MNFF film inspires hope for journalism

ART CULLEN IS the shaggy-headed editor who plays a central role in the documentary film “Storm Lake,” which opened the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival last week. Cullen is working on an idea to save community journalism. Independent photo/Steve James

A 64-year-old man from a small town in rural Iowa may represent the best hope for community journalism in America. Art Cullen has more than four decades of newspapering behind him but he is developing a concept that could save news outfits like his, the Storm Lake Times, and save the small towns they serve for many more decades to come.

Art came to town last week for the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, which opened with a screening of “Storm Lake,” a documentary about his newspaper, his small town on the edge of the Great Plains and the symbiotic, if sometimes uncomfortable, relationship between the two.

Art’s brother, John, founded the Times 30 years ago, and Art joined shortly after that, leaving what he called “corporate media.”

In today’s consolidated media landscape it seems quaint to call the relatively small Midwestern newspaper chains for which he worked “corporate.” When I hear “corporate media” I think of Gannett, which bought the Des Moines Register, the newspaper Art and I both grew up seeing as a government and corporate watchdog. The Register was an honest broker that shined a light on all parts of society, and it worked well knitting the diverse interests of the diverse state into a large community. Then Gannett moved in, cut costs, cut staff, cut the heart out of “the newspaper that Iowa depends upon,” as the Register once referred to itself. Not many Iowans depend on the Register now. I check its website now and then. It still has decent stories that hold the powerful to account, plus the occasional feature about a grandmother or a high school kid. But it is thin, even by online standards. To get a feel for how it the Register has changed, weigh today’s Burlington Free Press against the physical heft and intellectual seriousness of two decades ago, before Gannett worked its magic on Vermont’s flagship daily newspaper. There are still some good journalists there, but precious few.

From their perch at the Storm Lake Times Art and John Cullen keep an eye on local government, schools, businesses and other doings in Buena Vista County, Iowa, including the occasional public appearances of such figures as the Pork Queen of the county fair. Like the best community newspapers, the Times offers a forum for readers to share observations, critiques, insights, gripes, suggestions and praise for what they see in their communities, which strengthens the bonds that hold local folks together. It’s not always a comfortable relationship — newspaper and community — but on par it works out best for all when they support each other.

And Art and John (and Art’s wife, Dolores, and their son Tom, who also work at the Times) excel at what they do. So much so that Art’s well-reasoned and passionate editorials, backed up by the newspaper’s clear-eyed coverage of corporate agribusiness, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. With a paid circulation of 3,000 the Times was the second-smallest newspaper to earn journalism’s biggest honor. The award prompted visits from a string of 2020 presidential candidates (including Bernie) hoping to land an editorial endorsement.

It’s not surprising that the story of the Times also attracted the attention of filmmakers who knew a good story when they saw one. Jerry Risius, a documentary filmmaker in New York who happened to grow up on an Iowa hog farm, heard about the Cullens and pitched a film to his fellow director Beth Levison. Levison said she just found Art and his family fascinating, and was inspired by his devotion to the First Amendment. “Art’s tireless commitment to shoe-leather journalism, the family newspaper, and then the community certainly drew me in,” she told me when she was in Middlebury last week. “Once we realized that we weren’t just telling a story about Storm Lake, but a much larger story … I think then, we realized we had to tell this story.”

And while it is a story of triumph (did I mention they won a Pulitzer?) it’s also a story of hardship. Risius and Levison’s film does an excellent job of showing the intense effort and the daily slog that goes into putting out a community newspaper. It shows Art and John dropping papers off at local stores and picking up unsold editions from the previous week. It shows the reporter, the photographer and the editor himself out talking to people in the community, scribbling details in a skinny notepad. It shows a quietly buzzing newsroom, with a staff of 10, including ad sales and layout, working cheek by jowl in a single room, producing copy and graphics  on deadline. In a telling scene Art goes out for a smoke break to relieve the tension and delivers one of my favorite lines in the film: “After 40 years I can’t believe they haven’t learned how to read a goddamned clock.”

He tells us it costs $100 for every hour they’re late delivering the paper to the printer. That’s no small cost in a business run on the thinnest of margins. In another scene Art empties the container readers drop their money in, to pay for individual issues. He counts out $7 and seems happy with the meager haul. A publisher once told me that in newspapers you make a business out of lots and lots of little sales. That’s what keeps the lights on and pays for the ink and newsprint — or, more accurately in this day and age, for the Macs and internet service. 

Like the Addison Independent, the Storm Lake Times publishes twice a week. And like the Independent, it cut back to once a week during the pandemic, when the bottom fell out of ad sales, and has not been able to resume its old publication schedule. In the film, John Cullen acknowledges he has stopped taking a paycheck and instead has taken Social Security early. Art Cullen told me he too has also taken himself off the payroll and is living off Social Security while working for the newspaper.

In an effort to find new ways to fund community journalism, Art and some friends in the business started the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation last year to help build a strong democracy in Western Iowa by protecting and expanding local public interest reporting. The foundation’s pitch is pretty simple: Give us money and we’ll distribute it to worthy local newspapers with a track record of serving their communities and a plan for expanding their services. The foundation hopes to tap everyone from individuals who want to see their communities flourish to large corporations that recognize that a healthy society makes for a healthy marketplace, and that an informed society is a healthier society.

The Western Iowa Journalism Foundation also hopes to get donations from Google and Microsoft, two corporations that have directly contributed to the decline of the newspaper industry by moving content online and then devaluing it by insisting it be given away for free. And Art knows as well as any of us in this business that reporting, writing, editing, fact checking, formatting and publishing a story is not free.

“These are the very outfits who disrupted our businesses,” Art marveled.

The Storm Lake Times recently got its first cash infusion from the foundation: $15,000. But it’s not just a gift to cover day-to-day operating expenses. The Times is using the money to help Buena Vista County schools teach English; one avenue is funding 200 newspaper subscriptions for English language learners — kids and adults. This is particularly important in a place like Storm Lake, where the Tyson meat packing plant and local agriculture employ farm laborers from poorer countries around the hemisphere. This is not only a great way to build community and keep it informed, it’s also a smart way to increase demand for the newspaper by creating more readers.

Despite courting the big boys, the foundation is mostly funded by small-dollar donations, Art said. There is a groundswell of desire to keep community newspapers alive, and this is one method for doing that. And it could catch on. The Addison Independent is itself a member of the New England Newspaper and Press Association, which is developing a nonprofit foundation to collect and distribute funds to community newspapers. It should be rolling by the end of the year, if not sooner.

During her many trips out to Iowa, “Storm Lake” director Beth Levison was energized and inspired by the impact a small newspaper could have on its community.

“We hope that it inspires people to subscribe to their own local newspaper or wherever they get credible news,” she said. “We hope that audiences can see their own community in the story of ‘Storm Lake’ and that it inspires them to get more engaged in sustaining not only the local paper, but their city or town.”

It’s apparent that Art Cullen gets real pleasure, maybe even sustenance, from speaking the truth about the world around him in a way that fortifies and strengthens his community. He also has a sense of humor about it. “Pass me a cigarette, Tom,” he says to his son in the film. “You can inherit the newspaper sooner.” And with help from the Western Iowa journalism Foundation there will be something for Tom to inherit — something more than just a small business employing 10 people in a rural state, something more like community itself.

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