Film and TV

Local Newspapers Fight “Extinction” in Storm Lake Documentary Airing on PBS

Photo by Gary Fandel
Art Cullen and brother John reviews fresh copies of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Storm Lake Times.

To many, it would appear we live in the age of information – with more data at our fingertips than ever before. Yet in a world of digital paywalls and 24-hour commentary, there appears to be a squeeze on quality reporting of the many stories happening outside the major metropolises.

“There are studies out there, over 70 percent of Americans have no idea that local news is in trouble,” says documentarian Beth Levison, co-director of the upcoming film Storm Lake which will be airing through PBS’ Independent Lens on November 15. 

“They don’t think about their local news source and they think it will just always be there. We really wanted to humanize the struggle that newspaper publishers and newspaper field is facing to get people to care, and if people care maybe they will do something about saving their own local newspaper. Because no local newspaper is in OK shape right.”

Alongside co-director Jerry Risius, Levison explores the anxiety of facing the economic realities of producing an independent newspaper in rural Iowa in this charming but blunt 82-minute feature. Risius, a native Iowan, shares how he first realized there might be a larger story brewing in his home state.

“I grew up in a small town... actually, in a hog farm in a small town. About 1,000 people, an hour and a half away from Storm Lake, and I still pay attention to all things Iowa after I left 35 years ago in the mid ‘80s. When I saw in the Spring of 2017 that when the Pulitzers were announced and the headline read: ‘Small Iowa Newspaper wins Pulitzer,’ I went and read all of Art [Cullen]’s news articles that won the Pulitzer, and then I looked him up and of course The Times, and eventually I called him and I ended up going to visit him. I brought a camera out to see if I could shoot a bit of a character reel with him. And I did it with him later that summer. I feel in love with the way he was operating, what his family was doing and with Storm Lake.”

Art Cullen, the bespectacled bowtie wearing editor with a distinguish white mane sneaking cigarettes as deadlines looms for his twice-weekly publication, is instantly supportable. Despite his 2017 Pulitzer Prize recognition, The Storm Lake Times is a family business and humble in the trust American sense. “He does sort of straddle being a great character and a real interrogator and also someone who speaks for his community at the same time,” says Levison about editor Cullen. “But once you read the articles he won the Pulitzer for, you’ll see there is real rigor in the work.”

“Simply connecting to Art and his family was a very basic human connection,” Risius picks up. “They’re very welcoming, and they are newspaper people so they are investigators and are curious, and when we came out they were curious about us. So we told them our story, and I think once we started working with them they saw we had no intention of stylizing their story or doing anything. We really wanted to know them in some sense and offer a profile of their lives and their town and their work.”

click to enlarge
A family business: son Tom congratulates father Art on their big night in a photo taken by mother Dolores.
Photo by Dolores Cullen

The struggle to survive year to year with modest readership soon became the prime focus of the documentary’s conflict, and might have helped influence why Art became willing to open himself for coverage.

Risius explains his perspective: “I certainly think when you are struggling for your lives and someone wants to tell your story, you are much more open to someone telling that story. The business model has been dying for several decades and they have been watching this slow collapse of newspapering and they are trying to figure out how to pivot to that next step in some way which is digital. But when we went out there: I think one year they made $2,000, that was their whole year’s gain. And they immediately had it wiped out by a $70,000 increase in their print materials and their insurance. So that’s how the entered into the Caucuses and the pandemic.”

The tension of whether or not the Cullens will whether the financial storms of the pandemic creep into the movie’s third act, but clearly, this is not a fight The Storm Lake Times is fighting alone. “At a certain point, we began to realize that what’s going on in Storm Lake is a microcosm of what’s going on across the United States,” Levison explains.

“The future of newspapers is really uncertain, and I think it is a big question whether this film could be made in ten years. When we started filming this, we were drawn to Art, to the family and to the newspaper and the community of Storm Lake. And we didn’t know at the outset that local news was facing the existential crisis that it was. As we continued to film, we really started to realize what was going on with local news, and since COVID, so many other newspapers have closed and so many changes are taking place so quickly, that in ten years... I think Art certainly thinks that the news landscape could be really different.”

Beyond the discovery that local news media was hurting to finally be put under “a magnifying glass,” Levison acknowledges that part of the process of spending time with a newspaper in rural America was confronting certain “stereotypes” about the supposed divide along party lines. “I think we have this idea that the middle of the country is a sea of red and I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. The country is more speckled and not so homogenous. That was certainly not our experience in Storm Lake, which is a remarkably diverse place. We had the opportunity to reveal and present a town that most people in America don’t even know exists. People are pretty much coexisting, not perfectly, but quite well.”

Risius tags in, invoking some homegrown wisdom from Art himself. “As Art says, ‘it’s hard to hate your neighbor when you are sharing casserole bowls with them at the school board meetings.’ People who don’t agree with Art don’t necessarily disavow him. Some do, some will castigate him or speak badly about him on Facebook. But others that we met as well recognize that he is a very unique voice, and there’s a couple of spots where people who disagree with him will still read his articles to see what the other side thinks.”

After viewing the documentary, it's hard not be moved to action is some form. But what form potential solutions could be for this shrinking base of small town news is open to debate – and a debate is what the filmmakers encourage.

“We hope the film gets people to rethink their relationship to their own local news,” Levison confides. “And we hope that they see that this isn’t just a film about The Storm Lake Times but really the story of newspapers all across the country. And we hope that viewers will subscribe to their local news source, and that if they’re business owners, they will put ads in their local paper and that they’ll become more visibly engaged. That they will pay attention to the legislation now that there’s so much conversation about it. And there are all these new models that are being explored: newspapers that are being funded by local philanthropy, or news organizations that become non-profits, or legislation that’s part of the Build Back Better Act with tax credits for newspapers, is that a way to secure their future?

It's kind of like we happened to make a film about this species that could be going extinct, but all of sudden the conservationists are mobilizing. And really trying to figure out what we can do to save the species.”

Part of the film’s engagement is partnering with PBS for targeted impact campaigns, Levison says. “We really wanted the film to be on public television. A film about an independent newspaper in rural America that isn’t chasing profits but really just trying to support their community, and we just felt like public television would be the right fit for the film. It has really wide reach, has access to rural America and is not chasing profits like other networks or streamers out there. We’re really happy. It feels like the right home for the film, and public television is really focused on impact, we did roll out an impact campaign from the very first showing of the film with the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

"Every single screening that we’ve had through a film festival or a community screening, has had a local partner involved whether that’s a local news organization or an NGO or a local newspaper or local journalist, so the local news source could tell its own story. It’s a great platform to reach the widest American public possible, and public television is a partner of ours.”

And, as Risius points out, one of their not-so-secret weapons is the Art Cullen himself. “They’re a huge part of that. The whole family really are such good spokespeople for community journalism. We’re elevating their voice, but the end, it is their voice. They’re the actual newspaper people that are struggling ... and it is their voice that people really respond to.”

“Storm Lake” will broadcast on PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS on November 15 at 9 p.m. The film will also be available on the PBS Video app.