In its mission statement, the nonprofit Houston Landing describes itself as an “independent, nonpartisan news organization devoted to public service journalism,” one that “offer[s] solutions to pressing problems” and “holds the powerful accountable.” Its stories are free to read, and its website runs no ads or clickbait. Its vision of an independent, well-funded outlet built on rigorous investigative reporting attracted some of the city’s brightest journalism stars after its soft launch two years ago with financial backing from the philanthropic American Journalism Project and Houston billionaires John Arnold and Richard Kinder.
Among its first hires were Houston Chronicle investigations editor Mizanur Rahman, who became the Landing’s editor in chief (and helped write the mission statement), and the Chronicle’s Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Alex Stuckey, who became the Landing’s top investigative journalist. Rahman and Stuckey helped build a newsroom of about thirty editors, reporters, photographers, and web designers that routinely punched above its weight, producing major stories about an epidemic of deaths in Harris County jails and a plague of stopped trains in Houston’s East End. Since the website’s official debut in June, it has regularly scooped the competition—including Texas Monthly—on stories ranging from the state takeover of Houston ISD to predatory lending at the Colony Ridge development north of Houston.
The Landing’s success made it all the more shocking when, on Monday morning, Rahman and Stuckey were summarily fired by CEO Peter Bhatia, a fifty-year newspaper veteran and former Detroit Free Press editor in chief who had been in the job for less than a year. Bhatia is longtime friends with Landing board member Jeff Cohen, a senior advisor at Houston philanthropy organization Arnold Ventures—a major funder of the Landing—and a former Chronicle editor in chief. The six-member board of directors appears to have brought Bhatia in to shake things up at the website. (None of the Landing’s six board members agreed to interview requests for this story; the author of this story worked briefly under Cohen at the Chronicle in 2017 and did sporadic freelance copy writing for the Arnold Ventures website from 2019 to 2020.)
“Over recent months I’ve become concerned about whether or not we were fully engaged in the process of being effective in the digital spaces,” Bhatia told Texas Monthly this week. “We’ve been putting out a newspaper on a website. There’s been some really good journalism and some high-impact stuff, for sure. But after a lot of conversations with Mizanur, I reached the conclusion that we had to make a change if we’re going to be as effective as we can in the digital space.” A document prepared for the November meeting of the Landing’s board and obtained by Texas Monthly showed that the site exceeded its 2023 goal for annual page views (1.5 million) and was within striking distance of its goal for unique visitors (1 million). For comparison, the nonprofit San Antonio Report, founded in 2012, claims 500,000 monthly page views.
Stuckey told Texas Monthly that she was blindsided by her firing. Just two weeks earlier, she had received a glowing performance review and a 3 percent pay raise. In a recording of Monday’s termination meeting provided by Stuckey, Bhatia can be heard saying he has “enormous respect for you as a journalist . . . you are an investigative reporter of the highest level.” But, he explains, there is no place for her in the “comprehensive reset” he believes is necessary at the Landing.
“If you had ever come to me and said, ‘I want you to revamp how you do stories,’ I would have done that in a heartbeat,” Stuckey tells him.
“It’s not my job to do that,” Bhatia replies. “It’s the editor’s job.”
“So I’m getting cut off at the knees because you felt that Mizanur didn’t do that?”
“Well, you can jump to that conclusion.”
At the end of the meeting, human resources director Susie Hermsen offered Stuckey three months of severance pay if she signed a nondisparagement agreement. Stuckey refused. “I believe in transparency,” she can be heard saying in the recording. “This is insanity, and I am absolutely not signing anything.”
The Landing’s newsroom was similarly dumbfounded by the firings. Much of the staff converged upon the organization’s sixth-floor office, in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, on Monday to show solidarity with Rahman and Stuckey. Later, the staff wrote a collective letter to the Landing’s board of directors warning of “significant damage to employee retention and recruitment” and predicting that “the optics of such a massive restructuring during a moment of forward momentum will hurt our fundraising and financial efforts.”
Bhatia acknowledged that the newsroom was in open revolt against his leadership. “I have no illusion that some people are going to leave over this, and I respect that,” he told Texas Monthly. The Landing’s managing editor, John Tedesco, will temporarily take over for Rahman while Bhatia leads a search for a new editor in chief. Tedesco told me that he disagrees with the decision to fire Rahman and Stuckey and fears that “this turmoil will cause our best and brightest journalists to look for the nearest exit ramp.”
The Landing is one of dozens of local nonprofit newsrooms that have sprung up around the country in the past couple of decades. Often funded by a combination of wealthy donors, foundation grants, NPR-style membership drives, and paid events, these nonprofits have been touted as a supplement or even a replacement for declining local newspapers. But some observers worry that such publications are beholden to the whims of their billionaire patrons. (Texas Monthly is a for-profit magazine whose chairman is Houston billionaire Randa Duncan Williams.)
Last year was rough for nonprofit newsrooms in Texas. In March 2023, the foundation that publishes the 68-year-old Texas Observer announced it was shutting down the magazine for lack of money. The outlet was ultimately saved by a staff-led GoFundMe campaign that raised nearly $350,000, but its financing remains precarious. Last August, the Texas Tribune, founded in 2009 and among the most successful nonprofit newsrooms in the country, laid off 11 percent of its staff—the first layoffs in its history. Bhatia gave no indication that the Landing, which was founded in 2022 with $20 million in seed money, is facing a financial squeeze. But fallout from the dismissals of Rahman and Stuckey may affect its finances, since the Landing regularly touts its journalism in fund-raising campaigns, sometimes enlisting reporters and editors to solicit funds.
Stuckey penned an email thanking Landing donors for their support just a few weeks ago. In the letter, she notes that following her investigation into deaths at the Harris County jails, the county earmarked $645,000 for mental health support. “Too often journalism feels like shouting into the void, hoping that someone, anyone will listen,” Stuckey wrote. “Yet, here was someone in power not just listening but also inspired to take decisive action.”
Bhatia declined to provide details about his “reset” of the Landing. When asked for examples of the kind of digital journalism he wants to produce, he cited “Snow Fall,” a 2012 New York Times multimedia story about a deadly avalanche in Washington State. The project was produced by a team of eleven Times journalists over six months. “Maybe that’s not realistic, but the principle is to utilize different techniques to tell stories,” Bhatia said. “If we’re going to differentiate ourselves from traditional media, which is what we’re all about, then we have to be willing to try those things.”