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March 18, 2024, 10:52 a.m.
Business Models

How Sahan Journal grew into a vital source of news and information for Minnesota’s immigrant communities

Five years after launch, Sahan Journal has a $3 million annual budget and 23 full-time staffers.

Changes are coming to Sahan Journal — a mark of the award-winning digital newsroom’s success and its lasting impact on the media ecosystem in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Mukhtar Ibrahim, the pioneering founder, is stepping down as founding publisher and CEO.

After building a robust, award-winning nonprofit news site covering immigrant communities, Ibrahim announced in the fall of 2023 that he is ready to make way for new leadership. His desire to spend more time with his family also factored into his decision. He and his wife, Aisha Elmi, welcomed a son in the summer of 2023. They are also parents to three daughters, ages 9, 8, and 5.

Five years in, Sahan is a thriving enterprise with a $3 million annual budget and 23 full-time staff members. Laura Yuen, a columnist at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and chair of Sahan Journal’s board of directors, said a search is underway for a new leader, who will have the title of executive director.

“This is an exciting time to find a new leader who will take Sahan to its next iteration,” Yuen said in a telephone interview. “We are in a healthy place right now, beyond most people’s wildest dreams, and a real presence in the Minnesota media ecosystem. With this great foundation, we hope our next leader will steer Sahan to even greater heights.”

Sahan Journal is one of the projects that we profile in our new book, What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate (Beacon Press). Over the course of several years, we visited about a dozen local news organizations in nine parts of the country — nonprofits and for-profits, digital startups and legacy newspapers, rural and urban, tiny radio stations and a large public television operation.

The following is excerpted from What Works in Community News: Media Startups, News Deserts, and the Future of the Fourth Estate, by Ellen Clegg and Dan Kennedy (Beacon Press, 2024). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

The fledgling newsroom of the digital startup Sahan Journal was scrambling to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 when George Floyd was murdered. “We were establishing our newsroom as things were exploding around us,” editor and founder Mukhtar Ibrahim said in July 2021. He had moved our in-person interview scheduled at Sahan Journal’s St. Paul office to a telephone discussion. As Ibrahim spoke on the phone from a spot outdoors, with the soft noise of traffic in the background, he explained that even though COVID infection levels in the Twin Cities were relatively stable (that month, Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, and Ramsey County, home to St. Paul, both reported a COVID positive test rate of 5.8%), he was limiting in-person contacts because he had vulnerable relatives in town for Eid al-Adha, the major Muslim holiday that honors the obedience of the prophet Ibrahim who was willing to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command.

A former reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune, Ibrahim launched his all-digital Sahan Journal in August 2019 with an ambitious goal: to cover the immigrant communities from Somalia, Laos, and other countries that are transforming the culture and politics of a state that is 80% white. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce reported in 2021 that Minnesota has the largest Somali population in the United States. Overall, the chamber reported, immigrants represent 8.5% of the state’s population; the top four nations of origin for foreign-born residents are Mexico, Somalia, India, and Laos.

Ibrahim, who was born in Somalia, moved to Minnesota in 2005, part of a wave of immigration that began in 1992 when faith-based organizations and refugee resettlement nonprofits in Minnesota began sponsoring Somalis fleeing civil war. Although the Minnesota census counts 52,000 Somalis living in the state, other sources estimate there may be as many as 100,000. The community is large enough that in July 2021, thousands of Somalis prayed during Eid al-Adha in the open-air Huntington Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota. White-clad Somali families could be seen walking through nearby neighborhoods to services. “[The Twin Cities are] the best place to be a journalist, but on the flip side, I was frustrated at the level of resources dedicated to covering immigrant communities,” Ibrahim said. “As I launched the Journal, I wanted to fill that gap.”

Although he had only one salaried employee at the outset — himself — he had dreamed the dream long before. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree from the Hubbard School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Minnesota in 2011, he realized that there wasn’t any professional news publication — digital or print — that catered to the growing Somali and East African diaspora in Minnesota. By 2013, he had translated his idea for a side project into pixels, and an initial iteration of Sahan Journal had a presence on the web. “The idea was to highlight stories and cover what’s going on in the world when it comes to Somali issues,” he said. The site immediately filled a need, he added: “People were sending me content left and right. I barely had time to edit!”

He fielded opinion pieces about culture, history, and politics, both in Minnesota and in Africa. One of his first contributors was Mustafa Muhammad Omer, an activist and aid worker from the Somali Region in Ethiopia. In 2018, Muhammad Omer became president of the region. “That was a moment,” Ibrahim said, “that someone who used to write for the Journal emerged as a national leader.”

