In 2016, the Minneapolis Star Tribune embarked on a solutions journalism series called “Muslims and De-Radicalization: What Works?” The team produced about 20 stories, with many pieces focusing on efforts to prevent some members of Minnesota’s large Somali community from becoming radicalized. Rather than just looking at the problem locally, reporters traveled to Denmark, London, and Maryland to investigate how other communities responded to this issue.
The Somali community in Minneapolis is the largest outside of Somalia and also very insular. Linguistic and cultural barriers made it difficult for journalists to build deep relationships with the community (for example, males can’t interview females). Somalis tend to be wary of talking to outsiders, particularly as they have become targeted in recent immigration enforcement efforts. Even though Star Tribune reporters had some experience and skill in working with this community, reporting on such a sensitive topic was going to be difficult.
The Star Tribune worked hard to engage members of the Somali community and to give them opportunities to contribute their perspectives on a range of topics. Kate Parry, Assistant Managing Editor/Development of Special Projects, remembers, “We talked early on about what would keep people from [engaging]. We had a core group of people who had knowledge about the community, talking about what we wanted to do and what could prevent us from doing that well.”
The paper’s efforts paid off: Audience engagement remained high throughout the series, and staff received a flood of phone calls and emails in the days following publication of stories. The series even captured the attention of the state’s U.S. Attorney, who responded to the series and engaged in a discussion about how efforts in Minneapolis contrasted with the paper's reporting on Maryland's response.
- Hiring a Somali reporter. The paper secured a fellowship to take on a Somali journalist, Faiza Mahamud, who was later hired full-time after the series concluded due to her skilled reporting. She was a valuable source of story ideas and ensured the outlet’s engagement activities would resonate with the community.
- Newsroom panel with Somali leaders. The Star Tribune invited a group of community influencers into the newsroom to discuss coverage with staff. The invitees were not the voices usually featured in the media as representatives of the Somali community, as the media’s habit of turning to the same spokespeople had become a point of irritation. Instead, the paper invited the next “notch down”: leaders of non-profit organizations, educators, and others who were well-networked in the community but not frequently featured in the news. Nearly 60 newsroom staff attended the event, cultivating new sources for future coverage.
- World Cafe Community Discussion. The Star Tribune organized a “world café” style event with Somali students at a place that would feel familiar and comfortable – a community college close to the Somali neighborhoods. The paper provided halal food catering, carefully selected in consultation with Somali community members and its Somali reporter, which set a welcoming, hospitable tone. In advance, a group of reporters and facilitators selected eight to 10 issues that were of concern to the Somali community. Tables of four to five people were organized, including a notetaker at each group.
- Listening Post: The team brought a recording device to cafes and other public spaces in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood, the heart of the Somali community in Minneapolis.
- Translation of stories: The Star Tribune translated stories into Somali and created a partnership with a local Somali newspaper.
- VR walking tour: The paper produced a 360-degree walking tour of the neighborhood that is the heart and soul of the local Somali community. The narrators were people who lived or worked in the neighborhood.
- Focus Groups: As the solutions project was winding down, a measles epidemic was occurring in the Somali community. The Star Tribune initiated a collaboration with Wilder Research (a branch of the Wilder Foundation, which works with immigrant communities in Minnesota) to do focus groups with Somali parents about vaccinations, around which there was considerable suspicion in the community. This move towards structured focus groups represented an intentional push beyond the paper’s other engagement activities. Parry says, “It’s worth it - newspapers kind of make things up as we go. It’s worth thinking about whether there’s anyone else in your community who already has a lot of experience working with them, who has sources.”
- Build news literacy. No matter what community you may be working in (but particularly if it is a marginalized community that doesn’t engage much with the press), seize the chance to discuss the role of the media and combat any misperceptions and rumors. During the community forum, the Managing Editor of the Star Tribune gave a “Newsroom 101” brief, talking about the structure of the newsroom and how the paper did and did not interact with federal authorities. This was especially important to combat the perception that the media colluded with the government (as is often the case in Somalia). In turn, Somali community members were asked to share something they thought the newsroom should know about them. During the community forum, Kate Parry also put up enlarged printouts of the stories that the Star Tribune had previously done on the Somali community. This was a way to show the efforts the paper had made to engage Somali readers, toward building trust and confidence.
- Invite the right people. The Star Tribune heavily emphasized getting the right people in the room, and being deliberate about going beyond the “usual suspects.” Faiza Mahamud, the Somali reporter, was able to provide insight in this respect. The paper made sure that the newsroom panel included people who were not the traditional Somali community representatives.
- Equalize power dynamics through facilitation. The paper hired David Cournoyer, a skilled Native American facilitator, to think through how to put the Somali community members on the same footing as reporters. To set the right tone, Cournoyer suggested having dual facilitators, one from the Somali community and one from the Star Tribune.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of food. "People really appreciated the food part of this. It was a good opening and said something about our hospitality," says Parry. Mahamud was also critical in helping the paper make the right choices; she alerted the team that chicken would not be an appropriate inclusion in the halal meat spread. "She just understood some things about how the community works that we couldn't have gotten to on our own," says Parry.
- Supplement with multimedia. The paper went into the Somali community and did a 360 video showing the neighborhood where many Somalis live. People talked about their businesses and their lives. It was one of the more successful stories during the project – a great way for readers to explore a community that they might otherwise not set foot in.