Sahan Journal is using voice-note newsletters to reach Somalis in Minnesota

Last November, Sahan Journal hosted a Facebook Live conversation for Somali parents in Minnesota. The host, Somali journalist Abdirizak Diis, interviewed a local teacher and an assistant principal in Somali about parents’ educational concerns post-pandemic. They then came up with a list of recommendations and steps parents could take to remedy the issues at hand.

The conversation was spurred by questions Sahan Journal’s innovation editor Aala Abdullahi got in response to a new weekly newsletter, called Tani waa su’aashayda, which means “This is my question” in Somali.

Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States. Sahan Journal was founded in 2019 founded by CEO and publisher Mukhtar Ibrahim to serves the news needs of immigrant communities and communities of color in Minneapolis and throughout the state.

Sahan Journal developed Tani waa su’aashayda after a year of listening sessions with immigrant, refugee, and non-English-speaking communities across Minnesota. (The listening sessions were funded via a grant from the Google News Initiative and conducted in partnership with the media outlets that serve Minneapolis’s large Spanish, Hmong, and Somali-speaking communities: La Raza 95.7 FM, 3HmongTV, and Somali TV Minnesota.) They chose the title “Tani waa su’aashayda” because “we wanted the questions and feedback and the insights of Somalis to be at the center,” Abdullahi said.

Tani waa su’aashayda challenges the traditional newsletter format. Co-produced by Abdullahi and Somali TV’s Diis, it is audio-only. Abdullahi and Diis use the platform GroundSource to send audio files to subscribers via SMS.

Sending the voice notes in this way helps Sahan Journal and Somali TV reach its audience directly instead of relying on social media, and gives them a head start on reporting future stories that affect the community.

When subscribers first sign up, they get a welcoming voice note from Diis explaining what the newsletter is, what users can expect to hear, and how Sahan Journal and Somali TV will incorporate their feedback to grow the newsletter. Every week, Diis records an audio summary of three or four local news stories. When relevant, he also sometimes includes news from Somalia. He then tells subscribers about upcoming local events that Somalis can attend or get involved in.

In the last section, Diis asks subscribers what they did and didn’t enjoy about the week’s newsletter and why. He also asks them to share their questions for journalists. Those question serve as tips and ideas for future Sahan Journal stories, newsletter call-outs, and community discussion. Abdullahi hopes that an increasingly large percentage of Tani waa su’aashayda content’s will come from user feedback and questions.

The sections of the newsletter are recorded in separate voice notes and sent out throughout the week. Abdullahi says she sends out a maximum of six voice notes per week. Then, she compiles all of the audio files and layers on photos and graphics to produce a video to upload to YouTube. That way, people can listen to all of the voice notes in one place with a visual component instead to subscribing to the text message service. Abdullahi also uploads the voice notes to Sahan Journal’s website.

Other than some necessary text to help people navigate the newsletter’s archive page, the newsletter contains no written portions or stories. “The Somali language itself is not one where everyone agrees on the grammar,” Abdullahi, who is Somali herself, said. “There are a lot of dialect differences. We didn’t want to get bogged down by that. It’s a lot more seamless to just make it an audio.”

Sahan Journal had heard in its listening sessions, too, that Somalis living in Minnesota said they preferred to consume news via video or audio rather than reading it. (Sahan Journal has another newsletter called New Home that serves Afghan refugees, but is written and published in Pashto and Dari in a pamphlet format and distributed through PDFs via SMS.)

Breaking away from a traditional newsletter format also means defining new metrics for success. GroundSource doesn’t provide subscriber data or open rates, so Abdullahi instead looks at week-to-week subscriber growth. Today, the newsletter has 211 subscribers, and Abudallahi has received more than 400 texts from 151 users.

By March, Sahan Journal will take its learnings from Tani waa su’aashayda to decide how to best launch similar newsletters for Hmong and Spanish-speaking communities in Minnesota.

“We want to keep it bare bones,” Abdullahi said. “A lot of newsrooms that are similar in size to Sahan Journal are actively thinking about how to incorporate community engagement and feedback into their journalism, and are thinking about distribution models. We want to focus on a model that people could replicate.”

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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