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

Tag: Houston Landing

At Houston Landing, the firings will continue until morale improves

Houston Landing, a high-profile nonprofit digital startup that has been beset by turmoil for much of 2024, is at it again. John Tedesco, a top editor at the Landing, was fired Wednesday, according to the Houston Landing NewsGuild, which, on Twitter/X, called it “another senseless decision that comes after nearly two months of disorganization.”

It was two months ago that a new editor-in-chief, Manny García, and a new managing editor, Angel Rodriguez, arrived. But according to the union, the new executive team has been virtually silent, adding, “We haven’t been given any clear direction.” As for Tedesco, the union has this to say: “Tedesco wasn’t an eligible union member, but he embodies everything we fight for: empathy, kindness, and firmness. We wouldn’t be here without him. Houston Landing wouldn’t be here without him.”

What a mess. In January, editor-in-chief Mizanur Rahman and top investigative reporter Alex Stuckey were fired by CEO Peter Bhatia, who — according to a memorable Washington Post article (free link) — responded with a classic “Do you know who I am?” when he was challenged on his plan to have the business and editorial operations work together more closely. (In fairness, Bhatia is a legendary journalist in his own right. But also in fairness, there’s a reason that keeping editorial and business apart is sometimes referred to as “the separation of church and state.”)

At the time that Rahman and Stuckey were fired, Tedesco said on Twitter that he told Bhatia he disagreed with the decision. Bhatia, in turn, pledged to keep Tedesco, and perhaps move him to a different position if the new editor didn’t want him as his deputy.

That different position turned out to be out the door.

As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted: “They’ll teach a case study about @Hou_Landing management someday, and it will not be a positive case.”

Houston Landing, founded in 2023, received $20 million in grants from the likes of the Knight Foundation and the American Journalism Project, as well as wealthy locals. As smaller news startups express frustration over being snubbed by Big Philanthropy, the Landing stands out as a large, well-funded site whose good work is being undermined and overshadowed by some mighty strange management moves at the top.

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Wendi Thomas talks about her work at MLK50, a nonprofit covering social justice in Memphis

Wendi C. Thomas. Photo (cc) 2022 by Ellen Clegg.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, we talk with Wendi C. Thomas, the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which is based in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas founded MLK50 in 2017 as a one-year project designed to focus on the antipoverty work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King had traveled to Memphis in April of 1968 to support striking sanitation workers who were fighting for safer working conditions and a living wage.

But MLK50 became much more than a one-year project. Thomas and her staff have gone on to produce journalism that has changed the dialogue, and changed lives, in Memphis. Her work has garnered numerous awards. In 2020, she was the winner of the Selden Ring Award for her groundbreaking investigative series, “Profiting from the Poor,” an investigation of a nonprofit hospital that sued poor patients over medical debt. The series, co-published with ProPublica, had major impact: the hospital erased $11.9 million in medical debt. MLK50 is one of the projects that we profile in our book, “What Works in Community News.”

Ellen Clegg has a Quick Take on the situation at the Houston Landing, a highly anticipated and well-funded nonprofit newsroom that launched in 2023. The Landing is in turmoil after CEO Peter Bhatia fired the editor and the top investigative reporter for reasons that remain mysterious.

My Quick Take is on The Baltimore Sun, the venerable 186-year-old daily newspaper that at one time was home to the infamously caustic writer H.L. Mencken. Earlier this month, Alden Global Capital sold the Sun to a right-wing television executive who hates newspapers. But not to fear — public interest journalism is alive and well in Baltimore, as I explain.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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Why large foundations need to step up for smaller local news projects

Postcard of Athens, Ohio, via Wikimedia Commons

In the course of our reporting for “What Works in Community News,” Ellen Clegg and I were confronted with a reality that cuts against our usual optimism: that though news startups across the country are helping to fill the gap created by the decline of legacy newspapers, the new media landscape is unevenly distributed.

Large regional and statewide nonprofits like The Texas Tribune and NJ Spotlight News are doing reasonably well, though the Tribune has recently hit a few bumps and Spotlight has never been a fundraising behemoth. Smaller projects serving affluent suburbs, like a number of startups in Eastern Massachusetts, are doing well. But there are few independent news outlets serving low-population rural areas and urban communities of color, and those that do exist are often overlooked by the larger philanthropic organizations.

Corinne Colbert writes about that reality for a newsletter called Local News Blues, which I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of until my friend and teacher Howard Owens of The Batavian pointed me to it a few days ago. Colbert is cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Athens County Independent, a nonprofit digital startup that in southeastern Ohio. Late last week she wrote a commentary headlined “Does big philanthropy really care about our smaller news markets?” Now, you know the rule about question headlines: the answer is almost always “no.” She observes:

Nearly 60% of foundation grants go to national and global nonprofit outlets, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. Local outlets — which INN defines as those serving audiences at the county, city or town level or having a specific focus — represent almost one-fourth of nonprofit news jobs, but we get less than 20% of foundation funding. That gap represents millions and millions of dollars.

Recently the Houston Landing, a well-funded nonprofit with strong backing from the American Journalism Project, imploded when the publisher fired the highly regarded editor and the top investigative reporter without offering any logical explanation. The Landing may recover, but there’s been a serious lack of transparency. Meanwhile, projects that Ellen and I have written about such as MLK50 in Memphis and the New Haven Independent have never been able to attract much in the way of national funding, even though both are performing vitally important work.

Nonprofits are bringing news and information to communities in ways that for-profits often no longer can. But it’s time for major foundations — including Press Forward, a $500 million effort comprising 22 philanthropies — to bring renewed efforts to helping not just large, sexy projects but more quotidian efforts as well. Fortunately there are signs that Press Forward gets it.

“Small markets … present business challenges that corporations are often unwilling to face,” writes Colbert, “and those challenges make launching or growing a local news operation especially difficult. National funders could ease those burdens, but first they have to acknowledge our existence — and our importance.”

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‘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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Turmoil in Houston

Houston Landing, a high-profile, well-funded nonprofit startup, is in meltdown mode following the unexpected firing of the editor-in-chief and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. Sophie Culpepper has the story at Nieman Lab.

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Sue Cross of INN tells us why this is a golden age of news innovation

Sue Cross at the recent INN Days gathering in Washington. Photo by Will Allen-DuPraw and used with permission.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, Ellen Clegg and I talk with Sue Cross, the veteran journalist who will step down as executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) by the end of 2023. Sue has led INN since 2015, and has overseen a period of tremendous growth. There were 117 nonprofit newsroom members listed in the INN’s 2015 annual report. This year, INN has 425 member newsrooms.

She has also been a driving force in the NewsMatch program, a collaborative fundraising project that has helped raise more than $270 million for emerging newsrooms since its launch in 2016. Before joining INN, Cross was a journalist and executive at The Associated Press. Cross says we are in a golden age of news innovation, and she hopes to continue to lend her support. She also says she hopes to spend time on personal projects.

Ellen has a Quick Take on the launch of the Houston Landing, a nonprofit digital site serving Greater Houston. I provide an update on efforts to extract money out of Google and Facebook in order to pay for news.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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