By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

‘Do you know who I am?’ The Washington Post on the turmoil at Houston Landing

It’s still not clear why the editor of the nonprofit Houston Landing and its top investigative reporter were fired this past week. But Will Sommer of The Washington Post (free link) has quite an anecdote about CEO Peter Bhatia’s reaction when he was challenged about his decision to start attending news meetings, which would violate the traditional wall between editorial and business operations: “Do you know who I am? Seriously, do you know who I am? I’ve been a journalist for 50 years, I have 10 Pulitzer Prizes, I’ve been editor of a half a dozen newspapers.”

Sommer and Sophie Culpepper, in her earlier (and more thorough) Nieman Lab report, write that Bhatia’s main complaint about editor Mizanur Rahman was his belief that he didn’t take advantage of digital tools as much as he should have. Reporter Alex Stuckey may have been collateral damage, fired pre-emptively because of her outspokenness and her loyalty to Rahman.

None of it makes any sense because the Landing, by all accounts, is off to a good start, publishing excellent journalism and in decent shape financially thanks to lavish philanthropic support.

One quibble about Sommer’s story. He writes:

The sudden turmoil at Houston Landing — a seven-month-old news site backed with a hefty $20 million in foundation funding — is raising questions about whether the scores of nonprofit outlets attempting to save journalism in communities across the country will end up mired in the same woes as their languishing corporate rivals, from muddled transitions to digital formats to executive decisions that often come without a clear rationale.

I don’t understand that framing. What’s unfolding at Houston Landing is a reflection of the human condition and how that plays out at organizations. There are good leaders and bad, inspired and mediocre, mensches and jerks. Do recent drastic cuts at The Washington Post, for instance, “raise questions” about what happens to a great newspaper when its billionaire owner starts to lose interest?

There is nothing about the current mess at Houston Landing that says anything about nonprofit news. It’s just one of those things, and it’s ugly.

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  1. kbowe

    Isn’t that framing consistent with the precieved need to inject “conflict” into a story to make it more “interesting”? Conflict is in the DNA of every great story and so a journalist looks for the most extreme possible implication of a story (even if there is only a remote chance of happening) to anchor their story. Hell, that’s why we’ve been getting a barrage of stories about Haley’s chances for a Trump upset.

  2. John Kelly

    I have known and directly worked with Peter Bhatia for over 30 years. This man is one of the smartest and supportive of staff in the industry. Yes, he has a title of Publisher but to call him a “business side” person is just ignorant. He is and always will be a true journalist who has mentored thousands of journalists always in a supportive fashion. Publishers attend newsroom meetings all the time and in fact some editors encouraged advertising staff to sit in and listen during newsroom meetings…even occasionally participating when asked. Many of you may know Dave Zeick, who was a leader in this approach.
    Peter’s skillsets allow him to constructively grow his newsrooms and take them to a much higher level. His comments were, in my opinion, to a staff who hadn’t done their homework in knowing their boss’s background and what he had to offer. This is a man who is a true leader…quit trying to cut his throat because of some whiners who obviously don’t with to learn.

  3. Brant Houdtom

    Excellent take

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