Sahan Journal founder and CEO Mukhtar M. Ibrahim in 2023. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal (photo illustration: staff)

Mukhtar M. Ibrahim spent almost a decade reporting for legacy newsrooms before he made a leap to try something different. Mainstream journalism, he’d found, failed to cover immigrant communities like his own; when other news sites did publish stories about people of color, they often did more harm than good. 

Though Mukhtar had never worked as an editor or publisher, that realization inspired him to quit his job in 2019 and found his own digital news startup. He called it Sahan Journal, taking the name from the Somali word for “pioneer.”

Mukhtar’s work quickly gained national attention. Within its first three years of existence, Mukhtar and Sahan Journal collected numerous local and national awards, including the Emerging Leader of the Year award from the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), the Community Engagement and Service award from LION Publishers, and a “Rising Star” honor from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, where Mukhtar shared the stage with acclaimed journalists Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour and New York Times investigative reporter Azmat Khan.

After building the nonprofit newsroom from a solo endeavor into a 20-person operation with a $2.5 million annual budget, Mukhtar is stepping down as publisher and CEO. Mukhtar, 35, announced the leadership transition Monday, vowing to help start the search for a successor and to offer his full help and assistance to the new executive.

“I’m stepping down now because I believe Sahan Journal is in a very strong position in terms of staff, organization, and funding,” Mukhtar said. “This is the best time for the organization, and I want to give someone else the opportunity to lead one of the country’s most innovative nonprofit newsrooms.”

Mukhtar said his decision reflects a desire to strike a better work-life balance. Mukhtar and his wife, Aisha Elmi, welcomed a son in late June. They are also parents to three daughters ages 9, 8, and 5.

“My family situation has changed since founding Sahan in 2019,” Mukhtar said. “As a father of young children and the founder of a growing nonprofit organization, I have experienced firsthand the challenges and rewards of balancing my professional and personal life.”

Laura Yuen, the chair of the Sahan Journal’s board of directors, first met Mukhtar when he was studying journalism in college. Later, they became colleagues and reported stories together at Minnesota Public Radio News. 

“Mukhtar always was such a dogged reporter and would have had a perfectly successful career if he were to continue down that path,” Yuen said. “But he had a vision to transform the media landscape in Minnesota, and he made good on that promise. He set out to create high-quality journalism, for and about immigrants and Minnesotans of color. He entirely reimagined what a newsroom could look like if we filled it with folks from diverse backgrounds who cared about our communities of color.”

Mukhtar’s work has helped redefine identity and belonging in Minnesota, said Fred de Sam Lazaro, a journalist for “PBS NewsHour” and a longtime member of Sahan’s board.

“He has recentered the lens of journalism in really remarkable ways,” said de Sam Lazaro, who is also executive director of the Under-told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas. “When I read anything in Sahan Journal, I see nothing that isn’t mainstream news reporting—just good shoe-leather journalism that any Minnesotan needs to be aware of or could benefit from reading. It’s normalizing what we stereotypically think about when we think ‘Minnesotan.’”

Birth of a newsroom

Mukhtar was born in Somalia and spent his early years in Ethiopia and Kenya. He was 17 years old when he immigrated to Minnesota with his family. They built a life in the Twin Cities, where four of his five siblings now live.

He graduated from Central High School in St. Paul, and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism. He earned his masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

Mukhtar interned at MPR News as a University of Minnesota student, and earned a spot as  full-time reporter after graduation. He received a Bush Foundation fellowship in 2016 and left for Columbia University with the goal of strengthening his journalism. Upon returning from Columbia, in 2018, Mukhtar took a new role covering Minneapolis City Hall for the Star Tribune, the state’s biggest newspaper.

While he endeavored to add diverse voices to his City Hall reporting, those stories and reporting experiences also revealed a need for a newsroom focused on covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color.

“When I was working in local Minnesota newsrooms, I noticed that the stories about communities of color I often came across didn’t didn’t truly represent the depth and diversity of our communities, especially the one I come from,” Mukhtar said.

He felt called to make a difference in his own work—but soon realized his vision was bigger than that.

“I thought it was too much for one person to do everything, so I started Sahan Journal to give other reporters a place and a platform—people who saw the same need for real, diverse news,” Mukhtar said.

Sahan launched in August 2019. Mukhtar looked for fundraising and development from Kate Moos, a veteran editor, producer, and changemaker at Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media. But he often found himself alone in all other facets of the organization.

“I was juggling it all – writing, editing, fundraising,” Mukhtar shared. “I knew a lot about journalism and reporting, but the business side of things was all new to me. Applying for funding and asking people for money was all new territory.”

Doubt crept in.

“I was wondering, ‘Am I ready for this?’” Mukhtar said he asked himself. 

But those who knew him had faith he would pull through.

Duchesne Drew was Community Network vice president at the Bush Foundation when Mukhtar received the Bush fellowship that helped fund his graduate studies and early work laying the groundwork for Sahan. In those early days, Drew met with Mukhtar and Moos to brainstorm fundraising efforts for Sahan.

“He just struck me as someone who was really smart and really interested in a life of service and of meaning, and was trying to figure out how to make a difference,” Drew said. “I’m a big fan of his—his heart, his smarts, his intentionality.”

