Pulitzer story becomes a major motion picture

Art Cullen was on a traditional career path, moving progressively to bigger and better paying newspapers and positions before he ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2017.

He certainly never imagined along the way that he would ultimately be scraping for dimes to support local journalism as he does as editor of a small town newspaper in Iowa.

Photo from The Storm Lake Times

At The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, Cullen said it’s tough to make payroll with a huge drop in advertising revenue, while postal rates and health care costs have steadily increased, issues affecting newspapers across the country. 

The paper is still struggling even after its story was made into a documentary that ended up a darling of the festival circuit, from Seattle to Provincetown, Massachusetts. That film about the paper debuts Nov. 15 on PBS stations nationwide.  

Cullen has a national and even international platform, but the bread and butter stories concern life’s triumphs–blind bowler sets strike record, picked up by ESPN, among others: And, of course, teen Pork Queen visits school, pig wearing diaper in her arms.

The Storm Lake Times, published on Tuesdays and Thursdays, also covers serious environmental and political issues. The documentary includes its reporting on the fraught Iowa caucuses of 2018 and Covid outbreaks at nearby meat and poultry processing plants.

The idea for the documentary came from Jerry Risius, now of Brooklyn, who grew up on a hog farm near Buffalo Grove, Iowa, and heard about the guy with a similar background who won a Pulitzer. Risius was a producer for Anthony Bourdain’s shows, looking for another project after the celebrity chef’s death. Beth Levison served as co-director and producer, attracted to the project in part after she read Cullen’s New York Times pro-immigrant Op Ed from 2018.

Cullen said while some in the newsroom were camera-shy, he and Risius “became good buddies.” Just as journalists don’t show sources their stories, he had no idea what the final film would look like. “It turned out to be a pretty good piece of journalism,” Cullen said. “It could have gone any way – portraying us as hicks.”

Seattle Times editor Brier Dudley compared Storm Lake to Spotlight, winner of six Oscars in 2016, including Best Picture, about the Boston Globe’s investigation of Roman Catholic priests’ abuse of young boys. (Based on a true story, Spotlight used actors to portray the journalists.)

“It’s a compelling bookend to such big-city newspaper movies,” Dudley wrote, ”pulling back the curtain on thousands of smaller papers that play a critical role in binding and informing most of the country.”

Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for opinion writing in 2017, a credential that led to his publishing commentary in prestigious, influential places such as this recent Washington Post piece criticizing U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley’s decision to run for re-election at age 88.

Video from Greetings for Iowa via Youtube

As he told Dave Davies in a lengthy Fresh Air interview on public radio:

“My brother John had the crazy idea of starting a newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst time, in retrospect, you could imagine starting a print publication in rural Northwest Iowa.…I was kind of tired of corporate journalism, working for a large, publicly traded company. And so I came home.”

His older brother John was the publisher, Art the editor. Each opted to take Social Security early and stop taking salaries to use scarce revenue to pay other employees with no layoffs.  Since John’s retirement, Art is the publisher as well as columnist and editor.  

On Oct. 6, the day of Art Cullen talked to GJR, the Poynter Institute published a bleak list of small newspapers, most the sole source of local news in their communities, that had failed or disappeared into mergers during the pandemic, creating even more “news deserts.” 

The absence of trusted community coverage is another blow to U.S. democracy with its First Amendment predicated on journalism as a fourth pillar of checks and balances on the three branches of U.S. government. Now, no one is performing the crucial watchdog function in those places, accelerating the spread of misinformation.

Storm Lake was screened in select movie theaters across the country in summer and early fall, including the town itself, and will have similar showings in Los Angeles and New York next month before its public television debut. Cullen is clearly enjoying the experience, often participating in on-stage Q&A sessions with local moderators.

Cullen said it was strange to see himself and his newsroom on a big screen, and he picked up a few donations through these screenings, but the more durable accomplishment last year was working with other small town editors to form the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. The IRS approved its non-profit status in January. Executive director Becky Vonnahme, an experienced grant writer for rural concerns, runs it from her home office, while she and her husband, a third-generation Iowa farmer, also raise five sons, “surrounded by cornfields, cattle, pigs and windmills.”

