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'Storm Lake' documentary depicts the triumph and struggle of a local newspaper

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. According to one study, 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004, and many communities are becoming so-called news deserts without any source of regular local news coverage. Today we're going to listen to the interview I recorded in September with Art Cullen, editor of a local paper struggling to stay alive and serve the rural town of Storm Lake, Iowa. The Storm Lake Times is profiled in a new documentary which airs Monday on PBS. The Storm Lake Times is family owned and run. Art Cullen is the editor. His brother, John, is publisher. And his wife, Dolores, is a photographer and culture writer who will happily pen a story about a two-headed calf. Also on the staff are Art's sister-in-law, Mary, who writes a food column, and his son Tom, the paper's lead reporter.

Art Cullen won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for what the Pulitzer committee described as tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa. Cullen is also author of the the author of the 2018 book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small Town Newspaper." The documentary film "Storm Lake," directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, will appear on PBS stations Monday night, part of the Independent Lens series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Art Cullen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ART CULLEN: Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: You know, the typical career path for a journalist is to start in a small market and then gradually move to bigger markets where there's hopefully more money and a bigger audience and more impact. You were well underway in your journalism career when you came back to Storm Lake, a town of - what? - a little less than 11,000. Why?

CULLEN: Well, my brother John had the crazy idea of starting a newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst time in retrospect, about the worst time you could imagine starting a print publication in rural northwest Iowa. And I had been working at a daily newspaper. I'd been working my way up Interstate 35 to - in hopes of getting a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And I was at the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, a daily newspaper where I was the news editor. And I was kind of tired of corporate journalism, working for a large, publicly traded company. And John wanted to start this newspaper in our hometown. And so I came home.

DAVIES: You became the editor. It publishers twice a week - Tuesday and Thursday - right?

CULLEN: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about Storm Lake and the surrounding area.

CULLEN: Well, Storm Lake is a meatpacking community. We're not sure how big it is. It's somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The census says about 11,000. But again, because about, you know, maybe half our population is immigrant, we're not really sure. And a large percent of them are undocumented who work in a Tyson pork plant and a Tyson turkey slaughter facility. And then there's also - Rembrandt Foods has about 5 million laying hens producing liquid eggs just a few miles north of Storm Lake. So this is a very - this is what you'd call a protein center, actually, for America, fueled by immigrant labor.

DAVIES: Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County, which, if you look on a map, is a perfect square. A lot of farms in the surrounding community, right?

CULLEN: Right. Yeah. And it's - Storm Lake is the county seat, home to a 3,000-acre glacial lake which has been sedimenting in over time thanks to agricultural practices. And it's also home to a small liberal arts college called Buena Vista University. So it, you know, it's an interesting, very interesting little rural community.

DAVIES: People who follow journalism have been saying for a long time that people need real information, reliable information, not just something that pops up on a social media site, but something that's published by someone who will be there and is credible and, you know, has libel insurance and talks to people of all sides. It's important that people get real information and news about, you know, the world and politics and policy. But it's also, you remind us, important for maintaining a community. You say Iowa - towns in Iowa are generally about as strong as their banks and their newspaper. What does your paper paper do for the community, do you think, its presence there? What does it do besides just give people information?

CULLEN: Well, for example, our lake was sedimenting in from agricultural runoff. And we launched a campaign to restore the lake through dredging and watershed protection - conservation practices in the watershed and working with Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Tom Vilsack. We were able to build a 20-year watershed protection and lake dredging operation which removed 700,000 cubic yards of silt from Storm Lake. That's Iowa black gold sitting at the bottom of our lake. And that's just one example of what the newspaper has has been able to accomplish. And by bringing the community together - farmers, bankers, environmentalists, fishermen - we're all pulling for lake dredging.

And the newspaper was leading the campaign. So it did bring the community together. And oftentimes, and especially in rural communities, it's very difficult to pass a bond issue to build a new school building. And Storm Like passes with 60% or 70% approval ratings because the newspapers constantly urging the public that we've got to be a growing rural community, otherwise we're declining. So I think those are two great examples.

