This past February came word that a new nonprofit was budding in Houston — home to more than 2.3 million people, where the population is diverse and geographically widespread.
In early June, Houston Landing formally launched under the direction of CEO Peter Bhatia. Two months in, Bhatia spoke with E&P Publisher Mike Blinder on an episode of E&P Reports about his Pulitzer-winning career in newspapers — notably The Oregonian, Cincinnati Enquirer and the Detroit Free Press — and about his new role at the Landing.
A former editor, Bhatia is now at the helm of the business model — nonprofit, purely digital and expressly focused on Houston’s underserved communities. They solicit donations and members, but the journalism is free.
According to Bhatia, they’ve secured three years of funding from Houston Endowment, Kinder Foundation, Knight Foundation, American Journalism Project (AJP) and others; the first-year budget is $7 million.
“We’ve got runway to figure out what a nonprofit journalism site can be, successfully, in Houston,” Bhatia said.
Houston Landing is focused on hard-hitting journalism, told authentically. And the path to authenticity is through a diverse newsroom that reflects the city itself. Bhatia explained to Blinder that they are “very aggressively hiring staff of color” and hope to have a team of 50 by the end of the year.
Editor-in-Chief Mizanur Rahman comes to the Landing by way of The Virginian Pilot, The Dallas Morning News, and, for the past 15 years, the Houston Chronicle. At the Chronicle, he first served as the metro editor, overseeing local coverage. His more recent roles included Sunday editor and senior investigations editor.
“I was excited to be part of a new nonprofit that could … focus on doing stories that have impact, stories that support people who are too often ignored, stories that are super urgent, stories that try to explain complicated things in easy-to-understand ways,” Rahman said.
First, he had to build the newsroom.
“Every person we interview, who’d like a job here, is asked, ‘Tell me why you want to work at Houston Landing,’” he said. “I’m really listening for ideas and answers about putting the community first. I believe in people-centered journalism. … We want people who believe in our mission, who are confident that they can do accountability and watchdog journalism.”
Rahman had the added benefit of an AJP report, illuminating Houston’s underserved communities.
“American Journalism Project gave us a good roadmap,” he said. “They did a lot of research, surveys and listening sessions.”
“People really wanted accountability and watchdog journalism,” he added. “That was very heartening for me to hear that, coming from investigative journalism. The second thing that people wanted was more community-centered journalism.”
“We were able to prioritize the key and essential themes — so, strong public safety coverage, plus strong government coverage, the environment, immigration, education — all these key issues that are so important to the region,” Rahman said.
Rahman cited three recent stories with measurable impact: an investigative series on mental health services in Houston’s jails; one about an unfair library policy; and another about people being overcharged for city water bills.
The coverage is visually captivating. “Making sure that we invested enough in our photojournalism was important. We started with two full-time photographers and a photo editor,” Rahman said.
Reporters are accessible. “Each individual reporter comes up with their own ways of how they’ll listen to the community, how they’ll put their communities front and center,” Rahman said. The week E&P spoke with Rahman, Landing journalists had mentored students at a local school’s journalism camp.
“Anytime someone becomes a member or donates, we ask them to tell us why, and we had someone today who donated $300, who said that they’d been thinking about it for a while because they believe in investigative journalism,” said Rahman, “but when they saw the story about our staff talking to the young journalists, that was it.”
Product, audience and strategy
Following 20 years in tech consulting and venture capital, Mitesh Vashee joined the Landing as chief product officer. With a team of in-house staff and external consultants, Vashee oversees the website and e-newsletter's design.
They made a decision not to create a branded mobile app. It’s cost prohibitive.
Vashee committed to timelines and deliverables during development, keeping everyone in the loop about the progress. Rather than being siloed, he engaged the newsroom and welcomed suggestions from across the organization.
They created an uncluttered, simple design with lots of white space. The site was engineered to be fluid and flexible, allowing for most-viewed or breaking-news stories to rank prominently on the page.
Vashee estimated that 75% of the Landing’s audience comes via mobile devices.
“We’ve created an experience that is mobile-friendly,” he said. “Mobile first — everything we do.”
“I had a really good experience interning as an engagement fellow on the audience team at The Texas Tribune,” Forrest Milburn told E&P. He went on to work on the audience team at the Miami Herald, where he grew the social media following, across platforms like Instagram, Reddit and TikTok. When he saw a tweet about the Houston Landing’s launch, he applied for his current role, director of audience.
“Houston is an incredibly diverse, very large, spread-out metro area,” he said. Many of the communities the Landing is trying to reach are already using social media apps like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube. They are accustomed to sharing news and communicating with apps like WeChat, WhatsApp and Telegram.
“They may just need to have our content in the right language, the right format, but also writing in a way that can spread through those channels,” said Milburn. In addition to English, they’re considering original reporting in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese and Mandarin.
When E&P spoke with Milburn in July, they had roughly 6,000 newsletter subscribers, on pace to meet their year-end goal of 12,000. They planned to have 300 sustaining members by then.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Megan Finnerty joined the Landing as chief of strategy, engagement and revenue.
“When I looked at the (AJP) report, I saw things I thought made sense — like how traditional media has failed to cover the suburbs as robustly as the center of the city. Traditional media has failed to cover certain identity groups as robustly as others. You could see what’s been common among legacy organizations, with gaps in coverage based on geography and identity,” said Finnerty.
She continues to study how best to reach Houston’s diverse communities, both online and in person, and which storytelling methods are most effective. In the first few months on the job, she worked on marketing messaging and codified the organizational values. She also began to plan in-person events for 2024.
Already, she sees Houston Landing’s impact. She referred to the recent story about the library, which denied copy services to people who couldn’t pay the fees because they didn’t have a debit or credit card. They changed the policy after the story ran. “All because [Columnist] Maggie Gordon followed up on a tip from the community,” she said.
Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She’s reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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