An independent board has been selected. Initially, “Grant applications from independent or family-owned newspapers in Carroll, Crawford, Greene and Buena Vista counties will have priority until the foundation’s long-term operational funding goals have been met,” the website advises. Applications can include lines for paying salaries as well as funding special projects, because budget cuts mean ”limited opportunity for enterprise or in-depth features on local issues, minimal investigations on accountability of local spending or failure to question school district oversight.”

One Western Iowa newspaper involved is La Prensa, Iowa, serving the growing Spanish-speaking population working for regional employers such as meat-packing and poultry/egg processing. In addition to jobs, these enterprises produce bad smells and pollution, all matters (and solutions) taken up in the Times and its rural counterparts. They also provide welcome diversity, Cullen notes.

He describes himself as left of many people in his potential circulation area, especially those  who voted for former President Donald Trump. But while his politics tilt Democratic, he has no confidence that proposed federal legislation would help small news outlets, least of all “fly-over places” in the Middle West.

The latest economic blow came when Iowa’s Fareway Grocery chain stopped its weekly circulars. Not only was that the first thing many subscribers read, Cullen said, but there is no obvious way to replace the lost revenue.

For now, he sees writing a grant application to, say, pay the salary of his lone full-time reporter, is the way to go. That reporter is his son, Tom, and much of the rest of the small staff is also related. Art Cullen’s wife and Tom’s mother Dolores is a photographer, feature writer and illustrator.

The documentary shows Tom Cullen discussing ideas for producing more revenue. The Storm Lake Times has a website and its digital subscriptions have increased this year at a monthly cost of $6.99. 

In his Oct. 6 Editor’s Notebook, Art Cullen demonstrates his chops, incorporating politics, research and opinion about the infrastructure bills pending in Congress with optimism about economic and environmental benefits to the Upper Midwest, but starting with worries of his readers about the huge price tags. He predicts, ‘Based on models by Princeton University economists and engineers, the Upper Midwest will explode with jobs over the next decade in a transition to clean electricity and transportation.”

In the meantime, Art Cullen is applying for grants – from behemoths Facebook and Microsoft as well as the new foundation,  And, he’s no longer keeping the perilous finances of the hometown paper a secret from its readers and potential subscribers: “We have to explain to our leaders and readers that we are in this boat…that democracy is in peril.” He firmly believes that local ownership is key to journalism excellence, whether in Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis or Storm Lake.  Paid print circulation is 2700 on 8-10,000 households, he said, “and used to be 5500.”

Cullen said the documentary and the website (there’s also a Facebook page) have been factors in a slight improvement in finances. “Maybe we hit bottom, he mused.  “Maybe we broke even in July, even made a couple of bucks.”

His son is still in his 20s, not married, “but looking,” his father said, adding what he’d like to see in a daughter-in-law: “a nice, good-looking” woman interested in selling ads for The Storm Lake Times. Full salary, not commissions.” 

Nancy Day, a former reporter and editor for AP and newspapers in Illinois and California, former journalism professor at Boston University and Columbia College Chicago, Nieman and Fulbright Fellow, is now back to freelancing. 

Opinion: Dear MSM: Some tips for covering the Midwest during the 2020 elections (Hint: Flyover is an F-word)

We’re deep in the middle of the Iowa State Fair, the unofficial start of the next election cycle, and a time when all of us out here in the Midwest are preparing for our short time in the country’s limited attention span.

Candidates descend and with them, reporters who are tasked with getting the heartbeat of the “heartland,” one of the many clichés that have been used over and over since the 2016 election. Like a dispatch from a foreign country, these stories will quote Joe Farmer as he grabs the straps of his overalls and throws a bovine bon mot, “flyover” will be used as a descriptive geographic term, and large people will be eating pork chops-on-a-stick.

Our response: hogwash. (And trust us, we actually know how that smells.)

I’m a reporter, so I get it. It’s tough to get just a day or two to quickly take the pulse of a place, even as the press bus is idling outside the hotel and you’re trying to appease your editor. So in hopes of helping my sisters- and brothers-in-arms, I asked fellow Midwest reporters and others to come up with some advice.

