When it was announced last month that former Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio reporter Mukhtar Ibrahim was stepping down as CEO and publisher of the Sahan Journal, the news organization he founded in 2019, Eye On St. Paul reached out.
Ibrahim, a University of Minnesota journalism graduate and onetime teammate of the Eye's at the Star Tribune, launched Sahan Journal to give Twin Cities communities of color deeper and more dedicated coverage. In just five years, the website has become a major player among Twin Cities news media. Now, he says, it's time for another big change. This interview was edited for length.
Q: Where's home?
A: I live in Eagan, but I call St. Paul my hometown. I've always lived in St. Paul, since [the family] came to the U.S. in 2005. I grew up near downtown, Mount Airy. My sisters live there still.
Q: Why were you drawn to journalism?
A: I think it goes back to when I was growing up. My parents were news consumers. They used to listen to the BBC Somali, which was broadcasting from London. People like my dad fled from civil war in Somalia and went to Ethiopia, then Kenya, They were just trying to stay in the know about current affairs in the country.
I came here when I was 17. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to major in biochemistry at the U, but that's when [I thought], "OK, what am I really doing here?" And that's when I shifted my major from biochemistry to journalism. [Former Star Tribune reporter Chris] Ison was there at the time, and I just felt it was a passion.
Q: When did you graduate from the U?
Q: And when did you go to work for the Star Tribune?
Q: What did you do in between?
A: I was at MPR.
Q: What brought you to the Star Tribune from MPR?
A: When I came to the Star Tribune, I'd done my master's at Columbia [University]. And I just wanted to use those skills. I did data analysis. I did the investigative track at journalism school and I wanted to put those skills to use. And I thought the paper was a good place.
Q: Were there stories that you wished you were doing that you weren't able to do?
A: No. I had a good beat. I was covering Minneapolis City Hall. But I just wanted more stories from my community, more news.
Q: When did you get the idea for Sahan Journal?
A: I had this idea for a while. Even when I was applying for a Bush Foundation fellowship in 2016, I wanted to advance my journalism skills and I wanted to go to Columbia and come back and do something with people of color. But I had no idea where to start.
Sahan Journal was to be like MPR, or MinnPost, that kind of journalism, but be more laser-focused on the communities [of color]. Keeping the stories of those communities on the front page every day and not just when there's a triple shooting in the neighborhood.
Our stories are published at Star Tribune, at MPR. What we are doing is classic journalism but with a different lens.
Q: Have you been surprised at how successful it's been?
A: My immediate goal when I left Star Tribune in 2019 was to do good journalism for the community. And then I realized the success [laughs]. That just really consumed me, the business side of the operation. Trying to get the community to support it, with $10 or $15 [donations]. Now we have a 21- to 22-person newsroom, one of the largest newsrooms in the state.
Q: What has surprised you?
A: [long pause] How quickly we established ourselves in the market, providing something different — deep coverage of communities of color. And the quickness of that growth is something I am so grateful for.
Q: Who is your audience?
A: We are trying to accomplish different things. We want to inform diverse communities about things going on in their community, in their neighborhoods. Ultimately, that will result in them being more significantly engaged in the issues that affect them. The other part is for the white community to better understand the issues of their neighbors, their friends, their colleagues. That can lead to better understanding.
Q: So why get out?
A: I want to make space for someone else to come in and lead the transition and become a leader. I want to cultivate more leaders in the community who can step in. Now we are at a point where our feet are strong. We have amazing staff. We have good funding. We have all the infrastructure. And I just felt this was the right time to make that transition.
Q: I got the impression that some of this was a nod to your family.
A: I am the father of four kids [ages 9, 8, 5 and 4 months]. As you know, I've been doing this through the pandemic. Uprisings. Fundraising. All of that just took me further and further away from family life. I just want to shift the focus a little bit.
At the same time, I am working on an MBA at [the U's] Carlson School of Management. And I want to see what's next.