Sahan Journal: The promise and the pivot

Becky Dernbach on Somali Minnesota TV (Photo courtesy Sahan Journal)

By Ellen Clegg

When Mukhtar Ibrahim, a longtime Minnesota journalist, launched the digital nonprofit Sahan Journal in the summer of 2019, he was determined to fill in the blanks in coverage of the state’s vibrant immigrant communities. Actually, it was more of a relaunch. Ibrahim, a former reporter for Minnesota Public Radio and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, first put up a website in 2013 in order to provide “authoritative, fair and original reporting and analysis about issues related to Somalis in the diaspora, in East Africa, and the greater Horn of Africa.”

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. He turned his attention back to his journalism career, but his dream remained. (On a pre-pandemic visit to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, I noticed that Ibrahim’s portrait is displayed in an array of prominent alumni biographies in Murphy Hall, home to the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.) Ultimately, Ibrahim got the backing he needed from Minnesota Public Radio, which agreed to pay his salary for 18 months, and found space to create his own newsroom at the Glen Nelson Center at American Public Media in St. Paul, an incubator for new ventures. Funders and partnerships now include the Emerson Collective, the Knight Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Facebook Journalism Project, among others.

A recent look at the Sahan Journal home page shows a broad range of coverage, with compelling stories and photos on the Minneapolis City Council race, an investigation into failing charter schools, a deep dive into data that show how immigrant communities are contributing to the Minnesota economy, and four videos explaining the Covid-19 vaccination process in Spanish, Somali, Hmong, and English. Eight years after his first foray into digital publishing, the timing seems right. As Ibrahim explains his mission on the Journal website, “Nearly all of Minnesota’s population growth is coming from populations of color; since 2010 the non-Hispanic white population has grown by 1 percent, compared with 26 percent among populations of color. So, who’s telling their stories?”

The International Institute of Minnesota, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrant communities, estimates there are as many as 150,000 Somalis living in Minnesota—80 percent of them in Minneapolis. (Ibrahim was born in Somalia and moved to Minnesota in 2005, part of a wave of immigration that began in the early 1990s when faith-based organizations and refugee resettlement groups began sponsoring Somalis fleeing civil war.) Minnesota is still predominantly white, and a sometimes uneasy mix of urban gentrification, burgeoning communities of color, rural burgs, struggling Iron Range towns, and sprawling exurbs. But if anyone can put the Marge Gunderson Fargocliche to rest once and for all, it’s journalists like Mukhtar Ibrahim who are determined to tell new stories and spotlight emerging voices in communities of color.

Perhaps as important as the launch two years ago is a recent pivot, a hard-won insight crucial to defining what “local news” is. Like any number of media entrepreneurs, Ibrahim keeps a watchful eye on data, on audience, and on engagement. When a pioneering charter school that serves Somali families was set to close, the Sahan Journal’s education reporter, Becky Dernbach broke the news and began calling parents. For many of her sources, it was the first time they’d heard the news. Dernbach and Ibrahim realized they couldn’t just press publish and assume the story would automatically find an audience. Sahan Journal reporter Aala Abdullahi wrote a separate story about what happened next, when the Journal pivoted to use targeted social media and Somali television to reach parents. “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. And there was a higher level of engagement on Facebook and WhatsApp. That’s why the Journal partnered with Somali TV Minnesota, a Somali-language channel on Facebook Live that reaches a large Twin Cities audience and allows live questions from 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.” As of early June, the show, which aired May 27, had been viewed 9,000 times.

It was Sahan Journal’s first live event, and the staff hopes it won’t be the last. Other ideas in play include fliers summarizing the key points of the charter school story, which could be distributed to parents and concerned neighbors in the Somali community. The most important lesson? Abdullahi nails it: “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.”

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