Then-Secretary of State Kris Kobach, left, a Republican who was running for governor, talks to then-Gov. Jeff Colyer on October 29, 2018, before a press conference at the Johnson County Republican Party headquarters. Kobach, who also served as head of President Trump’s advisory commission on election integrity, was defeated by state Sen. Laura Kelly, a moderate Democrat. (Photo by Peggy Lowe)

Here are the top ten suggestions from various Twitter and Facebook discussions:

1 — The entire Midwest isn’t just Iowa. This is a very good point offered by Denis Beganovic of St. Louis, Missouri. All these big square states in the middle of the country may appear to you to look remarkably similar. We also understand that its easy to make this mistake, as the early deadline falls for Iowa’s February caucus. But please remember that each state was settled by different immigrant groups, has surprisingly different economies and cultures, and that there’s a sense of pride and place in each state.

A case in point: I live in Kansas City, which is cut in half by the state line, placing part of it in Missouri, the other in Kansas. This area was once the scene of pre-Civil War bloody skirmishes about Kansas’ entry to the union as a free state and Missouri’s inclusion as a slave state. These political forces are still at play today, as Kansas is now rising above the conservative tide, with a moderate Democrat elected governor last year. Missouri is mostly Trump territory, where Confederate flags are flown in the Ozarks and race plays out in the streets of towns like Ferguson.

2 – Please, as Oklahoma public radio reporter Jackie Fortier said, don’t open every story at a diner where old white guys are talking politics. Most of us don’t hang out there, or in any other clichéd places like the oldest bar in town.

“Branch out!” suggested Jill Rothenberg, a Colorado writer. “We have libraries! Grocery stores. Malls. Playgrounds.”

I’d add kids’ league games, brewpubs, grain elevators, Zumba classes — my 85-year-old mother in Nebraska is religious about her Zumba and her water aerobics.

“Avoid the morning coffee klatches dominated by old white men; or if you must, also go to a day care or school pick-up to talk to younger folks with kids,” wrote Sandra Fish, an Iowan now living in Colorado. “Or figure out where the old retired white women get coffee, too!”

3 – “Talk to communities of color in the Midwest,” said Serena Maria Daniels, a Detroit writer, “they’re often ignored by their local media, let alone national outlets.”

Yes, rural America is mostly white. But Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment in rural areas, according to the USDA. This is fueled, in part, by the low-income jobs at places like meatpacking plants, which employ mostly immigrants and refugees. That also means that poverty and aging are problems, and rural Americans now get the largest slice of federal food stamps.

In a hurry for a story? Stop in at a small town Mexican restaurant, because they’re everywhere, typically on Main Street. In 2011, the New York Times was already reporting that Hispanics are refilling the depopulating Plains and it was hard to find something other than Mexican food.

“There’s a great Mexican restaurant in Nevada, Iowa, for instance,” Fish wrote, “stop to talk to the folks who work and eat there.”

4 – Not everyone in the Midwest is a farmer. In fact, “most of our population lives in cities and suburbs,” said Kathy Kappes-Sum, a public school teacher.

Rural counties have grown slightly since 2000 “as the number of people leaving for urban or suburban areas has outpaced the number moving in,” the Pew Research Center reports. So while many people may be a generation or two removed from the farm, they’ve lived in population centers for a long time.

In fact, cities that grew the fastest since 2000 attracted people for what the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City called “natural amenities,” like mountains or warm weather, were next to larger cities, or had thriving industries.

So you might think of subbing out Joe Farmer with Steve the Soccer Dad.

5 – Just as we don’t all farm, each states’ economies are not simply centered around agriculture and in fact, may be driven by diverse industries. While the pictures and stories about deserted Main Street, Small Town USA, make for an easy get, they are as fashionable as a 1980s mullet. 

“Not all rural is ag and not all ag is in the rural areas,” said Amy Mayer, an Iowa Public Radio reporter. “Iowa’s economy is about a third production agriculture, a third manufacturing and a third insurance. Ever hear a story about how all those insurance workers feel about the end of private healthcare? Me neither.”

For instance, the Kansas City Board of Trade, a grain commodity futures exchange, died in 2013, but there are sizable automotive, animal health and pet food industries here. Nearby Ottawa, Kansas, has a high number of workers in e-commerce, thanks to big warehouse distribution centers.

