When Art Cullen learned Monday he won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, he was shocked. What came out next was quite a bit of yelling and some “barnyard epithets,” he said.
Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper in northwest Iowa with a circulation of about 3,000. It’s a family operation with about 10 employees. Cullen’s wife, Dolores, is a photographer and his son, Tom, is the main reporter who detailed the issues on which Cullen wrote his editorials.
His daughter, Clare, is a copy editor and page designer at The Gazette.
Cullen said he never expected his editorials — focusing on the legal dispute between Des Moines Water Works and Buena Vista, Sac and Calhoun counties over water quality — to garner journalism’s highest honor.
“I was watching the Pulitzer announcements online,” Cullen said. “They get down to editorial, and I got up and started screaming at my brother, John. It seems kind of surreal. It doesn’t seem like some country editor is going to win a Pulitzer Prize.”
Through Cullen’s pointed prose, he demanded answers from the counties on how they were funding their defense against the Des Moines utility, which alleged the counties were negligent in allowing farm pollution drainage that affected water customers downstream.
The newspaper worked with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to uncover records showing the counties were quietly being helped by agriculture groups, including the Farm Bureau.
Cullen also urged lawmakers to take up water quality issues.
In a town of about 10,000 surrounded by farmland, Cullen said his editorials weren’t always met positively.
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“A lot of people said we were anti-farmer,” he said. “My grandfather drained all the wetlands in Kossuth County, with great glee ... and turned it into top-grade farm land. That top-grade farmland is now polluting the Des Moines River. It’s kind of ironic. It’s not that I don’t understand what the farmer position is. I took a principled stand.”
Cullen credits his brother, John, the publisher, with allowing him to take on the issue. He also credits his son’s reporting, and Randy Evans, executive director of the information council who fought with Cullen to get the public records.
“We dealt with an issue that has a huge impact. People are very emotional about land and the landscape,” Cullen said. “I know that’s difficult for people outside Iowa to understand, but when you take on those issues, you’re taking on fire.“
Cullen said the Times’ reporting and editorials led to county supervisors shutting down what he called the “secret fund” for the defense. Still, a judge last month dismissed the lawsuit.
The Pulitzer comes with a $15,000 award and some words from the judges who said Cullen’s editorials were “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
While Cullen said he is honored to receive the Pulitzer, he sees his community as the final judge.
“The Pulitzer Prize is nice. It recognizes good work and vindicates us to a jury of our peers,” he said. “What matters to our readers is are we being honest with them and are we giving them the news they need.”
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