DAVIES: You went there in 1990, which is actually the year that I went to a daily paper in Philadelphia and was there for 20 years. And so I know, as you do, that those were the years that the traditional business model of newspapers fell apart as display advertising and classified ads disappeared into the internet. And I assume that what that means for you now is that you really need to rely on what we call circulation revenue. That's the people plopping down a dollar for the paper. And that means you've got to have local stuff that they want to read. Give us some examples of this - the things that keep people coming back to open the paper.

CULLEN: Well, you know, I think it - first of all, it's community news about the two-headed calf and the blind bowler rolling a perfect 300 game.

DAVIES: Did that really happen?

CULLEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Dale Davis, a blind bowler, rolled a perfect game at Century Lanes in Alta, which is a tiny community nearby. And people turn to it for the school board coverage and the city council coverage and, you know, sewer rates. We just, you know, got our water bill today, and it's significantly higher. And we've been covering this all along in the newspaper about how we're going to have significantly higher water rates going forward. So those are the things that keep people - the obituaries, the weddings and engagements. Those are the things that keep people coming back. And it's not about necessarily what the politicians said this week.

DAVIES: I mean, the film has some lovely moments like that. There's the - you always do a story on the first baby of each year, the, you know, first born on January 1. And then there's a moment where I believe your wife, Dolores, goes to cover the visit of the Iowa pork producers' Pork Queen....

CULLEN: Right.

DAVIES: ...It's a beauty queen. She goes to visit a second-grade class carrying what? You want to tell us this story? (Laughter).

CULLEN: Well, yeah. The Pork Queen's carrying a pig with a diaper on it (laughter) because, you know, pigs poop. And so it's a great moment. And, you know - and then Dolores was just talking about one of the big issues in Iowa is the stench from confinement units with thousands of hogs in them or poultry. And so it was just kind of funny that here is this hog wearing a diaper - actually, a pig wearing a diaper. It wasn't a full-grown hog. And - but it's - in Iowa, that scene is a completely normal thing, and - but when viewed by an audience in Vermont, it's hilarious.

DAVIES: But kids get connected to an important local employer and, as you write about often, a source of local pollution. There's complexity to all this. Yeah.

CULLEN: Costs and benefits.

DAVIES: Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times, serving a rural community in Iowa. The paper is profiled in the documentary "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS. We'll hear more of our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking about the future of local journalism with Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, which serves a rural community in Iowa. The paper is profiled in the documentary "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS.

Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County. How has the - I don't know - the demographic makeup of the county and, you know, the political texture of the county changed over the years you've been there?

CULLEN: Well, very interesting. This is - I call northwest Iowa a little slice of Texas. And you know, it's - this is very much a live-free-or-die kind of place. Farm Bureau dominates our politics, you know, very much, a libertarian style of - it was once said about Iowa that Iowa will go Democrat when hell goes Methodist.

(LAUGHTER)

CULLEN: So this is a very Republican area, and Storm Lake is a little dot of blue. It's very much like the country writ at large. The rural areas are very deeply red, and Storm Lake is this little blob of blue populated by a large contingent of Latinos, many of whom are from Mexico, many of whom are from San Antonio. So it's a very different place than most of rural Iowa. And so Storm Lake proper votes Democrat - supported Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But the county itself negates that vote and voted strongly for Trump in the last election.

DAVIES: And a lot of these immigrants work in the meatpacking plants and poultry processing plant that are - that's in the area. How have you engaged that part of the community?

CULLEN: Well, for one thing, we've been a very strong advocate for Latinos in particular who, you know, are here as DREAMers and, you know, young people who were brought here at age 2 or 3 at no choice of theirs. And now they're here stuck without papers. And you know, at one point, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump said they wanted to deport them all. So we've been a very strong advocate for legalizing the undocumented, not only DREAMers, but people with temporary protected status from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and for the people - hardworking people here in Storm Lake who came here avoiding drug gangs and desperate poverty in rural Mexico, Jalisco mainly.

And we had this congressman, Steve King, who was, you know, a real xenophobe. And so we opposed him for 20 years. And I think the Latino community appreciates it. But one real issue we have is illiteracy. And so a lot of rural immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala lack reading, you know, literacy in Spanish, much less English. So that's been a real challenge for us as to - the next generation who are graduating from high school and college here now will be newspaper readers, but their parents currently aren't.

