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Jan. 10, 2024, 2:04 p.m.
Business Models

The Houston Landing’s newsroom is “blindsided” by the firing of its top editor and a star reporter

“I was not given a reason beyond ‘the company needs a reset, and you’re not part of it.'”

Before the Houston Landing even had a name, it was already powered by one of the biggest investments in any single nonprofit local news startup. A full year before launch, the project had secured $20 million in pledged funding from a coalition of local and national backers.

This week, newsroom staffers were shocked when Mizanur Rahman, the Landing’s widely popular editor-in-chief, and Alex Stuckey, an early hire and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, were abruptly fired on Monday morning as part of what CEO Peter Bhatia described as a company “reset.” Rahman and Stuckey had hired and mentored most other members of the newsroom.

Their losses, six months after the news site’s full launch last June, prompted the Landing’s journalists to send a letter appealing to the nonprofit’s six-member board of directors to reverse the decision. But Bhatia told me that the board of directors and funders were “not at all” involved in the company reset decision — he said these calls were his alone.

On Friday, Stuckey, Rahman, and two other “founding members” of the Landing received messages scheduling one-on-one meetings with Bhatia on Monday morning. Rahman, at the time, was on vacation with his family in the Grand Canyon; his meeting was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., Stuckey’s an hour later.

Stuckey told me she had heard concerns about tension between Bhatia and Rahman dating back a couple of months; in that context, the meeting request raised concerns among reporters that Rahman could be fired. Stuckey and other reporters rallied the newsroom to ensure everyone would be in the office in time for Rahman’s one-on-one meeting because they didn’t want him to be “fired to an empty room.” She described the environment in the building as “like a college sit-in.” When Rahman emerged from the meeting and confirmed he’d been fired, “everyone [was] sobbing,” she said.

After managing editor John Tedesco was named interim editor-in-chief in another one-on-one meeting, Stuckey told me she was fired in a five-minute 9:30 a.m. meeting with Bhatia, where she was asked to sign a severance agreement binding her to confidentiality, which was reviewed by Nieman Lab. (She refused to sign it.)

“I was not given a reason beyond ‘the company needs a reset, and you’re not part of it,’” Stuckey told me. She was especially blindsided because recently, in December, she had received a 3% raise based on what she described as a “stellar” performance review.

Stuckey also told me Bhatia had asked her to begin publishing stories more frequently (“once a month”) in December, “because he felt we needed more enterprise.” Publishing that often as an investigative reporter, she said, would have been a “demotion.” At the time, Rahman had “headed him off” and Stuckey had thought the dispute was resolved. (Stuckey published at least one story every month last year starting in February except for April and November, when she took a three-week vacation.)

Stuckey thought her loyalty to Rahman might have contributed to her being fired, telling me, “I tell all our job candidates, ‘if Mizanur said, we have to move to Antarctica, we’re going to do incredible journalism,’ I would call my husband and say we have to sell the house.” (Another reporter who requested anonymity out of concern for their job said “I think that she was essentially collateral damage” and described Stuckey as “among the more vocal people in the newsroom.”)

Stuckey recorded her brief meeting with Bhatia Monday. “This is born of my belief that we need to recalibrate Houston Landing, and go in some different directions if we’re going to be able to build a sustainable, successful site for the long term,” Bhatia told her in that meeting. “For this organization and where we need to be, I just feel like we need to do a fairly comprehensive reset, rebuild our investigative processes, especially if we’re going to be successful in the digital space over the long term.”

“We’re doing good work, we’re doing good journalism,” he added, “but we’re basically putting out a newspaper on the web. And that’s not a recipe for success for us for the long term, nor is it a recipe for sustainability. And in order to accomplish that, I just feel like there needs to be some fairly dramatic changes.” Bhatia told Stuckey the decision to fire her and Rahman was solely his call.

Bhatia answered my questions about the firings over email. “It is my belief that we need new ideas to execute our mission…effectively in the digital space,” he told me. “Our coverage needs to be more original, distinctive and not available elsewhere.”

On the digital front, Bhatia told me, the Landing is “behind on embracing all the tools digital offers us, such as video, data visualization, [and] interactive story treatments,” and needs to make “significant strides.” (Prior to joining the Landing, Bhatia spent almost 50 years in the newspaper business, with lengthy stints as the top editor of The Oregonian, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Detroit Free Press.)

Bhatia said that a new editor could “re-evaluate some of our coverage strategies” but that the Landing remains committed to covering Houston and “major areas of coverage” including education, public safety, and local government. The Landing is hiring reporters to cover medicine and energy, major Houston industries, he added.

Firing Rahman and Stuckey “was not a decision made in haste,” he said, adding that he determined that achieving his digital vision for the Landing required leadership changes. Bhatia said he’d had “several conversations about needed change [with Rahman] before any decision was made.” There are no plans to fire anyone else, and in addition to both positions being re-filled, the Landing will hire a second senior investigative reporter.

According to Stuckey and another reporter, some board members and funders wanted to see the Landing publish accountability reporting more frequently. Stuckey and another reporter told me that in October, they had heard some leadership concerns that the Landing was too similar to the Houston Chronicle, where Stuckey, Rahman, and two other early Landing hires worked previously, but both said that Bhatia had reassured reporters.

