‘Storm Lake’ Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. According to one study, 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004, and many communities are becoming so-called news deserts without any source of regular local news coverage. The new documentary “Storm Lake” profiles a local paper struggling to stay alive and serve the rural town of Storm Lake, Iowa. The paper is run by our guest Art Cullen, along with his brother John, the publisher, and his wife, Delores, a photographer and feature writer who will happily pen a story about a two-headed calf. Also on the staff are Art’s sister-in-law, Mary, who writes a food column, and his son Tom, the paper’s lead reporter.

Art Cullen has a mop of white hair, a horseshoe mustache and often a bow tie, inevitably drawing comparisons to Mark Twain. But he’s a serious journalist. He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for what the Pulitzer committee described as tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa. Art Cullen has also written op-ed pieces for The Washington Post and The Guardian and is the author of the 2018 book “Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper” (ph). The documentary film “Storm Lake” is directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. It opens in theaters tomorrow and will be shown on PBS November 15.

Art Cullen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ART CULLEN: Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: You know, the typical career path for a journalist is to start in a small market and then gradually move to bigger markets where there’s hopefully more money and a bigger audience and more impact. You were well underway in your journalism career when you came back to Storm Lake, a town of – what? – a little less than 11,000. Why?

A CULLEN: Well, my brother John had the crazy idea of starting a newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst time in retrospect, about the worst time you could imagine starting a print publication in rural northwest Iowa. And I had been working at a daily newspaper. I’d been working my way up Interstate 35 to – in hopes of getting a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And I was at the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, a daily newspaper where I was the news editor. And I was kind of tired of corporate journalism, working for a large, publicly traded company. And John wanted to start this newspaper in our hometown. And so I came home.

DAVIES: You became the editor. It publishers twice a week – Tuesday and Thursday – right?

A CULLEN: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about Storm Lake and the surrounding area.

A CULLEN: Well, Storm Lake is a meatpacking community. We’re not sure how big it is. It’s somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The census says about 1,000. But again, because about, you know, maybe half our population is immigrant, we’re not really sure. And a large percent of them are undocumented who work in a Tyson pork plant and a Tyson turkey slaughter facility. And then there’s also – Rembrandt Foods has about 5 million laying hens producing liquid eggs just a few miles north of Storm Lake. So this is a very – this is what you’d call a protein center, actually, for America, fueled by immigrant labor.

DAVIES: The Salt Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County, which, if you look on a map, is a perfect square. A lot of farms in the surrounding community, right?

A CULLEN: Right. Yeah. And it’s – Storm Lake is the county seat, home to a 3,000-acre glacial lake which has been sedimenting in over time thanks to agricultural practices. And it’s also home to a small liberal arts college called Buena Vista University. So it, you know, it’s an interesting, very interesting little rural community.

DAVIES: People who follow journalism have been saying for a long time that people need real information, reliable information, not just something that pops up on a social media site, but something that’s published by someone who will be there and is credible and, you know, has libel insurance and talks to people of all sides. It’s important that people get real information and news about, you know, the world and politics and policy. But it’s also, you remind us, important for maintaining a community. You say Iowa – towns in Iowa are generally about as strong as their banks and their newspaper. What does your paper paper do for the community, do you think, its presence there? What does it do besides just give people information?

A CULLEN: Well, for example, our lake was sedimenting in from agricultural runoff. And we launched a campaign to restore the lake through dredging and watershed protection – conservation practices in the watershed and working with Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Tom Vilsack. We were able to build a 20-year watershed protection and lake dredging operation which removed 700,000 cubic yards of silt from Storm Lake. That’s Iowa black gold sitting at the bottom of our lake. And that’s just one example of what the newspaper has has been able to accomplish. And by bringing the community together, farmers, bankers, environmentalists, fishermen, we’re all pulling for lake dredging.

And the newspaper was leading the campaign. So it did bring the community together. And oftentimes, and especially in rural communities, it’s very difficult to pass a bond issue to build a new school building. And Storm Like passes with 60% or 70% approval ratings because the newspapers constantly urging the public that we’ve got to be a growing rural community, otherwise we’re declining. So I think those are two great examples.

DAVIES: You know, you describe in your book this wonderful moment where I think it’s the head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is there. And he’s a guy sitting by himself on the bus. You sit down next to him, and you strike up this conversation. And you realize that he was a guy who is perhaps willing to put some state resources into this dredging process, provided the community, you know, shows up too and makes it clear they want it. And this sort of initiates this campaign. You know, this is sort of not the role that people typically think of journalists as playing. You know, you become not just a chronicler, but, you know, an actor, a player.

A CULLEN: Well, we’re an advocate for the community. And if nobody else has enough sense to sit down next to that guy on a bus tour around the lake, I’m going to. Not only do I want to talk to him and get some good quotes, you know, and get some news out of him, but at the same time, I, you know, I – as Garrison Keillor said of the Herald Star, I got to live here too. And I have every bit as much an interest in seeing a healthy lake as anybody in Storm Lake. And so, you know, I think through our editorial page, we have a responsibility to advocate for the community in Des Moines and Washington, and that’s what we do.

DAVIES: Right. And in that case, a huge operation was developed with local and state funds that made an impact. You know, you run a small shop. A lot of people are your relatives. I assume everybody does a little bit of everything. Give me an example of a moment in your week in which you stop and say, yes, this is the reward of being here. This is why I’m doing this.

A CULLEN: Well, it used to be when we had our own press, and I was the pressman. And I’d hang a plate on the press with my byline on the front page. And then (laughter) you know how you’d wrap up the press. And it’s this classic male testosterone moment when you hear the press roar and you’re speeding it up and you’re covered in ink and you see your byline on the front page. And, you know, I don’t care if I had – I couldn’t cash my paycheck that week. At least I had that moment of satisfaction. And now that…

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