Virginia’s journalist of the year on leaving his paper: ‘Time for us to go our separate ways’

Reporter John Holland’s tenure at The Virginian-Pilot was a brief but eventful one.

The Boston native with a thick New England accent came to the paper in late 2013 after a few years reporting overseas and, before that, a decade at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. In less than two years he shook up Virginia Beach, won the state press association’s award for Outstanding Journalist of the Year, attracted his share of critics among the local political and business elites, and found himself in the middle of a controversy over claims of management meddling in the newsroom. 

Now he is no longer with The Pilot, the latest high-profile departure from a paper that has since last fall experienced deep staff cuts and turnover at the top.

Holland’s exit is likely to raise some eyebrows for close readers of The Pilot. For his part, though, Holland declined to go into detail about the circumstances of his departure. “There’s new leadership at the paper with different approaches, and this was probably the perfect time for us to go our separate ways,” he said, in part, in a statement to CJR. “The Pilot still has an unbelievably deep and talented group of reporters. I was very lucky to work there and will miss it.”

Holland added that three of the four editors who hired him have also since left the paper. His exit comes eight months after longtime Pilot editor Denis Finley resigned.

Since leaving The Pilot, Holland has signed on as a consultant for an investigative media and courts project in Albania and is seeking freelance work.

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The paper’s current top editor, Steve Gunn, did not respond to a phone message or emails seeking comment for this story.

While at The Pilot, Holland covered the strange case of a public works director apparently on perpetual leave for military deployment and a local Little League that got into the bingo hall business, among other stories. But his most notable work focused on the intersection between local government and some of the region’s leading industries—banking and real estate.

In November 2014, The Pilot published an investigation by Holland reporting that the mayor of Virginia Beach, Will Sessoms, had cast votes benefiting developers who borrowed from a bank where the mayor also worked as an executive. In the aftermath, the mayor left his lucrative private-sector job, the bank and others in the area changed their policies on executives holding public office, and an official inquiry was launched.

The story also prompted plenty of pushback—and as I reported in January, according to many Pilot journalists, some of it came from upper management at the paper’s own company, stymying other reporting efforts and precipitating a crisis in the newsroom. Eventually, the paper did run a clarification and a correction, and, in time, reporters got back to work.

Then, just this month, after a yearlong investigation, a special prosecutor charged the mayor with five misdemeanor counts of violating Virginia’s Conflict of Interest Act by failing to make necessary disclosures. Two of the five cases that led to charges had been featured in The Pilot’s coverage. (The case is pending; Sessoms has said he “never intentionally violated the conflict of interest act.”)

Holland also pursued a line of reporting about the city’s involvement in the private sale and redevelopment of a decaying landmark hotel. A September 2014 article raised conflict-of-interest questions about one council member’s vote on a package of tax incentives. By early this year, the FBI had reportedly opened an investigation. There has been no resolution to date. 

Holland’s final story for The Pilot returned to the hotel deal, from a slightly different angle. That article documents the assistance one developer got from city officials in putting together a successful offer, and quotes a councilman who worries that “people believe there isn’t a level playing field in the city.” According to sources at The Pilot, the story was held up internally for months. It ran on Sunday, Nov. 8, after Holland had already left.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.