If you need a news peg, don’t forget the devastation brought on by massive flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers this spring. Journalist Vicki Miller, who lives in southeast Nebraska, reminded us that some towns still don’t have fresh water and some communities may never recover.

“It would be a great year to follow up on the economic and human cost of the ongoing flooding and aftermath,” she said, “not just on ag but on the heart of our rural communities.”

6 – The larger economy will continue to be front and center this year for most folks in the Midwest, whether they are farmers struggling because of the Trump trade wars, low-income factory employees, minimum-wage service workers or really, any middle-class voter.

The second Gilded Age has come to ground here in the Midwest, and many areas will struggle in the coming years, particularly as automation grows, according to a new report by McKinsey Global Institute.

Significantly for the 2020 election, swing counties, such as many in the northern Midwest states, are struggling economically, another report suggests. These are counties that backed Obama, then flipped in 2016 to Trump.

7 – For the love of all that’s whole milk, when you’re at a city or suburban coffee shop, don’t assume that you can’t get soy or almond milk. 

“No one should be shocked that ‘flyover states’ have great coffee places and great breweries, even outside the largest cities,” said Madeline Fox, a reporter who just moved from Kansas to Florida. “I get WORKED UP when reporters are shocked by local roasteries with — gasp — soy milk, or local breweries churning out a great stout.”

And don’t even get us started about the anger that arose when this New York reporter tweeted this:

“Thank you so much for your informative observations on the little known Flyover Kingdom,” Pete Saunders of Chicago shot back on Twitter.

8 – As referenced above, the term “flyover,” is the F-word.

“Go to neighborhoods that look like they could be in any city in America,” said Michelle Tyrene Johnson, a Kansas City writer. “Work neighborhoods of color, quirky millennial bars, non-descript suburbs. Don’t let the photo opp obscure the coverage.”

I’m heartened by the serious coverage coming out of the Iowa State Fair this year – most of the stories are focused on the issue of gun control, given the recent horrors in El Paso and Ohio. I understand that reporters must go where the candidates go. But covering a state fair as representative of the region is inaccurate and patronizing. I haven’t seen too much about the butter cow at the Iowa State Fair this year – and I’m glad, because that’s a cliché that’s been done a million times. Is it cute? Sure. Is it news? Nope.

9 – If we’ve learned anything from 2016, we should know that polls can be misleading. You must leave the newsroom, get out in the country, and talk to people.

The Atlantic recently covered this, quoting Washington reporters who suggested that polling should be used “as a starting place rather than a conclusion.”

Casey Kuhn, a Midwesterner now reporting out West, added that she doesn’t want to hear vox (a public radio term for man-on-the-street interviews) of voters being asked “Do you still support Trump after…”

“So ignorant!” Kuhn said. “Ask better (questions).”

Among the better questions are asking what a voter truly cares about – not just asking about which candidate she supports. Is he worried about health care, paying back his student debt, caring for his aging parents? Does she live paycheck-to-paycheck? Have both parties let them down?

10 – Kristofor Husted, a public media reporter in Missouri, said he respectfully offered this suggestion: “Maybe…don’t come?”

“At least every time,” Husted said. “Instead tap into the local reporters who can tell the stories better without a coastal elitist gaze.”

I agree with him, and encourage editors to hire local reporters. They can write with context and good sources, digging further into the real pieces of this place. To meet some great journalists working out here, contact the Between Coasts Forum, an effort started after the 2016 election by a group of writers concerned with coverage of middle America. Our next conference is in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 18-19.

And if you still don’t get my message, I hereby assign you to watch the last two seasons of “Queer Eye,” both set in Kansas City.  Maybe it was a makeover, but the Fab Five made us look pretty cool.  

Editor’s note: This article first published on Lowe’s blog, Home(r) A Midwestern Memoir. It is reprinted with permission.

Peggy Lowe is a veteran reporter at KCUR, the NPR member station in Kansas City. She covers two national efforts — hub reporter for Marketplace, public media’s national business show, and an investigative producer with APM Reports. Before her return to the Midwest in 2011, she was a multimedia producer and writer at The Orange County Register in Southern California. Until 2005, she was in Denver, where she was a reporter for the late, great Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post, KBCO, and the Associated Press. Lowe was the Mike Wallace Fellow for Investigative Reporting at the University of Michigan in 2008-2009.