The website remained a side project as Ibrahim married, welcomed a baby, and built his journalism career as a reporter at Minnesota Public Radio and the Star Tribune. But it was never far from his thoughts. He quietly plotted a potential path forward. He wanted to turn his work on Sahan Journal into a full-time job, and he wanted to focus it on Minnesota. “That’s where I am, that’s where my family is, that’s where my kids were born. That’s the place I call home,” he said. His early website showed potential, but, without the support of an organization or wealthy donor, publishing out of his apartment in St. Paul on a voluntary basis got old.

In early 2019, he decided to take the leap. “I left the Star Tribune and dedicated all my time to making that the mission — telling the stories of immigrants in Minnesota and communicating their transformation, their challenges and successes. I wanted the site to be a home for content about immigrants, for immigrants.”

Nancy Cassutt, Ibrahim’s former boss and then executive director of news programming for Minnesota Public Radio, helped stoke the fires: MPR agreed to pay Ibrahim’s salary for 18 months to support Sahan Journal, and Ibrahim agreed to supply some stories for MPR. “I see Mukhtar as an incubator for the future of MPR News,” she said in an interview at MPR headquarters in St. Paul just before the reboot in 2019. Sahan Journal fit her stated mission: to help diversify coverage to reflect a changing Minnesota. MPR had just seen a disproportionate number of journalists of color leave for jobs elsewhere. “That’s a blow to a newsroom of our size,” she wrote in an “Inside MPR News” column, “one that’s been nearly all white through its history…I’ve got work to do. As a white woman from a Midwestern, middle-class background, I know I have blind spots. I have lots to learn about how news organizations can tell rich, nuanced and accurate stories about our indigenous people and communities of color; how we can strengthen our relationships in the community; and how our content can better reflect the state we serve.” She noted that employees of color made up 15% of the MPR newsroom in a metropolitan area where about 25% are people of color.

Cassutt, who has since moved to California to take a job as managing director of news for American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” added in an interview in her St. Paul office: “If we want to serve our audiences, we darn well better work really fast to change the face of the newsroom.”

The Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media, an incubator for new ventures, provided a first office for the Journal and access to what Cassutt called “business brains” to help raise funds. Ibrahim also connected with Kate Moos, a Peabody Award-winning journalist at MPR with a penchant for building things. Moos later became managing director of the Journal and is now retired.

Ibrahim’s three-year business plan was ambitious, targeting a broad audience, with a large enough reporting staff to dig deeply into the community, covering events, government, health care, education, mosques, and churches. “Basically, everyone in Minnesota,” he said. “We want to educate the wider community about the immigrant population in their midst and the issues they face. I realized that the only way to do that would be to have a professional news outlet that could host high-quality journalism.”

In an inaugural editor’s note in August 2019, Ibrahim laid out ambitious goals: to chronicle how immigrant communities “are changing and redefining what it means to be a Minnesotan,” to train young reporters from immigrant backgrounds and give them a platform, and to create a membership program for a baseline of support while also seeking philanthropic grants and underwriting sponsorships.

Among the new stories he wanted to tell about Minnesota: the way that state and city government are changing. He explained, “Our state legislature is the most diverse state legislature in the history of Minnesota. What I’m trying to do coincides with how the state is changing in terms of demographics.” In August 2020, Sahan Journal reporter Ibrahim Hirsi counted 13 Black immigrant elected officials in Minnesota. The one with the highest profile is U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia and fled to Kenya, then the United States. A Democrat, she became the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in Congress when she was elected in 2018 — and the first African refugee to serve in the U.S. House.

There are numerous other barrier-breakers in the Somali community. In November 2020, Omar Fateh became the first Somali American and first Muslim to be elected to the Minnesota State Senate. Fateh, an information technology specialist at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, won in a landslide with 89% of the vote. His district in South Minneapolis, with a population of 83,000, is richly diverse, home to Minnesotans who are white, Native American, Hispanic, African American, and Somali American, according to 2019 statistics. It also is home to George Floyd Square.

Ibrahim’s vision was ambitious. He wanted reporters to be embedded in the community, to be hunting for scoops and deeper takes at political meetings, cultural events, restaurants, churches, and mosques, with the kind of structured newsroom that he had been trained to lead at the Hubbard School and at Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree in journalism. (Ibrahim’s portrait was featured in a row of distinguished news alumni in the University of Minnesota’s Murphy Hall in Minneapolis, and Columbia gave him its First Decade Award for “forging a path for the future of our industry” in 2022.)