Stuckey and two other reporters said Bhatia was not typically very present in the newsroom. “Peter isn’t exactly a large presence in the office,” one reporter said.

Wanting more accountability reporting is fine, Stuckey said, “but we also hired based on covering communities that don’t get covered a lot. So there’s not going to be as much ‘accountability’ in some of the beats we have because their entire purpose is to cover communities that are frequently and historically ignored.” Those beats also require feature reporting and stories celebrating joy and successes, for instance, both to earn community trust and to effectively serve readers — “to get to those accountability stories, you have to show people that you want to write about all facets of them.”

One reporter said, “if [Stuckey] is not the standard [of accountability reporting] that we should be striving for, then what is?”

Bhatia said “our true measure will always be the impact of our work. We’ve had some successes, we need many more.” In the Houston media ecosystem, Bhatia said the Landing can occupy “the [wide] gap between mainstream media and ethnic/alternative/community press” and “seek to fill it with a mix of strong accountability journalism and by bringing coverage and community engagement to the city’s underserved neighborhoods.”

The Landing’s seed funding included $7.5 million each from two local foundations, the Houston Endowment and the Kinder Foundation; $4 million from a third local foundation, Arnold Ventures; and, on the national level, $1.5 million from the American Journalism Project and $250,000 from the Knight Foundation. That funding is expected to cover three years of operations, from 2023 to 2025.

Bhatia told me Houston Landing is “in excellent shape financially,” crediting founding grants and work by development staff. The Landing’s budget “is up significantly from 2023 and includes several new hires.”

Representatives for Arnold Ventures, the Houston Endowment, and the American Journalism Project directed me to Bhatia when asked for comment on the firings and company reset. (“Houston Landing operates fully independently of AJP, and as with all of our grantees, makes independent decisions about both their staffing and editorial choices,” said AJP head of communications Roshni Neslage.)

According to Bhatia, the company reset was “extensively” communicated to staff in written communication, a “long staff meeting” on Monday, and “extensive smaller and one-on-one meeting Tuesday.” (After the meeting Monday, all other reporters joined Stuckey and Rahman at a bar, and the Landing’s daily newsletter was paused three days in a row due to disrupted operations.)

Monday’s staff meeting, one reporter told me, “felt like we were back in the 2010s in one of the corporate newsroom meetings” emphasizing “digital is the future.”

“What does it mean when you say that we need an editor who can lead us into the digital future?” the reporter asked. “That is so something that came out of Gannett years ago.”

The changes left staff “baffled.” On Monday, “journalists of Houston Landing” released a letter to the board of directors opposing the decision and calling Rahman and Stuckey’s work “foundational to our success.” In the letter, they wrote:

Monday’s actions blindsided us. Nothing in the Landing’s performance, to date, appears to justify terminating two senior, trusted and well-respected members of the newsroom. CEO Peter Bhatia gave us his time this morning to explain his decisions. Unfortunately, we remain baffled why such drastic measures were necessary. We now risk significant damage to employee retention and recruitment. Further, the optics of such a massive restructuring during a moment of forward momentum will hurt our fundraising and financial efforts.

“Thanks in large part to Rahman and Stuckey’s mission-driven leadership, the newsroom has surpassed key benchmarks for readership, engagement and growth,” they added. The journalists noted that they more than doubled a goal of reaching 1 million page views in 2023 “while maintaining higher-than-expected engagement time.” The Landing’s impact tracker includes 200 entries, which they said was twice senior leadership’s goal.

The letter also revealed that another staffer’s column, Maggie Gordon’s, was cut, and that interim editor-in-chief Tedesco’s role is uncertain once a permanent editor is hired.

Shortly after this story was published, Tedesco shared the following statement with me:

I’m deeply sorry I didn’t do enough to protect Mizanur and Alex. They’re both thoughtful, excellent journalists who made the Houston Landing what it is today. I told Peter I know he’s doing what he thinks is right, but I disagree with the decision and I fear this turmoil will cause our best and brightest journalists to look for the nearest exit ramp.

I appreciate Peter listening to my concerns. He’d like me to remain in my current role until the new editor is hired. After that, the new editor will likely want to pick a new managing editor, or perhaps restructure the newsroom in a different way. Peter said there will be a place for me in a different editing role or as an investigative reporter.

I feel that leaving the Landing now will only put the four remaining editors and our director of photography in a bind. As long as my presence is beneficial, I hope to stay until the new editor is hired to do what I can to help. I’m not sure what I’ll do after that. I still believe in the Landing’s mission, and I still believe in this incredibly talented newsroom. I’m proud of them.

In the joint letter, Landing journalists asked the board to respond by the end of business on Wednesday. The Landing’s six board members are Jeff Cohen of Arnold Ventures, who was a top editor of the Houston Chronicle from 2002 to 2018; Rich Kinder of the Kinder Foundation; Ann Stern of the Houston Endowment; Algenita Davis; Anne Chao; and Alex Lopez Negrete.

Beyond the letter, several reporters publicly shared their dismay and sadness at losing Rahman and Stuckey.

Photo of the Houston skyline — taken from the Houston Landing’s Montrose neighborhood — by Manish Khatri used under a Creative Commons license.

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     Jan. 10, 2024, 2:04 p.m.
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