- Courtesy Of Jerry Risius
- Editor Art Cullen at his desk in the Storm Lake Times newsroom
Watching a new documentary about the Storm Lake Times, an award-winning newspaper in northwest Iowa, I felt an immediate fondness for the editor. Art Cullen is tousled and typing furiously when the film begins, then stressing over a deadline and the hourly cost of blowing it. Smoking and swearing, the mustachioed wordsmith looks like a lanky Mark Twain crossed with former Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway.
In 2017, Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing — a remarkable achievement for such a small paper in rural America. The film shows snippets of his interviews with Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro and Amy Klobuchar, which suggest he's a highly respected journalist in Iowa, at least in Democratic circles. His questions for the former presidential candidates — about the plight of Iowa farmers, immigrants who toil in the town's two Tyson plants, the exodus of young people from rural areas — make it clear: He's not in it for the local celebrity, but rather the love for and commitment to his community.
Then, eight minutes into the movie, two sobering sentences appear on the screen: "In the past 15 years, one in four newspapers has shuttered in the U.S. With a circulation of 3,000, this twice-a-week paper is one of the last of its kind." Storm Lake goes on to chronicle the plight of the paper, which is trying to survive with fewer readers and advertisers, the steadily increasing costs of health insurance and printing, and now, of course, the economic ravages of the pandemic. Staffing would likely be an issue, too, but the Times is a family affair: Cullen's brother, John, is the publisher. His son, Tom, is the lead reporter, covering government meetings, courts and sports. His wife, Dolores, writes features on "the happy beat," as they call it. John's wife, Mary, contributes a food column.
In their messy, no-frills newsroom, the Cullens toil valiantly against the enemies of democracy: misinformation, multi-nationalization, apathy. And like so many other little local papers around the country, they're perilously outgunned. The family-run Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M., is the focus of a similar film, The Sun Never Sets.
These dying-newspaper documentaries can be hard to watch, especially for those of us in the business. But I couldn't look away. Frankly, no one should. Storm Lake airs on Vermont PBS on Monday, November 15, at 10 p.m. The station is hosting a virtual sneak preview of a shorter version of the film on Wednesday, November 10, at 7 p.m. It'll be followed by a post-screening panel discussion with me, Angelo Lynn of the Addison County Independent, and veteran journalist and politico Sue Allen, the newly appointed editor of the Bennington Banner. You can watch at vermontpbs.org/events.
The town of Storm Lake looks a bit like the city of Burlington. Drone shots of the place show rows of modest wooden houses and an old-fashioned Main Street. There's a college and a 3,000-acre glacial lake that looks beautiful, even iced over in winter, while the agricultural practices of surrounding farms are steadily degrading it. The similarities end there. Two giant meatpacking plants and a liquid-egg operation attract immigrant labor to the area. Cullen estimates that those workers account for at least half the town's population of "somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000," he told Dave Davies in an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air." The workers might appreciate his left-leaning editorials if they picked up the English language newspaper, but the rest of western Iowa is Trump Country.
Cullen's plight made me appreciate anew the uniqueness of our state and its embrace of local media, including Seven Days. But Vermont, too, is developing "news deserts" that lack coverage. And just like the Storm Lake Times, many of the state's existing, mostly "for-profit" community newspapers are barely hanging on.
There are reasons to be hopeful, including increased awareness of and support for local journalism. Thousands of Super Readers are contributing to sustain Seven Days, and it's working.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the House version of the Build Back Better Act contains some tax incentives that would encourage local newspapers to hire and retain reporters. To my knowledge, the legislation is the first national recognition of the work we do: informing communities and holding them together. If the initiative survives and the bill passes, it could potentially help papers like the Storm Lake Times, the "Addy Indie," the Bennington Banner and Seven Days.
Better late than too late.
Correction, November 14, 2021: An earlier version of this story mentioned proposed aid for local journalism in the federal Build Back Better bill. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, which gave rise to that portion of the legislation, enjoyed “bipartisan” support, but the resulting 2,135-page bill does not.