The Art of journalism

‘Storm Lake’ documentary focuses on the survival story of a rural newspaper.


Art Cullen looks like a guy who would fit in on Martha’s Vineyard. He has a mop of white hair, a horseshoe mustache, and wears a bow tie and spectacles. (OK, so maybe the bow tie would be a bit much on the Island.) His look has been described as Mark Twain–like.

Cullen is the editor of a twice-weekly newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, the home of hog farms and meat-packing plants. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for what the judges called “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise, and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

It was that Pulitzer Prize win that caught the attention of another Iowan, film director Jerry Risius. “It wasn’t quite an ‘Exorcist’ moment, but my head actually swiveled,” he said during a Zoom interview. “Within a couple days I called him up, and thought, This is a great opportunity to tell the story for me as an Iowan, as well as something that’s very important.”

Risius reached out to producer Beth Levison. The pair set out to tell the story of a rural newspaper hanging on by the slimmest of margins to keep doing the important work of journalism — holding politicians and “scoundrels” accountable — to avoid yet another news desert.

“In August of 2018, Art had written this editorial in the New York Times, and Jerry asked, ‘Hey, have you seen it?’ And it really just blew me away that there was this specificity of voice,” Levison said, noting that it was about immigration.

There have been other movies about newspapers. “Spotlight” features the Boston Globe’s great work exposing the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. “All the President’s Men” depicts the heavy lifting of Woodward and Bernstein to uncover the Watergate scandal. 

“There is this idea in our culture that bigger is better,” Levison said. “I had never seen a film about a local newspaper before, and this one on the surface seemed kind of interesting, at least Art did.”

In a world dominated by newspapers swallowed up by hedge funds and corporations — many of them shuttered for cost-saving consolidations — the Storm Lake Times perseveres. The Times is family-owned by Cullen and his brother, John, who is the publisher and principal owner, with a 51 percent share. “My arithmetic is good enough that I know to hold my tongue when I have to,” Art Cullen deadpanned.

Cullen’s wife, Dolores, is a photographer and feature writer, and his son, Tom, is the newspaper’s lead reporter. (Make sure to pay attention to the headline Dolores writes for her story on a baby pig that visits a classroom wearing a diaper.) The family dog, Peach, is the newsroom mascot. 

“If I remember who my bosses are, I’m usually OK,” Art Cullen said during a Zoom forum about the film. “It keeps the family intact.”

The documentary isn’t so much about the success of the Times. There’s scant mention of the Pulitzer win, except that’s a reason Democratic candidates for president want to be on the same stage with Art Cullen at a forum. Instead, the documentary focuses on survival — what it takes to keep the Times going, and why it’s important.

“A pretty good rule is that an Iowa town will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks. The best journalism is that which builds communities,” Cullen wrote in a column welcoming his son to the family business. “You build your community by publicizing good deeds done, by reporting on the cheats and scoundrels and other politicians, by urging yourself and those around you to do better, by allowing dissenting voices to be heard, and by making certain that your town’s issues are heard in Des Moines and Washington. Use your power to build, and the newspaper will grow naturally.”

There’s a scene where John Cullen agonizes over cutting back on the TV listings. It will save thousands, but piss off loyal readers.

We see Art Cullen pull $7 out of a plastic tub. The day’s take from single-copy sales.

Tom Cullen tries to convince his dad and uncle that a podcast could draw in more subscribers. They’re not convinced. “I think this should be about reporting, and I should stick to writing columns and editorials,” Art Cullen tells his son in the film. “I don’t understand podcasts necessarily. If I wanted to get into radio, I would have gotten into radio.”

Cullen’s hope is to keep the Times going, to avoid having Storm Lake become another news desert. There are 65 million Americans living in so-called news deserts, places with no credible news source. “You can change the world through journalism. Tom Paine did it with ‘Common Sense.’ Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post did it with Watergate. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams did it — with one brutal photo, he started the end of the Vietnam War,” Cullen wrote in that column to his son. “That’s the only good reason to get into this business. Because, when you’re looking for a friend, remember that the dog can’t read.”

We’re not giving away spoilers when we tell you this is a story about living on the edge. It’s a story we can relate to here at The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Like Storm Lake, the pandemic put a crater-size dent in our advertising revenue. An already difficult business got tougher. How to keep a robust reporting staff chasing stories with even less cash on hand. How to keep the lights on and the presses running. It would make a good movie. It does make a good movie.

When Times co-owner Barbara Oberfest heard about “Storm Lake,” the documentary, on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, it resonated. She mentioned it to her husband, Peter, and a plan was hatched to bring this film to Martha’s Vineyard by sponsoring a night at the M.V. Film Center.

The documentary does some storytelling that we’re not great at. We don’t tell the story of our industry well. We don’t let you, our readers, in enough.

“Our hope is that newspapers could see the film as a tool to help them tell their stories to their readers,” Levison said.

We hope you’ll join us for a special showing of “Storm Lake” at the M.V. Film Center on Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7:30 pm. Afterward, you can stick around and see a short Zoom discussion of the movie that includes me, Art Cullen, Risius, Levison, and M.V. Film Society executive director Richard Paradise.

We hope you’ll be inspired to buy a subscription. If you are so inclined, there is a $15 discount coupon code available for anyone who attends the screening who’d like to purchase a new or gift digital subscription to the MVTimes.

See the trailer, and buy tickets here.