build kitchens at the Times to test recipes for the paper’s cooking section. More recently, Michele has reportedly been pushing for Patrick to sell the newspaper, seeing it as a gigantic money suck. During a Zoom conference in 2021 with the Black Caucus, she was said to have broken down in tears, complaining that the family had to write a million-dollar check every week to keep the paper afloat. The Times did not respond to requests for comment. Both Merida and Nika Soon-Shiong declined comment.

Of course, wealthy families purchasing news outlets and remaking them to serve their political agendas is not unheard of. Usually, though, it’s ultra-conservative billionaires — rhymes with Schmerdock — who turn them into misinformation machines spewing right-wing conspiracies. What’s novel this time is that the mogul in question (or at least his daughter) happens to be super progressive. Either way, it’s not an environment in which journalists like Merida — a newsman trained in the classical arts of objectivity, fairness and sanity — tend to thrive. And it may make finding someone of equal caliber to replace him an even more daunting task than it was the last time around. After the turmoil of the past few years, why would anyone worth the job want the job?

Jan. 18, 2 pm PST Updated to reflect Carolyn Ryan’s role at The New York Times and that a front-page report referenced was on Oct. 9 not Oct. 8.

This story appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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