DAVIES: You're a progressive, and you live in a county that has a lot of Republicans. I mean, you're a journalist. You got to talk to all kinds of people. How do they react to you? What kind of relationships do you have?

CULLEN: Most people think that we're fairly, you know, sensible or pragmatic progressives. And then there's a lot of people - 30% of the electorate, I would say, or the public would think that we're crazy Irish Catholic New Dealers, socialists and - which we are. We're Irish Catholic New Dealers. Can't help it. I was born that way. But they accept that, and we keep it to the editorial page. And I think what people really want is an honest discussion of the issues. And that's what we try and deliver.

DAVIES: You know, it's been my experience - and I covered politics for a long time in Pennsylvania - and that - it's been my experience that the kind of all-out war and bitterness that occurs between Republicans and Democrats at the national level is much less acute among local members of their parties because they have to live with these folks. I mean, it's just not so deeply partisan.

CULLEN: Yeah, but it's getting worse.

DAVIES: Well, that's what I was going to say, was - it's - I think I see a change over the last few years. And I'm wondering what you see and particularly, you know, in the wake of this election in which president - former President Trump was, you know, and is still, you know, propounding these, you know, baseless theories that there was fraud and that the election was stolen. What are these relationships like in Buena Vista County?

CULLEN: Well, yeah, it's Facebook mainly has really soured our civics. And so this movie's coming out, and it's a beautiful movie. It's not really very controversial. It's just holding up journalism and community life in sort of an idealized way, honestly. And there's nothing, you know, and, you know, 30 years ago, people in Storm Lake would have said, wow, that's really cool, you know. Storm Lake is being held up for something other than a forgotten town. And now with Facebook, you know, you got, of, the liberal rag, you know, who'd want to go see that?

You know, actually, it celebrates civic engagement in Storm Lake, Iowa, and how the Iowa caucuses were really, you know, a great exercise in neighbors discussing issues and candidates. And it really holds up Storm Lake as an exemplar. And yet, because of the snarkiness and cynicism that's fed by - on Facebook and other social media, you know, people diss this movie, you know. And again, it's just a minority, but that just wouldn't have happened 20 to 30 years ago. It would have been Iowa pride suffocating any of that.

DAVIES: Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake, Iowa, Times (ph), which is profiled in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which airs Monday night on PBS. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Our guest is Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, a small, family-run newspaper in Iowa. It's featured in a new documentary about keeping local journalism alive. The film, called "Storm Lake," airs Monday night on PBS.

Art Cullen, I want to talk about the editorial series that got you the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. This kind of begins with an environmental problem involving the Storm Lake, which is the lake that is right next to the city of Storm Lake and another river, I guess the Raccoon River. What was going wrong here and in - with these bodies of water?

CULLEN: All right. Back in the 1800s, when the white settlers arrived, this area was all marshland and tall grass prairie. And so they could farm. They drained all those marshes and slews and - with underground clay tile. And we've been increasing that - the amount of that underground tile through the years, especially since 1980. And what happens is when we apply fertilizer and you get a heavy rain, that fertilizer washes through the soil profile into these drainage tiles and hits the Raccoon River, which then flows to Des Moines. And Des Moines, with 500,000 drinking water consumers, draws its water supply from the Raccoon River. Hence, because of the nitrate pollution from anhydrous ammonia application to grow corn, Des Moines now has the largest nitrate removal system in North America. And so they sued these three northern Iowa counties upstream for polluting the Raccoon River.

DAVIES: Right. And they warned them that they were going to do this. The counties kind of didn't take it seriously. Your - in your editorial said this is a real problem. So the litigation begins. What happens next?

CULLEN: Well, because it's a pollution lawsuit, we figure out that - the Storm Lake Times figures out that the county can't - its insurance company won't pay its legal fees for defending this lawsuit. So we asked the county board of supervisors, our county commission, how are you going to cover these legal bills? They could impact our property tax base. And they said, essentially, it's none of your business. We have friends. And we said, who are your friends? And they said, are you heard of hearing? It's none of your business.

