Local news is vital to the civic health of a community. That’s especially true during times of crisis, including the COVID-19 pandemic. But much of local news is going away as many papers have been forced to close across the country during the past two decades.
“I believe the critical function of a newspaper is to advocate for the community in the halls of power.” —Art Cullen, Storm Lake Times
A new documentary, “Storm Lake,” demonstrates how a small-town Iowan newspaper is working to exist, and even thrive, during difficult times. “Storm Lake” is virtually screening at the Freep Film Festival through Sept. 29.
Listen: The co-director and the subject of the documentary “Storm Lake” talk about the struggles and values of local news.
Art Cullen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning owner and editor of Storm Lake Times, and the subject of the documentary “Storm Lake.” He says the paper, which has about 3,000 readers and publishes twice weekly, struggles to incentivize people to pay for news because they can acquire it for free on Facebook. The consequence is fewer dollars going toward good journalism and a drag on civic engagement.
“I believe the critical function of a newspaper is to advocate for the community in the halls of power,” he says. “One voice can’t get a lot done, but when you get 3,000 voices together in Storm Lake, you can change the community.”
Cullen’s work gained more attention after he composed a series of editorials on the need to clean up pollution created by an industrial agriculture company in his town, which also called for more transparency. After Storm Lake Times won its Pulitzer, he says advertising money from the local agricultural chemical plant dried up, but that donor response and readership increased.
“It’s raised our visibility and I’m able to advocate for other family newspapers,” he says. He was also able to start the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation to support the work of local reporting throughout that part of the state.
Beth Levison is a documentary filmmaker and one of the directors of “Storm Lake.” She says the project got off the ground in 2018 after she read a New York Times editorial from Cullen calling for more immigrants to come to Storm Lake.
Levison says she hopes the documentary pushes people to rethink their relationship with local news and recognize how they can support it. She hopes readers don’t take local newspapers for granted and to consider the idea that, “maybe we don’t know our community and who we are if we don’t have a local newspaper.”