Drew would soon become senior vice president of American Public Media Group and president of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). For the first year, MPR served as an incubator for Sahan, paying Mukhtar’s salary as he built the organization, and offering the guidance of MPR leaders.

After a long career in public media, Moos saw the transformative potential in Sahan Journal. “Mukhtar had a great idea at a pivotal moment in journalism: to create stories borne out of the knowledge and experiences of immigrants and people of color in Minnesota, rather than the knowledge and experience of people sitting behind desks in white-led newsrooms,” Moos said.

Sahan leaned on freelancers in its early days, and added staff in early 2020 just before Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. This tragic killing, and the racial reckoning that followed, underscored for Mukhtar that the newsroom could fill an essential role in the state’s media landscape. 

The innovative St. Paul–based newsroom now employs an editorial staff of 13: Mukhtar and two managers, six reporters, a visual journalist, an audience growth manager, a community engagement and innovation editor, and a digital producer. Seven other staffers work in sales, human resources, accounting, and development.

Over its first few years with a small staff of reporters, Sahan produced distinctive coverage that centered racial equity during a momentous time in Minnesota history. On its website and through newsletters, social media, and video, the newsroom offered readers original stories about the COVID pandemic, police killings, and a wave of election wins for candidates from immigrant communities.

These stories garnered enthusiastic followings from new and younger news audiences across the Twin Cities. Many of these individuals have gone on to become donors and supporters of Sahan Journal: Some 2,000 individuals currently provide support to Sahan Journal. Over the past three years, businesses and other organizations have become sponsors and advertisers, helping to diversify Sahan’s revenue streams. 

“I’m so proud of what we’ve created in the past four-and-a-half years. Every year has been amazing,” Mukhtar said. “The staff we’ve built is what I’m most proud of.”

Throughout his tenure at Sahan Journal, Mukhtar has emphasized the value of professional growth and leadership throughout the organization.

That commitment to create a different kind of organization drew the attention of Kevin Bennett, senior program officer for GHR Foundation’s Twin Cities Racial Equity initiative. And in June 2023, it inspired Bennett and GHR to become Sahan’s largest financial supporter.  

“GHR’s local racial equity goals align closely with what we have seen in Sahan,” Bennett said. “We know that BIPOC businesses and organizations create jobs, hire within communities of color, and create inclusive environments where all people can thrive. Our community benefits when we all support these entrepreneurs and small businesses with the capital to help them through incubation, sustainable growth, and long-term scale.”

Yuen believes that these shared values and sense of mission will help the organization in its next act. 

“Sahan and Mukhtar have been synonymous in a lot of people’s minds. I get that – it’s an organization that was founded by a strong leader with a unique vision,” Yuen said. “But nothing about Sahan’s mission will change after he leaves.”  

What’s next for Sahan Journal

Mukhtar will continue leading the nonprofit organization until Sahan finds a successor. He will also help Sahan’s board of directors search for the new CEO.

“My main focus right now is to make sure everything runs smoothly until we find the right leader,” he said.

Mukhtar said he remains open to offering any support that the new CEO requests. 

“I care deeply about the organization, its staff, and its mission, so I am open to any ideas that make sense for the next leader,” he said.

The search process for a new CEO will start in a few weeks. A committee has been formed to conduct the search: It includes Yuen and de Sam Lazaro (from the Sahan board), Kevin Bennett (from GHR), Michelle Srbinovich (Vice President of Growth Investments at the American Journalism Project ), and Kate Moos (a career leader in public media and an original partner in establishing Sahan).

The American Journalism Project is providing support for the search process. 

De Sam Lazaro said Sahan’s board of directors will seek someone who is “deeply committed” to journalism, and that it will be a “methodical” process.

“Whoever takes over is not going to be a crisis manager—just the opposite—so that makes me very encouraged,” de Sam Lazaro said. Mukhtar, he added, “will be leaving this organization on a solid financial footing.”

Drew, from MPR, emphasized the strength of Sahan’s organization and noted that it’s positioned to continue growing after Mukhtar’s departure.

“He was onto something. If you look at what Sahan has become, if you look at the support it’s garnered, if you look at its impact on journalism, it’s real,” Drew said. “It’s something I’m confident, even with Mukhtar’s transition, will continue to be a healthy important part of our journalism ecosystem.”

“It’s certainly not the end. It’s a moment to stand with Sahan,” he said. “It’s a moment to celebrate Mukhtar and what Sahan has become.”

Bennett of GHR has joined Mukhtar at gatherings devoted to finding new ways to strengthen local journalism. “At a time when we are seeing news deserts across the country, Mukhtar and team have offered a new model for nonprofit news—one that transforms coverage of communities of color while offering a pipeline for future journalists to find their voice in the field,” Bennett said. 

That challenge continues to excite Mukhtar, though he emphasized that he is not looking for a job with another news organization. Presently, Mukhtar says, he’s wrapping up his MBA at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management; he’s scheduled to graduate next spring. 

“I’m interested in strategy, entrepreneurship, management, and organizational behavior,” Mukhtar said. “I’m open to consulting opportunities in the nonprofit sector, the journalism industry, media, philanthropy, and small businesses.”

Those familiar with Mukhtar, and his risk-taking spirit, say they’re excited to see what’s next.

“He built something. He saw a whole other level of possibility and didn’t just wish that someone else would do it, and set about doing it himself,” Drew said. “That is a gift to all of us.”