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Authentic coverage: Nine months in, Sahan Journal reports with nuance on Minnesota’s immigrants and refugees

During the pandemic, a report on Somali workers at an Amazon warehouse in Eagan was aided by Mukhtar Ibrahim’s ability to interview them in their native language.

Mukhtar Ibrahim
Mukhtar Ibrahim, the founder of Sahan Journal, in the news site’s downtown St. Paul newsroom.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

In early 2019, Mukhtar Ibrahim left a reporting job at the Star Tribune with an idea for starting a new venture: a digital publication focused on covering the state’s immigrant populations.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Ibrahim’s trajectory – studies at the University of Minnesota and Columbia University, a reporting stint at Minnesota Public Radio – had led to that coveted spot at the state’s largest newspaper, where he covered Minneapolis city government. It was, he said, “a dream job in some ways.”

But he also knew this: When he woke up in the morning, turned on the news shows and read the papers, he didn’t see enough stories that, in his view, got at the essence of the immigrant experience in Minnesota.

“I felt that the issues about these communities were not really being covered well and authentically,” Ibrahim said. “The stories that come out of the news cycle are often things that are breaking news – say a shooting here or there. It tends to be something bad or strange, and then the news cycle moves on to new things.”

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His venture, Sahan Journal, launched in August with a boost from MPR, which agreed to cover Ibrahim’s salary for 18 months and to offer up the expertise of one of its veteran producers, Kate Moos. Moos is leaving MPR at the end of May and will go to work for Ibrahim at Sahan Journal this summer. Ibrahim has since raised about $500,000 for the news site, largely through corporate and foundation donations, along with another $25,000 or so from individuals.

“For six months, I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’” he said with a laugh. “Raising money, coming up with strategic goals – reporters don’t think about those things. We go out and interview people and send it off to the editor. It’s been eye-opening.”

A strategic focus

The media has been covering Minnesota’s newest immigrants and refugees for decades, ever since the Hmong, in the wake of the Vietnam War, began arriving in the 1970s. Ibrahim acknowledges that but believes Sahan Journal can provide a more consistent and nuanced coverage of these groups, informed by the cultural fluency of its staff.

The site’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic offers a case in point.

For one article, Ibrahim interviewed Somali workers at an Amazon warehouse in Eagan who were alarmed after learning that six co-workers had tested positive for COVID-19. The workers have limited English proficiency, but Ibrahim – who lived in Somalia until 2005 – was able to interview them in their native language and share their views. A guest columnist, meanwhile, looked at how Somali businesses were faring during the pandemic, including struggling restaurants that have little, if any, online presence.

While the articles are written in English, some are translated into Somali, Spanish and Hmong, with plans to add a few more languages. Sahan Journal also broadens its reach by sharing some of its stories with MPR.

“We want to cover all immigrant communities, but since we are small, we have to be strategic,” Ibrahim said. “We want to focus more on the three largest immigrant communities (Latino, Somali and the Hmong) – and also branch out to the Muslim community, too, and do what can do best.”

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Listen and learn’

Ibrahim had covered immigration for MPR, so one of the first people he approached with his idea for the news site was his former boss, Nancy Cassutt, the head of MPR’s newsroom when he worked there.

Cassutt immediately saw potential in the venture – both as a vehicle for more informed reporting on marginalized communities and as a pipeline for younger journalists from those communities. “One in five people in Minnesota is a person of color,” she said. “If we are not serving them, then we are missing out on a big opportunity in the future. And a diverse audience is our future.”

Ibrahim and Moos, who will join Sahan Journal as its managing director, met with people from many immigrant and refugee communities as they thought about the news site’s mission. “We didn’t want to build something that immigrants don’t need,” Moos said. “We’re really invested in the fact that we have to listen and learn and develop these relationships.”

While it’s too early to tell whether the site will have staying power, a few early signs are promising. Unique visitors during April, for instance, reached 54,000 – about 20,000 more than Ibrahim and Moos expected. Meanwhile, the paper is solvent enough that Ibrahim is hiring a managing editor to direct the news flow.

For now, Sahan Journal operates out of office space that overlooks downtown St. Paul. Besides Moos, Ibrahim has one reporter, an editor and a few freelancers. This summer, three journalists from Report for America – a nonprofit initiative that provides news organizations with reporters, along with financial support – will join the news site for at least one year.

Ibrahim, who has a wife and three children, has no regrets about striking out on his own. “I could stay (at the Star Tribune) or take a risk and do something that made a meaningful contribution to the media landscape in Minnesota,” he recalled thinking.

How does he feel now? “It’s one of the best decisions I have ever made,” he said.