New documentary explores Storm Lake, Iowa and its intrepid family of journalists

'Storm Lake' Opening Night Screening and Conversation

FilmScene at the Chauncey -- Friday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m.

Art Cullen — Dana Telsrow/Little Village

Art Cullen’s storied career in journalism began when he was a young man stumbling his way through school.

“I flunked accounting,” he said, “and realized the only requirement to get into the journalism program at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul was the ability to type 25 words per minute. It was 1975, post-Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein inspired me.”

Forty-two years later, he joined the ranks of his heroes when he won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing after unearthing a conspiracy between Big Agriculture and local county officials in Northern Iowa.

Art’s family newspaper, The Storm Lake Times, was founded in 1990 by his older brother John, who is now semi-retired and does the books. The two brothers are joined by John’s wife Mary, the food columnist, and Art’s wife Dolores, a photographer and culture reporter, and their son Tom works as the lead reporter. In sum, the Cullens comprise half of The Storm Lake Times’ 10-person staff.

“I try to remember that John and Dolores are really the bosses,” Art told me. “I try not to be hard on Tom but often fail.”

The Cullen family is a team united around the goal of cranking out a community newspaper every Tuesday and Thursday that their neighbors will want to read, and each member plays a key role in accomplishing their mission.

Dolores works the human interest beat, taking photos and writing profiles of everyday people, like an Iowa Pork Producers “Pork Queen” who visited a second grade class with a piglet in hand. (“It’s really important for us to make sure that [pigs] have everything that they need so they can grow fastly and efficiently,” the young Pork Queen explained to students. “That’s what the pork industry is all about.”)

Art is the paper’s driving force, and his shock of wavy white hair gives off a Mark Twain vibe that complements the newspaper man’s sharp intelligence, livewire energy and biting wit. As a liberal voice in a conservative district, he is used to stirring up controversy and getting on people’s nerves — which only means that he’s doing his job correctly.

“No dissent is not interesting,” Art said. “I read The Wall Street Journal editorials because they are diametrically opposed to my point of view. I find that interesting. Ultimately, I hope that an honest point of view is salable.”

The Storm Lake Times eventually attracted the attention of Jerry Risius, a North Iowan filmmaker who grew up on a hog farm in Buffalo Center, graduated from the University of Iowa and now teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

“Art is compelling in many ways,” Risius said, “but it is his pursuit of the truth with a local boy’s connection to the community that makes him so compelling. He is relentless in his pursuits of local issues so that the town of Storm Lake is informed and can make decisions about their community based on his and his family’s reporting.”

After reading about the Pulitzer in The New York Times, he emailed The Storm Lake Times and followed up with a phone call asking if he could hang around for a few days and shoot in their office.


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“Of course, we agreed,” Art said. “He used that to tease an experienced producer, Beth Levison, to co-direct. Jerry is a master of soft manipulation, which makes him a great photographer.”

When Levison saw Risius’ footage, she was immediately drawn in by Art Cullen’s voice and clear point of view, and the rest of his family further sucked her in.

“We both felt that their story — of a small paper in a small town — had the ability to reflect an unfolding national story about the struggle of local news, of farmers in the Midwest, of immigrants to our country and of communities on the precipice, fighting to stay whole.”

Their co-directed film, Storm Lake, documents the Cullen family as they tirelessly produce a newspaper that wrestles with the issues that matter most to their local community, from a largely Mexican population trying to make Storm Lake their home to farmers struggling to earn a living wage.

“Jerry Risius, the co-director and cinematographer, is an Iowa boy who needed no learning curve in the issues of rural communities,” Art said. “We immediately became friends, and I felt like we were reporting the same story together, which was cool.”

Art and the rest of the Cullens are invested in representing their community as best and accurately as they can, which inspired the filmmakers’ storytelling style when editing Storm Lake. They wanted the film to feel as authentic to the Cullens and their community as the Cullens are with their local reportage.

“Art’s North Star is the truth,” Levison said, “and in this day and age, it felt incredibly exciting to follow someone who is so in pursuit of that. What makes the Cullens so compelling is that they are members of the Storm Lake community, like so many others.”

After the family watched Storm Lake for the first time, Dolores exclaimed with on-brand Midwestern modesty, “But we’re just regular people!” As for Art Cullen, he observed, “It’s overwhelming to watch the movie, and humbling.”

Storm Lake’s soundtrack is also steeped in a Midwestern aesthetic provided by indie-folk artist Andrew Bird. When Levison and Risius were cutting the film, they used his songs as “temp” music, and after interviewing potential composers and telling them that they were looking for an “Andrew Birdian” sound, they decided to approach the artist himself, who signed on.

“I think we felt that his work both elevated the film and worked to unify its many scenes through a spirit of authenticity,” Levison said. “Andrew is not an East Coast or West Coast composer trying to interpret a Midwest sound. He has Iowa in his blood and could just channel it into his music. We really did want this film to feel of its time, place and people as much as it could and we think that Andrew’s music really helped us to achieve that. Also, there’s some whimsy in his music and the Cullens have a sense of that, too.”

Storm Lake’s story is rooted in the pillars of family, community and the kind of old school fact-based journalism that is sadly in decline. Over the past 20 years, nearly 2,000 local papers have shut down, and with each passing month, The Storm Lake Times continues to walk a precarious financial tightrope as their profits shrink and expenses balloon.

“I am committed to the community of Storm Lake,” Art said. “Journalism is vital to the community. So I can never quit. I am trying to raise money for the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation to help save independent family newspapers.”

Through The Storm Lake Times, the Cullens reflect an accurate picture of their community to its readers — which is one of the cornerstones of a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, theirs is one of the few remaining newspapers in America that is dedicated to exclusively covering the local affairs, because The New York Times certainly isn’t going to cover Storm Lake, and the same is largely true even for The Des Moines Register.

“Nobody cares about Storm Lake the way The Times does,” Cullen said. “Nobody cares about Iowa City like Little Village, because it is locally owned and vested in the community. That is where journalism begins, in being rooted in your community. Nobody can report on Storm Lake like The Times because we have chosen it as home.”

Kembrew McLeod is celebrating his 20th year as a founding columnist for Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.

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