Having invested $70.5 million in Tribune Publishing Co., Patrick Soon-Shiong said the Los Angeles Times is poised to become “the Harry Potter of news.”
As part of his deal for a 12.9 percent stake in the company, Soon-Shiong’s NantWorks has licensed more than 100 artificial intelligence and machine vision technology patents to Tribune, technologies he believes can transform the digital news operations of the Chicago company and its Los Angeles flagship.
But technology analysts question whether those tools pack enough magic to turn the fortunes of the beleaguered newspaper company.
“The promise of AI is that it will deliver much more personal and meaningful content. But I don’t see any media organizations really investing the kind of time, effort, and money into R&D that would be required to make any of this happen,” said Amy Webb, Washington, D.C.-based founder of the Future Today Institute.
Still, Soon-Shiong did not amass a fortune estimated at $15.4 billion without taking a few fliers, and he seems to be committed to bringing Tribune into the 21st century.
“He’s in there for the long haul,” said Lloyd Greif, president and chief executive at downtown L.A. investment bank Grief & Co., referring to the three-year lockup terms associated with Soon-Shiong’s purchase.
“There’s a perception that there’s upside to this stock, not just in a sale to (Gannett Co.) but perhaps in the execution of Patrick’s vision.”
Soon-Shiong’s all-cash acquisition of 4.7 million Tribune shares through his Nant Capital on May 23 coincided with the publisher’s rejection of USA Today owner Gannett’s latest offer to acquire the company. Gannett said on May 16 it would pay $15 a share for all outstanding shares and assume Tribune’s $390 million debt, for a total transaction value of approximately $864 million.
Soon-Shiong’s deal and the promise of his technology did little to quell shareholder unrest.
Its shares, which had been trading near $15 before Soon-Shiong’s deal came public, fell below $12 in its wake. And Oaktree Capital Management, which became Tribune’s third-largest shareholder after the Nant Capital investment (Nant Capital holds just 4,000 more shares than Oaktree), called for Tribune’s board to negotiate and close a transaction with Gannett. St. Louis investment firm Towle & Co., which owns 1.4 million shares, joined in the plea.
Leadership at Towle, whose holdings were diluted by Soon-Shiong’s investment, issued a strongly worded letter to the Tribune board alleging that it has “abandoned its fiduciary responsibility of maximizing shareholder value” and that they are “greatly perplexed at (Tribune’s) unreasonable, capital destructive position.”
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