As someone who started their journalism journey after grad school at two small-town New York State community papers, the Finger Lakes Times and the Niagara Gazette before being hired by USA TODAY in the early ‘80s. I can readily relate to the circumstances of serving a close-knit community. Sometimes you have to deal with a well-deserved backlash – such as when the full page of photos that accompanied a bridal announcement that came out one weekend somehow was a blurry mess. As the feature editor, I was tasked to call each rightfully upset mother of the bride and assured her we would correct our error and reprint the page.
Both of those papers still exist in some form, even if they are a shadow of their former selves after being sold to different owners over the years. But the family-run rural Iowa paper with its 3,000-copy circulation that is at the center of the documentary Storm Lake that comes two times a week focuses on local issues both big and small. At a time when so many smaller papers have disappeared, creating a desert of information at a time when shouting out “fake news” is a thing, this dedicated staff of 10 employees is determined to serve their customers by holding a mirror up to the town, sharing the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly.
The heart, soul and voice of Jerry Risius and Beth Levinson’s doc that takes place over two years is Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen, whose bushy gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses, take-no-prisoners attitude and sheer passion has an aura of a lanky Mark Twain. He is especially hard on his son, lead reporter Tom. Wife Dolores is a feature editor and photographer while sister-in-law Mary handles recipe articles. Meanwhile, Cullen’s older brother John, who founded the paper in 1990, serves as publisher for free, since he is receiving Social Security. Another integral part of the team is Peach, a friendly news hound, who happily lopes around the office most of the day.
He also has a knack for writing engaging editorials that often butt up against conservative views, whether taking Trump’s policies to task or supporting the town’s large Latino population, many who work at a Tyson plant and fear being rounded up by the authorities because they are undocumented. His arguments are compelling enough, however, that those with opposite views still want to read what he says.
During 2019, various candidates for president do a whistle stop in town, including Pete Buttigieg, who visits the Times office, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren. Yes, the state’s botched the vote count during the 2020 Democratic caucuses and the sudden break-out of the COVID-19 that endangered the lives of immigrants at the huge Tyson plant when no testing was available. But the paper’s bread-and-butter stories are less to do with political issues and more to do with daily life in town. The first baby of the New Year is duly celebrated alongside its Micronesian parents. Ice Out Day is a thing, complete with photos of quickly melting chunks of frozen water in the lake. Kid’s drawings take up a fair amount of real estate. Meanwhile, a Pork Queen is crowned during a parade. And a young man who did well in a Spanish TV singing talent contest gets a spread.
The pandemic almost made the Times a causality, given that ad dollars went down the drain with everyone in lockdown. Matters grew bad enough that Art thought about selling the paper’s building. But thanks to a GoFundMe campaign meant to help out other family-run Western Iowa papers, the Times team was able to survive.
Art made a name for himself and the Times when he won a 2017 Pulitzer for exposing dark money among local county officials involved in corporate agriculture. Similarly, before I joined the Niagara Gazette, reporter Michael Brown received three Pulitzer Prize nominations when he covered the toxic waste disaster known as Love Canal in the late ‘70s. Sadly, a stat shown during the doc reveals that one in four newspapers have shut down over the last 15 years in the U.S. More and more in a time when some news outlets engage in spreading harmful lies, we need such homespun honesty in order to simply survive these days. When a newspaper is local in scope, it lives and breathes along with its customers and has a duty to serve them.