And so then we went off and joined with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which is a nonprofit urging government transparency throughout the state. And we started writing letters saying the Iowa public records law requires you to reveal these donors. And eventually, they agreed to us after having spent about a million dollars from the slush fund in legal. And within - so the counties eventually pulled out of this illegal arrangement that was funded primarily, as we determined from our own reporting, by Monsanto, the Koch brothers and the rest of the fertilizer industry.

And so the counties had to pull out of this illegal agreement because we harassed them out of it. And six weeks later, a federal District Court judge ruled that - he dismissed the lawsuit because you basically can't sue counties for agricultural pollution. And so the issue - we won sort of a pyrrhic victory. We got dark money out of the federal courts after they spent a million bucks. But Iowa - in Iowa, agriculture and the environment, which are at loggerheads, never got the hearing it deserved because the legislature is essentially owned by the Farm Bureau and the agrochemical complex. And they will never give the environment a hearing. And we had hoped that the courts would give the environment a hearing, and they didn't. So we're hoping now that Congress will correct this pollution problem in the next farm bill.

DAVIES: So the issue was, in part, public information, right? I mean, you have a public entity getting huge sums of money from private interests that aren't disclosed. But beyond that, there was a real substantive issue. You were argued that, hey, county, don't simply defend these practices. Let's get together and reach a settlement and try to address the problem. Right? You actually suggested that they meet and resolve it. And I think one of the parties said that they were going to, and then they canceled it and blamed you. Do I have this right? (Laughter).

CULLEN: Yeah, kind of (laughter), yeah. They said - OK, so we had suggested in a series of editorials, can't you knuckleheads just talk to each other? Well, of course they can't. They couldn't talk to each other. Couldn't the governor, Terry Branstad, talk to Bill Stowe, the CEO of the Des Moines Water Works? They're, you know, they're five minutes apart in Des Moines. No, they can't talk to each other. We don't want to hear each other. And so finally, we suggested that the Buena Vista County Attorney and Bill Stowe of the water works - who has since died, by the way - have a meeting.

And so they arranged for a quiet secret meeting in Fort Dodge at a Perkins restaurant. And when the county board of supervisors, the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors caught wind of that meeting. They said, no way are you going to that meeting. We aren't talking to those people. We got lawyers, and we got money. Why would we talk to them? And so that's how, you know, we've become in America. I have a bunch of - I got a million bucks from Monsanto and the Koch brothers. Why should I meet you at a Perkins?

DAVIES: And I read that the board of supervisors of the county said if Art Cullen says something, we'll do the opposite, which is...

CULLEN: That's exactly right. That's how stupid it got.

DAVIES: Well, it's kind of a depressing kind of measure of your own clout, isn't it?

CULLEN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So you can get the wrong thing done by suggesting...

CULLEN: Yeah, so that's how stupid - you know, people dig their heels in. And they can't even talk to each other. And that's where we - you know, it speaks to the larger issue, I think, of how we conduct our politics today.

DAVIES: One of the other little details from the story that I love is some of the players involved in this were going to be at a - at some kind of a charity golf outing. And your son Tom went to the country club, tracked them down on the course, and then in the clubhouse, still didn't get any answers, right?

CULLEN: Yeah, they spotted him trudging to the 18th hole, and they took off in golf carts, fleeing him. And then they got to the clubhouse, where they issued a no-comment. And it was - the politicians and the money were all golfing together and all drinking each other's booze. And that's how politics is conducted.

DAVIES: Well, Art Cohen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

CULLEN: Well, thank you, Dave. It's been a delight talking to you.

DAVIES: Art Cullen is the editor of the family-run newspaper the Storm Lake Times, serving a rural community in northwestern Iowa. Cullen won a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He and the paper are featured in the new documentary "Storm Lake." After our interview first aired in September, Cullen heard from a wealthy tech entrepreneur who offered funding - no strings attached - to keep the paper afloat through the pandemic. Cullen says he's accepted some of that assistance, and he's grateful. The documentary "Storm Lake" airs Monday night on PBS.

On Monday's show, how do two sisters just three years apart take extremely divergent paths in life? We talk with Dawn Turner, former columnist for the Chicago Tribune about her new memoir. While she became a successful writer, her sister died at 24 from chronic alcoholism. Both grew up in a Chicago neighborhood which Turner says government officials neglected and abandoned. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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