Nobody can lecture Art Cullen, journalistic oracle and editor of the Storm Lake Times about the importance of hard-hitting investigative reporting.
In 2017, Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories taking on corporate agriculture and its polluting ways in and around Storm Lake, his farming town of around 11,000 in Buena Vista County in Northern Iowa that is similar in size to Moundsville, WV, subject of our PBS film.
But what I love about Cullen’s preaching, in newspaper columns for his newspaper, the Washington Post and Guardian, in a memoir, and in a wonderful new documentary film, Storm Lake, is his emphasis on the deep, human, relational mission that journalists play in a community and which is the essential foundation for those investigative stories.
At a time of distrust in “the media”, persistent relationship building, what we used to call getting to know people, is likely our only way out of the poisonous disinformation hell we’ve created for ourselves. It’s the only way for journalism as an institution to regain the trust of citizens. And it’s not something a think tank, an algorithm or a philanthropy can accomplish.
Here’s how Cullen put in, in a pitch-perfect 2014 column, framed as a letter to his son Tom, a reporter for the family-owned newspaper:
The best journalism is that which builds communities. You build your community by publicizing good deeds done, by reporting on the cheats and scoundrels and other politicians, by urging yourself and those around you to do better, by allowing dissenting voices to be heard, and by making certain that your town’s issues are heard in Des Moines and Washington. Use your power to build, and the newspaper will grow naturally.
And when the newspaper grows, you’ll command the authority, audience and trust you need to make an impact with editorials, investigations, and political endorsements. My favorite part of the 85-minute documentary, directed beautifully by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison and available on PBS Documentaries and Amazon, is that it shows the sweat and shoe-leather work of building and maintaining the base of the journalistic pyramid, a broad audience that knows and trusts you. .
Cullen and his crew, including wife Dolores, brother John, son Tom, and sister-in-law Mary, patrol Storm Lake with curiosity, empathy and a sense of fairness and justice. They cover local schools, courts, and businesses, especially Tyson Foods, the meatpacking giant, which slaughters turkeys in Storm Lake.
“Art’s an old-fashioned newspaper man who can hold huge companies like Tyson in check, and drive a community to do better,” John Russell, a rural political organizer in Iowa, told me.
When children of the town’s large immigrant population are deported, the Times profiles them with love and warmth, writing of one boy: “We all wish that Julio could come home to Storm Lake someday. We need him and miss him.”
Dolores leads a feature writing team that, for example, profiles a local man named Emmanuel Trujillo who’s become a big hit on Spanish-language TV, chronicles the first baby born ever year, and gets the story when the the Pork Queen has to hold a pig wearing a diaper.
We see Tom Cullen covering court cases and political meetings, and asking tough questions of visiting politicians. Because it’s Iowa, the Times gets visits from presidential candidates. We witness Pete Buttigieg checking out the Times offices, and Cullen moderating debates on stage.
For John Cullen, Art’s brother, and founder of the newspaper in 1990, the challenge is getting and keeping readers: “The best stories in the world aren’t any good if you don’t get them out on the street where people can read’em.”
Although big media firms have become more profitable as they’ve figured out paywall-based business models, smaller, poorer towns with fewer potential subscribers have suffered, losing over 2,000 newspapers since 2005. The year that Cullen won the Pulitzer, he told me, the newspaper lost $70,000. The problems are vast. Older readers are dying. Advertisers are migrating online. E-commerce companies are killing off local businesses.
There is some hope in a new wave of nonprofits like Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia, supported by philanthropies, although some have struggled to establish and maintain audiences. ProPublica has teamed up with local newsrooms around the country, and Report for America has funded hundreds of new jobs. The American Journalism Project is raising $50 million to invest in newsrooms.
As I argued last year in an essay for Poynter: “To trust the work of journalists they don’t know, Americans need to see journalists they do know making phone calls, knocking on doors and printing corrections when they screw up.”
In Moundsville, West Virginia, where I co-directed the PBS film “Moundsville,” an attempt to create a shared narrative of a classic American town, people still talk about editor Sam Shaw, who died in 1995. He rode his bicycle around town, covering the courthouse, knocking on doors for interviews and collecting the news from conversations on the street. The eccentric bachelor was celebrated for his integrity — and beloved for his bird-watching, choir-singing and fondness for walking marathons and finishing last.
In Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper, his eloquent 2018 memoir and manifesto, Cullen quotes the conservation philosopher Aldo Leopold: “We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides. But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
We also need to figure out how to live in community without spoiling it. To that end, every place needs somebody like Cullen or Shaw or Steve Novotney, founder of Lede News in Wheeling, WV, walking around and giving a damn, listening, loving, arguing, telling stories. I don’t know what the big policy solution is. I’ve suggested a Marshall Plan for local journalism: A billion dollars could fund a thousand small newsrooms.
But money, like business models and content algorithms, is only part of the issue. As Storm Lake shows so powerfully, first you need people doing the work.
John W. Miller
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of ‘Storm Lake’ co-director Beth Levison.