A Somali journalist launches new effort to cover Minnesota’s immigrants

Mukhtar Ibrahim, at a recent event in St. Paul. Photo by Evan Frost/Minnesota Public Radio

On January 25, Mukhtar M. Ibrahim, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, announced that he would leave the paper to formally launch the Sahan Journal, a news organization dedicated to covering immigrant communities in his state. (Sahan means “pioneer” in Somali.) A Somali immigrant himself, Ibrahim plans to focus on his community as well as others he says are “underserved and not written about in a way that’s authentic or comprehensive.”

The publication, which will operate on a non-profit model, aims to cover the ways that immigrant communities shape the state as well as the issues that affect them. Ibrahim sees it as a valuable news source for all Minnesotans, some of whom may encounter Ibrahim’s work on Minnesota Public Radio. Nancy Cassutt, MPR News’ executive editor, recently told Current that the station will work with Sahan Journal to republish select stories, and called outreach to Minnesota’s immigrant communities “the number-one priority for me.”

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The journal, launched in 2013, has been relegated to a side project until now. “This has been a passion for a long time,” Ibrahim, a 2017 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and previous Bush Fellow, says. “I feel like I have the experience and the energy and the connections that will help me make this successful. I don’t want to look back 10 or 15 years down the road saying ‘I wish I had launched it.’ I’m taking the risk while I have the passion.”

Timing is also a factor when it comes to immigration issues in Minnesota and across the country. Last year, Minnesota took in its lowest number of refugees in over a decade—just 633, compared to the 3,058 it received in 2016. In 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests increased dramatically in ICE’s St. Paul region, which includes Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. Across the region, ICE arrested 4,175 people, a total that represents a 67 percent increase over the previous year. Nationally, during the 2016 fiscal year, ICE deported 198 people to Somalia. The next year, that number jumped to 521.

Many stories on immigration rarely get past the surface level; the Sahan Journal, Ibrahim says, will stay with the communities it covers, and continue to share their stories over time.

Abdirahman Mukhtar, the founder of Dayreel Youth MN in Minneapolis—a volunteer-based outreach program for young Somalis—partly attributes shallow coverage of immigrant communities to a lack of diversity in the Minnesota media. An 81-percent non-Hispanic white majority comprises the state population, though minority populations have recently grown much faster. Without enough reporters who are sufficiently immersed in and trusted by the diverse cultures they cover, Minnesota news outlets may struggle to convey complete stories. For immigrants, this often results in encounters with journalists that are too often restricted to negative stories or reduced to sensational headlines, Mukhtar says.

It’s very important, especially at this time, to have a media outlet that accurately reports on every community regardless of who they are.

Several Minnesota newsrooms recognize a problematic lack of diversity in the state’s journalism. In 2016, minorities held just two of the 20 highest-paying positions at the Star Tribune. Neal Justin, co-chair of the Star Tribune’s union, told Voices his impression was that employees of color tend to flee the Twin Cities in search of more diverse locales. Seven journalists of color left MPR in a roughly one-year time period; in an editor’s note, MPR’s Cassutt said it was “impossible to ignore that a disproportionate number of the departures involved journalists of color.” She also announced MPR’s participation in a grant-funded community-media partnership and conference “to encourage journalists to examine their own racial biases.”

Lisa Schwarz, the St. Cloud Times’ news director, says her newspaper also struggles with retention. “In the mid-2000s, we launched a weekly Somali-language video news report and ran it for many years,” says Schwarz. “But eventually it just faded away because the gentleman who was doing it got a better job… and we haven’t been able to replace him.” In her experience, Schwarz says, many outlets cover immigrant communities as “other” rather than as humans, neighbors, and a vibrant part of the Minnesota fabric.

Sensational and negative coverage “affects how other people treat you, what they know about you, specifically my community—new immigrants,” Mukhtar says. “An outlet like the Sahan Journal that can dedicate effort to sharing a complete narrative and reporting from the [immigrant] community is highly needed.”

Ibrahim, who has encountered young people of color interested in journalism but unsure how to go about it, says the Sahan Journal will oversee a paid fellowship dedicated to bringing journalists of color into the Minnesota media fold. Minnesota is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the US. The Twin Cities contain a Little Mogadishu, in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and thriving Latin American, Korean, and Vietnamese communities, among others. “If you don’t have a diverse newsroom,” Ibrahim says, “your coverage will not be reflecting how it is on the ground.”

Mukhtar appreciates the risk that Ibrahim, who has a young family, is sacrificing a stable job at the Star Tribune in order to focus on the Sahan Journal. “It’s very important, especially at this time, to have a media outlet that accurately reports on every community regardless of who they are,” Mukhtar says. Given the challenge of sustaining a new publication as media outlets contract and collapse, Mukhtar calls Ibrahim “a very brave man.”

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Cinnamon Janzer is a Minneapolis-based journalist who focuses on lesser-told stories. She writes broadly about cities, politics, culture, economies, business, and travel. You can reach her at www.cinnamon-janzer.com.