‘Storm Lake’ from PBS tells the story of a rural newspaper fighting for its life

Dolores Cullen, photographer and feature writer, holds up a copy of The Storm Lake Times

Previously published at GBH News.

Dolores Cullen is scanning through photos she’d taken at a local elementary school where Abby Bean, the reigning Iowa Pork Producers Pork Queen, had enthused over the finer points of hog production. The kids were encouraged to oink. There was a piglet wearing a diaper. It was the sort of event that oozes cute.

But that’s not what was on Cullen’s mind. While driving through Albert City, she was hit with an odor so foul that she couldn’t stop talking about it. “It was so putrid I almost gagged, from hog confinement,” she says. When she commented on the smell during a visit to the post office to deliver newspapers, she was told it was from corn that had been put out to dry.

“No,” she says she responded. “This is not the smell of drying corn. This is hog shit.”

Welcome to The Storm Lake Times, a 21-year-old twice-weekly newspaper with a circulation of about 3,000 that covers Buena Vista County, Iowa. The paper is the subject of a documentary, “Storm Lake,” that will be broadcast on most PBS stations this coming Monday, Nov. 15, at 10 p.m., including GBH-2 in Boston.

The film, by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, tells the story of a small rural newspaper’s fight for survival at a time when local papers across the country are cutting back and shutting down. At the center of that story are the Cullens, a remarkable family who persevere through calamities such as the rise of agribusiness, which wiped out much of the local advertising that had once sustained the paper; the spreading tentacles of the internet, which grabbed another big chunk; and, finally, the insidious invasion of COVID-19.

The Times was already among our better-known rural newspapers by virtue of a Pulitzer Prize that it won in 2017 for a series of editorials written by Art Cullen, the editor. As the Pulitzer judges put it, the paper “successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Cullen’s editorials so enraged those interests that the Iowa Senate refused to approve a resolution of congratulations, a tidbit that did not make it into the film.

Cullen later wrote a book about his life as a small-town newspaperman, but his notoriety appears not to have been of much help to the Times’ bottom line. Indeed, “Storm Lake” is a story of struggle. At one point the publisher, Art’s older brother, John, explains how he spent months listening to readers in order to pare the television listings down from 80 channels to 31 without sparking too much outrage, thus saving about $10,000.

Art Cullen is the narrative center of the film. Rail thin, with a shock of unkempt white hair (less unkempt after he submitted to a haircut administered by Dolores, his wife), a bushy horseshoe mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, we see him interviewing a range of characters, from a farmer talking about how a surplus of rain has stunted the corn crop to then-presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on stage in front of hundreds during the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. We’re treated to several samples of his lyrical writing as well.

The caucuses provide a welcome break from the monotony of rural life. Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg drops by, and he’s not allowed to leave until he’s autographed an enormous “Storm Lake Times” sign that adorns the newsroom. Art takes part in an MSNBC panel moderated by Chuck Todd. Art and his son, Tom, report from the scene on caucus night, their disappointment palpable as it becomes clear that problems with the app used to tally the results mean that there would be no results for quite some. The Times’ headline: “Who Won the Caucuses? Not Iowa.”

Tom, Art and John Cullen

“Everybody thinks this is going to kill the Iowa caucuses,” Art says. “It shouldn’t, but it will.” A short time later he adds: “It’s not the process that broke down. It’s the app. It’s kind of too bad that we just can’t be more patient with democracy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic followed the caucuses by just a few weeks, and it nearly put the Times out of business. Advertising was down 50% in March 2020. Art and John muse about walking away rather than piling up more debt, or selling the Times’ building.

But they prevailed. We learn at the end that the paper held a successful GoFundMe campaign, signed up more than 100 new subscribers and unveiled a redesigned website that was attracting 1.2 million page views per month. The paper would survive.

Risius and Levison have provided a fascinating close-up look at the local news crisis, which has claimed some 2,100 U.S. newspapers over the past 15 years. At a moment when corporate chains control thousands of papers, squeezing out profits while cutting back on news coverage, the Cullens stand out as notable — and noble — exceptions.

“The pay is lousy and the hours are terrible,” says Art. “But you can change the world through journalism.”