University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Making News for Everyone

Mukhtar Ibrahim founded Sahan Journal to broaden and deepen news reporting for communities of color.

Photo by Caroline Yang

In the Somali language, “Sahan” means “pioneer” or “pathfinder,” a fitting name for the Twin Cities-based Sahan Journal: a nonprofit digital news outlet dedicated to reporting for immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. It also describes the publication’s founder and outgoing CEO, Mukhtar Ibrahim, who launched the publication in 2019.

Sahan Journal quickly proved indispensable for its coverage of the intersecting crises of Covid and the murder of George Floyd, and their long-term implications. The U of M journalism alum was barely in his early 30s, and he’d only moved to the U.S.—as a native Somali speaker — 14 years earlier, in 2005. Minnesota is now home to tens of thousands of Somali immigrants; the state has the largest Somali population in the U.S. Ibrahim longed to see stories reflecting the dreams, struggles, and contributions of families like his own.

Today, not only does the Sahan Journal stand out for its award-winning news coverage; it’s also financially stable, with a $3 million annual budget and a talented, diverse staff of 23. That makes it an excellent time to step aside, Ibrahim says, and enable new leadership to take over. He and his wife, Aisha Elmi, welcomed their fourth child last year, and Ibrahim is excited about devoting more time to their growing family. He’s also working on a Ph.D. at the U of M's Carlson School of Management.

Learning on the fly 

With no background in fundraising or development, Ibrahim learned on the fly how to court potential funders for the nonprofit outlet. Had he fully understood what he was up against, Ibrahim says, he might not have pushed forward. “I believed, if we can prove the concept of what it’s like to have a [publication] that can produce quality journalism for underrepresented communities, then it’s going to be easy to sell that mission to people. ... I think when you don’t know a lot, it can actually be a good thing,” he says with a chuckle.

“I came from a daily news journalism background; I was covering city hall [at the Minneapolis Star Tribune] when we launched. I had no money in the bank ... for the first six months, I had no clue what I was doing. It was really a very stressful time,” he remembers. “You have this amazing idea in your head, but funders take their time. I read a lot of case studies, and used those journalism skills of being aggressive, following up, cold-calling people.”

Mere months after Sahan Journal’s debut, the Covid pandemic exploded in early 2020, exacting a disproportionate toll on communities of color nationwide. “We found out how relevant our mission is, in terms of freely providing authentic daily information about what’s going on at the federal level, what’s going on at the state level — and even providing multilingual information in a video format [tailored to] people who are impacted by the Coronavirus most,” Ibrahim says. Readers responded gratefully to that service-journalism function, which immediately became a hallmark of Sahan Journal’s approach.

And then in May 2020, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police. The fledging news team found themselves covering two far-reaching, and overlapping, national crises. While they were at it, they were also modeling different ways of reporting: sharing stories from often “othered” communities and offering readers meaningful ways to help. That latter role is one thing that helps offset the trauma of being immersed in tragedy—not only for readers, but for journalists, Ibrahim says. “Some of those [service] articles were some of the most read, most shared stories that we have done.

“Tragedies will always happen, and journalists have to document them. But how can we also go beyond that?” Ibrahim continues. “I’m not [wanting to be] stuck in the same way of doing things, just covering protests and press conferences and police shootings and stuff like that.”

Ibrahim believes Sahan Journal has lessons to offer other news outlets that want to stay relevant in the 21st century. “I think we’ve proven that this work can be done, but it requires real intentionality. And resources. I think the work we’re doing is challenging [legacy media] to get better at covering diverse communities.”

From science to storytelling

Ibrahim began his undergrad career at the U of M majoring in biochemistry and taking premed classes. “The sciences weren’t hard for me, but I wasn’t feeling them,” he recalls. Ibrahim had a reporter’s curiosity, and relished the challenge of storytelling in his adopted language. So in his junior year, while taking advanced genetics classes, he switched his major to journalism.

His parents were supportive, Ibrahim says—though “I don’t think they fully understood what I was doing,” he laughs. He worked on the Minnesota Daily and as an intern for Minnesota Public Radio. Reflecting on his time in the school of journalism, Ibrahim recalls feeling motivated, but also somewhat isolated.

“To be honest, it was very challenging. The school was not diverse, and I was still fairly new to the country. My English skills, my writing skills, were not very strong. There was not a lot of support for people like me.”

Still, Ibrahim counts himself a proud Gopher alum, calling that time “exciting and transformative. I enjoyed the creativity part of it, I enjoyed the writing, the process of creating something. It’s a new challenge, every time.” After graduating, Ibrahim spent seven years reporting for MPR. During that time, he was named a Bush fellow, and he completed his master’s degree at Columbia University. It was MPR that paid his salary for the first 18 months of Sahan Journal’s existence; Ibrahim credits his longtime mentor, MPR editor and producer Kate Moos, with supporting his vision and cheering him on.

Ibrahim believes Sahan Journal has lessons to offer other news outlets that want to stay relevant in the 21st century. “I think we’ve proven that this work can be done, but it requires real intentionality. And resources. I think the work we’re doing is challenging [legacy media] to get better at covering diverse communities.”

Supporting diverse emerging talent

Among his top priorities has been building a healthy and supportive newsroom culture at Sahan Journal. It’s a key part of creating “an organization that is different from what I have seen before,” Ibrahim says, “where people feel welcome, and [know] they can voice their opinions in an open and transparent setting. I think that came out of my experiences of being in places where I sometimes didn’t feel like I belong, didn’t feel like I was valued. I wanted to do the opposite of that.”

In a turbulent field dogged by market pressures, where staffs nationwide are shrinking and fewer people are doing more work, burnout is widespread; a 2023 study by the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC Chapel Hill found that 70 percent of journalists have experienced job-related burnout. Numerous studies have shown that journalists of color, women journalists, and those from other marginalized groups are likelier to leave the profession than their white male colleagues.

Reporter Katelyn Vue (B.A. ’22) feels fortunate that her first post-graduation job has been at Sahan Journal.

“Mukhtar has cultivated a space where people feel really comfortable with one another, and all of us are included,” Vue says. “At first it felt overwhelming: I’m given all this freedom, and I’m completely trusted. But that trust helps me build a lot of confidence . . . I do know what I’m doing! And I get to have so much say in what I do.”

Vue will miss Ibrahim's day to day role at Sahan. But she says the staff has laid a strong foundation together, and Ibrahim has been thoughtful about setting the team up for a smooth transition.

“When Mukhtar told us he was leaving, he was really reassuring about it. And he let us know that [his successor] was a decision he wanted all of us to be a part of.”

Ibrahim is excited about the next chapter in his career, and he’s confident about Sahan Journal’s future. “We have been intentional in bringing in diverse young talent, and in giving them the space to flourish and thrive and grow. And that has been working well for us,” Ibrahim says.

Susan Maas is a freelance writer in Minneapolis and the copyeditor of Minnesota Alumni.

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