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IOWA CITY — In some respects, Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen is unlike many other Pulitzer Prize winners on a typical day of work at the newspaper.
In an average week, he finishes tasks below the paygrade of many editors, like delivering stacks of newspapers to gas stations and picking up a few dollar bills left inside a plastic honor-system cup at a cafe when diners are inclined to purchase a copy of the Times.
But like many others in the newspaper industry, his position is more vulnerable than ever — Pulitzer Prize or not. In the last 14 years, one in four newspapers has shuttered, making Cullen’s twice-weekly, 3,000 circulation paper “the last of its kind,” a screen reads in the ‘Storm Lake’ documentary.
Audiences last week at FilmScene at The Chauncey were among some of the first in the nation to see the new documentary in a national tour that will culminate with screenings in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a national debut on PBS’ “Independent Lens.” Subject Art Cullen and directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius engaged the audience in a question-and-answer session after the 7 p.m. Friday screening.
“We really want to help sustain the future of local news in this country when local news is in so much trouble.”
Risius, a native of Buffalo Center, a town of 900 about two hours northeast of Storm Lake, used a trip home after learning about Cullen winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing to film a reel used to pitch the concept for the documentary to Levison.
Levison committed to the project a few months later after reading a New York Times column by Cullen titled, “In My Iowa Town, We Need Immigrants.”
“We address these national films on a really local level. I felt that that editorial, which was about immigration in Storm Lake, was doing exactly that in addressing this national theme was so polarizing at a totally local and in a totally humane way,” Levison said.
“A lot of themes are a very micro sense in Storm Lake, but they have very universal, macro touches around the country,” Risius told The Gazette — the impacts of corporate agriculture, immigration, food production and climate change.
Filmed over about 70 non-consecutive days after Cullen won the Pulitzer, the tone of the documentary takes on a special nuance in capturing both the every day joy and the uncertainty of the future at the Times. Amid heartwarming scenes of feature stories written by Dolores Cullen and idyllic fall harvests in the rural northwestern Iowa town, the reality of the business snaps back into focus.
“In one of these Zoom interviews … we’re staring into our grave. It brought the story for the film to a more apocryphal level.”
For many scenes in the film, on-the-scene news coverage transitions into what the news looks like in print. But one scene serves the mission of the documentary by offering a jarring contrast.
As Cullen’s voice compares the industry of decades past to the reality of a newspaper today, the last editions of now-defunct newspapers from recognizable towns fill the frame by piling onto a table, slapping the stack with each copy dropped. With the stack, hundreds of news deserts are symbolically represented.
“We really want to help sustain the future of local news in this country when local news is in so much trouble,” said Levison. At a time when many simply don’t know that their sources of credible news are in trouble, she said the Cullens are able to deliver the message cogently through their work at the Storm Lake Times.
Scenes with lead reporter Tom Cullen scribbling notes in news settings around the county illustrate the paper’s vital role in the diverse, meatpacking community of over 10,000. But representing when those in-person scenes ceased in the pandemic, a camera pointed at a laptop screen conveyed the tenuousness of the newspaper in a new way.
“All themes came to a head with COVID. They all intersected in a deadly way,” Levison said.
The realization of how interconnected corporate agriculture, immigration, climate change and national politics are is something Cullen says few people understand.
“It was a developing story, still is — COVID, and its effect on us. Our own sustainability came into very sharp focus,” he told The Gazette. “In one of these Zoom interviews … we’re staring into our grave. It brought the story for the film to a more apocryphal level.”
Art and his publishing brother, John Cullen, considered starting a Go Fund Me page, seeking help to keep the struggling business afloat as already-flagging advertising revenue saw a sharp decline with business closures.
While winning a Pulitzer may make it challenging to stay humble, Cullen said that working in a town like Storm Lake makes it easy to stay honest.
“You’re only as good as your next issue. I’m deeply grateful for the Pulitzer, obviously, but you can’t eat that piece of paper, or that paper weight,” he said, reflecting on the decline of civic engagement as residents have turned to social media for “free news” in lieu of a subscription. “We’re not good enough. If we were that good, people couldn’t stand to not have the paper.”
“Is this a story about a newspaper, or is this a story about civic engagement?” Risius asked about the documentary. “It’s both. But we’re looking at the sense of what it means to be a community.”
He hopes that viewers continue to engage their communities and support local journalism in whatever form it might take.
As for the future of journalism, Cullen believes the options are limited without community buy-in. The film shows the Times as it collaborates with La Prensa, a Spanish-language newspaper in northwestern Iowa, and the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, a nonprofit recently established to support independently owned newspapers in Carroll, Greene, Crawford and Buena Vista counties
“You pass the tin cup around,” he said. “The conclusion we arrived at is philanthropy has to be part of the equation.”
Both Art and Tom Cullen say the possibility of tax credits and government funding of newspapers would present a slippery slope for an institution meant to independently cover government and often antagonistic to it.
But Art Cullen is hopeful civic engagement is seeing a new awakening as unprecedented events like the January attacks on the U.S. Capitol highlight the outcomes of false news and conspiracy theories left unchecked.
“I think people are waking up to the fact that freedom isn’t free,” he said.
“Storm Lake” plays on the big screen at FilmScene at The Chauncey in Iowa City through Thursday.
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Editor’s note: Art Cullen’s daughter, Clare Cullen, is a copy editor and page designer for The Gazette.