The Storm Lake Times is one of the last small-town newspapers still published, operating out of Storm Lake, Iowa, and covering the city and its surrounding counties. Times editor Art Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017 for an expose he’d written about the dark money in the corporate agriculture that now dominates Iowa. That series wasn’t the first time the paper made national attention: Cullen and his brother, John, started the paper in 1990, and have chronicled life and culture in Iowa for the past 30 years. They’ve written through big agriculture’s invasion of family farms, kept track of the change in local culture as Storm Lake’s predominantly white citizenry has become more and more Latino as immigrants move there to fill the pork factories, and witnessed first-hand the state’s shift from swing state to right-wing haven. The Cullens have kept going strong even past the years in which they both could’ve retired. John doesn’t even collect a paycheck, donating his time to the paper and getting by on Social Security. It’s a labor of love, basically a family business, driven by the belief that local news is an eroding cornerstone of American democracy.
Storm Lake, airing today on PBS, follows the Cullens and company as they operate their paper through the 2020 Democratic caucuses, and into the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that almost drove them bankrupt. A lot of Storm Lake marvels at the fact the Times is still operating this far into the 21st century when most papers of its size have shut down due to the internet supplanting their role in people’s lives. Without readers, there’s no money. Without money, well … good reporting doesn’t come cheap. Even the largest newspapers have had trouble adapting to the digital age, instituting porous paywalls and subscription options that have no chance against the torrent of free bullshit Facebook hosts to keep up ad revenue. However old-fashioned the Times felt in 2019 pales in comparison to now.
But COVID-19 is the end of the story told here. The bulk of it is about Art Cullen and his staff working as hard as they can to keep the spirit of the paper intact while financially surviving. His lead marketer works to sell ad space to local businesses, some of whom don’t approve of the paper’s politics. His reporters work diligently to capture local interest stories — obituaries, family recipes, interesting citizens — while also following major stories, like the development of bilingual curriculum in the local schools as their town changes. The Storm Lake Times made news in 2007 for being one of the first papers in Iowa to endorse a candidate (Joe Biden, at the time), and its coverage of the Democratic caucus process in the state has sometimes landed Art on the national news. His team entertains visits from candidates and closely follows the process.
With his cigarettes and Mark Twain hair, Art feels like a dying breed of reporter. He’s mercurial and devoted fully to the paper, crediting his wife for raising their kids. Most of them filtered through the paper at one point or another, but now he has a lone son working on staff. Art entertains his son’s ideas for modernizing their offerings through apps or podcasts but doesn’t embrace them. He knows what he’s good at, and what their paper does, and they somehow make it work year in and year out. When the pandemic starts, Art never stops. Thanks to a GoFundMe that almost reached its goal and a revamped website in 2020, the paper seems to be as strong as ever.
Storm Lake is a love letter still being written to an old way of doing things that feels even stranger now as 2021 stumbles through an up-and-down mid-pandemic fugue state. The story of the paper is still being written, and those doing it will never stop. It’s what they do, even if there isn’t always an audience for it. Local news is dying, but it won’t go out without a fight.