By the end of 2019, the Journal had raised nearly $500,000, a healthy number just four months after the launch. That amount included $25,000 from NewsMatch, a collaborative fundraising initiative available to members of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) that pools matching gifts from national, regional, and local donors to support nonprofit newsrooms. He was gradually adding staff — and had just signed a full-time health reporter — when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. “Reporters were meeting on Zoom with sources or conducting phone interviews,” he said. “It was a different model than we had envisioned when we launched. It disrupted everything.”

The small, intrepid staff persevered, however, and the Journal received more funding. Grants flowed in from the Knight Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and Borealis Philanthropy, and he added staffers who were corps members of Report for America. The Journal was one of five news outlets in the second cohort of the Sponsorship Lab, a partnership between Google News Initiative and INN. Thanks to strategic coaching from Blue Engine Collaborative, the Journal updated its messaging to potential sponsors and raised the newsletter sponsorship rate, plumping up year-over-year revenue in the process. In January 2022, Ibrahim’s newsroom received its largest grant to date: $1.2 million from the American Journalism Project (AJP) to help “change the news ecosystem in Minnesota and beyond.” The award was the first time the AJP, a venture philanthropy initiative cofounded in 2018 by John Thornton of Texas Tribune fame and Elizabeth Green of Chalkbeat, funded a news organization in the North Star State. In 2022, Ibrahim received a “Rising Star” Freedom of the Press Award from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Ibrahim and his staff used targeted social media and a Somali show broadcast on Facebook Live to expand their reach. When a pioneering charter school serving Somali families was set to close, the Journal’s education reporter, Becky Dernbach, wrote a news story for the website and began calling parents for comment. But many of the parents had not yet seen her story on the web. Dernbach and Ibrahim realized they couldn’t just press publish and assume the story would automatically find an audience. Journal reporter Aala Abdullahi wrote a separate story about what happened next. “We had to find a creative, culturally relevant, and digestible way to communicate the months-long reporting that Becky had so diligently put together,” Abdullahi wrote.

The Journal recognized that there was a language barrier — parents spoke Somali, Spanish, Oromo, or Amharic as a first language. So the Journal experimented: it partnered with Somali TV Minnesota, a Somali-language channel on Facebook Live that reached a large Twin Cities audience and fielded live questions about the schools and other topics from online viewers. “Essentially,” Abdullahi wrote, “we realized that we needed to create a version of this story that came to life through video or audio, produce it in a more familiar language, and publish it on a platform where our audience already existed.” The Facebook Live event on May 27, 2021, had been viewed 9,000 times by mid-June. It was Sahan Journal’s first Facebook Live event, and the staff hoped it would not be the last.

The most important lesson? Abdullahi explained: “We also recognize that one size does not fit all. That is to say, we expect that, with every community we want to develop deeper relationships with, there will be a specific avenue or method that works best. And we intend to keep asking the most important and relevant audience-centric questions — Who do we want to reach? Who is left out? What is the best way to connect them with news? — in order to get there.”

When George Floyd’s life was snuffed out under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, protesters calling for racial justice poured into the streets. The Journal’s mission expanded. Floyd’s murder served as a sobering reminder to the Somali community that Black men in Minneapolis — and more broadly in other parts of the state — were more likely to be subjected to police violence than white men, according to reporting by The New York Times. Although 19% of the city’s population of 429,954 is Black, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, nearly 60% of people who face police violence are Black, the Times reported. Out of 11,500 acts of force reported by police since 2015, the subject was Black in 6,650 cases.

“We knew we had to expand our coverage beyond immigration coverage to communities of color in general. We were encountering the fact that different communities [of color] were coming together and uniting around [Floyd’s murder],” Ibrahim said, adding, “Indigenous people, the traditional African American community, and the new African American community, Somalis, Kenyans, Oromos, Haitians, were all gathered together. We were going out and gaining trust, observing events and verifying, but also engaging the community so people could tell their own stories and shape how they are being treated.”

Ellen Clegg spent more than three decades at The Boston Globe and retired in 2018 after 4 years of running the opinion pages. She is cofounder and co-chair of Brookline.News, a nonprofit startup news organization in Brookline, Massachusetts. Dan Kennedy is a professor in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University.

Photo of Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis by Sharon Mollerus being used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 18, 2024, 10:52 a.m.
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