Uplifting Diverse Unheard Voices

Hmong American journalist Chao Xiong is the managing editor of a newsroom staff that writes stories about people of color and immigrant communities.

Chao Xiong (Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle, Sahan Journal)
Chao Xiong (Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle, Sahan Journal)

Chao Xiong saw the pain in their faces.

Protestors were united as they marched through the streets of downtown Minneapolis in May 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. The crowds sought justice from what they believed was an unjust criminal system.

“As a Minneapolis resident, I really felt it was my duty to be part of that reporting – someone who lived in the area, knew the area,” Xiong said in a Zoom interview with ThreeSixty Journalism. “I covered three nights of protests. It was hard to describe what that was like. The amount of people that were out, the outrage, anger, sadness, fear and grief people were expressing.”

After 18 years as a Star Tribune reporter, Xiong saw an unmet need in the community. That led him to join the Sahan Journal as its managing editor to focus on stories on Minnesota’s people of color and immigrant communities – people who were not often represented in mainstream media. In his leadership role, Xiong manages and creates plans with reporters to share stories that go deeper, provide more context and coven issues and perspectives other mainstream media may not.

“Even though the world was protesting George Floyd’s killing, mainstream media was really slow to change how it operates things internally, how it covers communities of color and how it treats staff [members] of color, and I felt it was time to make that change,” Xiong said.

Looking back, Xiong admittedly had a difficult time leaving the Star Tribune and stepping into an editor role. But he knew he could create more of an impact as a leader of people. His former colleague at the Star Tribune, Mukhtar Ibrahim, founded Sahan Journal in August 2019 and recognized Xiong’s need for a change. Ibrahim knew and appreciated the influence Xiong already had in Minnesota as a Hmong American journalist and brought Xiong into his growing newsroom.

“When he joined, we felt the impact of his work,” said Ibrahim, the CEO of Sahan Journal. “He can guide the reporters on any story that they’re working on, and it’s really hard to find someone who has those kinds of diverse wide-ranging skills. I see him taking a more leadership role in the organization as we grow and add more staff and reporters and editors. And he will be the person who will be guiding those strategic priorities in the whole newsroom.”

Long before he led a newsroom, Xiong was just a child watching the news with his father in Des Moines, Iowa. And thanks to his middle school English teacher who fostered his passion for reading and writing, he was encouraged to explore journalism.

“I’m a naturally curious person, too,” said Xiong, who graduated from the University of Iowa with a double-major in journalism and the arts. “It just seemed to be a great way of marrying all of those interests of learning new things.”

Decades after journalism school, Xiong reflected on his position as a leading Hmong American journalist, and the unique role he serves in the Twin Cities.

“It’s a double-edge sword because obviously when you are one of few in your community in a field, there’s a lot of pressure on you to do your best, or to reflect well on your community,” Xiong said. “It’s great to be able to represent the community in a small way — people want to see that and appreciate that. But sometimes the expectations are really high, too.”

With high hopes from his community and his interest to broaden the media coverage for people of color and immigrant communities, Xiong aims to make a lasting impact in journalism along with his colleagues and competitors in the Twin Cities market.

“I think mainstream media is changing and growing, which is really great to see,” Xiong said. “I know that people have done a lot in the last few years after George Floyd, so I don’t want to discredit that work that people are doing. I just felt like I’m not going to be around much longer, so why not make a change, do something new, and work at Sahan.”

Q&A with Chao Xiong

What was it like to be on the public safety team at the Star Tribune during and after George Floyd’s murder?

“I said, ‘Hey! I can go out to the scene if you like, I live nearby,’ and I just knew it was obviously unlike any other police killing we had ever seen before in Minnesota. And I really wanted to be a part of that reporting. It was just a really surreal experience. I still have a difficult time sort of revisiting some of that imagery and video. There was a lot of pressure to tell that story accurately, because the whole world was watching. It was a really exhausting experience but also very rewarding as a journalist.”

What do you hope to accomplish at Sahan Journal?

“Some goals I have for us is to do more accountability reporting – where we’re looking at how different systems, people of power are affecting everyday citizens.”

What did you like about being a reporter?

“I really love getting in the field, meeting people, and talking to people, and finding things out. Being a journalist is so exciting because you are learning every day, meeting new people every day, and you are never bored. And that’s what I loved about that job.”

What was the most defining moment in your life?

“Reporting on George Floyd’s murder really was one of the turning points for me, in terms of making the jump from being a reporter to a manager. I saw how some of the people felt they weren’t being heard – their stories have been ignored.”

What do you do to de-stress?

“I love hiking with my dogs at different parks around the Twin Cities, whether that’s a city park, a state park, or a county park. That’s one thing I love about the Twin Cities – just how much nature we have nearby.”

This story is part of a series produced at ThreeSixty’s 2023 Winter News Team, spotlighting local journalists. Read more stories here