Sahan Journal puts a front-page focus on Minnesota's new immigrants

A view of the front page of Sahan Journal
A view of the front page of Sahan Journal, which launched Monday, August 12, 2019, displayed at the newsroom office at the Glen Nelson Center in downtown St. Paul, which launched Sahan Journal is the only 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to providing authentic news reporting for and about immigrants and refugees in Minnesota.
Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Mukhtar Ibrahim wasn’t planning on a reporting career when he came to Minnesota from East Africa in 2005. But the teenager quickly grasped journalism’s value, and he wanted in.

It led him to journalism degrees from the University of Minnesota and Columbia, and a reporting job at MPR News, where he unearthed stories in ways others couldn’t, including those of young Twin Cities men and the lure of ISIS.

Despite his success, he felt mainstream journalism wasn’t prepared to tell the complex and nuanced stories of Minnesota’s rapidly growing immigrant communities.

So, he built his own news site.

With help and funding from MPR News, Sahan Journal launched Monday, vowing to deliver “high-quality, professional journalism” that chronicles the struggles and successes of immigrants in the state.

“Sahan” roughly translates as “pioneer” in Somali. Ibrahim hopes it breaks new ground in local journalism and becomes the go-to news site for all immigrants in Minnesota — and for other news media looking to better tell those stories.

“With traditional media there is a gap,” said Ibrahim, now 31.

Sahan began as a pet project in 2013, focused on Somalis in East Africa and the diaspora. But college, career, marriage and three daughters put the project on the back burner.

“The idea was always there,’’ he said. “It was a fairly simple idea. There was not a publication telling these stories … there was not a publication serving us” — professional, educated first- and second-generation immigrants who call Minnesota home.

Journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim talks about Sahan Journal
Journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim talks about Sahan Journal on Feb. 13 at the Glen Nelson Center in downtown St. Paul.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Demographic data shows the clear need to hear from these new Minnesotans.

The state’s white population is expected to grow slowly and decline in some parts of the state, while the numbers of people of color are projected to grow from 14 percent to 25 percent in 2035, according to the state’s demographic center.

The state has the nation’s largest Somali population, at about 74,000 people, and is also home to one of the largest Hmong populations, with about 88,000 residents, according to the APM Research Lab, a sister organization of MPR News that specializes in analysis of demographics and surveys.

“Sahan will help us discover these audiences and hopefully share the good work with our MPR News audiences on the air and on our digital platforms,” said Nancy Cassutt, executive director of news and programming for MPR News.

“MPR News strategy is to serve more Minnesotans, and the face of Minnesota is rapidly changing,” she added. “So it made good sense to find a partner or, in this case, invest in a new venture like Sahan Journal to reach these new audiences.”

As a partner with Sahan, MPR News is sharing some reporting and editing duties, as well as providing financial support that includes workspace at The Glen Nelson Center, the business incubator aligned with MPR’s parent company, American Public Media Group.

“Everything about this work inspires me. It addresses an urgent need and it feels like the right idea at the right time,” said Kate Moos, an executive producer at MPR News who’s worked closely with Ibrahim on the Sahan project. “The opportunity in these communities just staggers me.”

Besides great journalism, Moos said Sahan goals include a viable business model, a good three-year business plan and widespread individual donor support while preserving the news site’s mission.

With generous commitments, so far, Ibrahim’s also keeping the vision big.

Once the site gets established and funded fully, he hopes to hire reporters as well as fund and create a pipeline for young journalists who come from immigrant backgrounds to work for the effort.

As challenging as it’s been raising money, hiring staff, building a website and creating something brand new, Sahan Journal is ready to help tell the story of how news immigrants are reshaping the state.

“I consider Minnesota home,” Ibrahim said. “I never gave up on the idea.”

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