Art Cullen looks like a guy who would fit into Martha’s Vineyard. He has a mop of white hair, a horseshoe mustache, and wears a bow tie and glasses. (OK, so maybe the bow tie would be a bit too much on the island.) His look has been described as that of Mark Twain.
Cullen is the editor of a bi-weekly newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, which is home to 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 farming interests in Iowa.”
It was this Pulitzer Prize that caught the attention of fellow Iowan director Jerry Risius. “It wasn’t quite an ‘Exorcist’ moment, but my head actually swiveled,” he said in an interview with Zoom. “Within days I called him up and thought to myself, this is a great opportunity to tell the story for me as Iowan, as well as something very important.”
Risius contacted producer Beth Levison. The couple set out to tell the story of a rural newspaper hung by the tiniest of margins to continue doing the important work of journalism – holding politicians and “scoundrels” to account – to avoid another information desert .
“In August 2018, Art wrote this op-ed in The New York Times, and Jerry asked, ‘Hey, have you seen it?’ And it really blew me away that there is this specificity of voice, ”said Levison, noting that it was about immigration.
There have been other films on the newspapers. “Spotlight” features the Boston Globe’s excellent work exposing the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. “All the President’s Men” depicts the onerous task of Woodward and Bernstein in uncovering the Watergate scandal.
“There’s this idea in our culture that bigger is better,” said Levison. “I had never seen a movie on a local newspaper before, and this one on the surface sounded pretty interesting, at least Art did.”
In a world dominated by newspapers engulfed by hedge funds and corporations – many of which have closed their doors for economic consolidations – the Storm Lake Times perseveres. The Times is family owned by Cullen and his brother, John, who is the publisher and primary owner, with a 51 percent stake. “My arithmetic is good enough that I can hold my tongue out when I have to,” said Art Cullen unmoved.
Cullen’s wife, Dolores, is a photographer and screenwriter, and her son, Tom, is the newspaper’s senior reporter. (Be sure to pay attention to the title Dolores writes for her story about a baby pig who visits a classroom wearing a diaper.) The family dog, Peach, is the mascot for the newsroom.
“If I remember who my bosses are, I’m generally fine,” Art Cullen said in a Zoom on Movie forum. “It keeps the family intact.”
The documentary is not so much about the success of The Times. There is little mention of Pulitzer’s victory except that it’s one reason the Democratic presidential candidates want to be on the same stage as Art Cullen at a forum. Instead, the documentary focuses on survival – what it takes to keep The Times going and why it matters.
“A pretty good rule of thumb is that a city in Iowa will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks. The best journalism is the one that builds communities, ”Cullen wrote in a column welcoming his son to the family business. “You build your community by spreading the word about good deeds done, reporting on cheaters, villains and other politicians, urging yourself and those around you to do better, allowing dissenting voices to be heard and making sure your city’s issues are heard in Des Moines and Washington. Use your power to build, and the log will grow naturally.
There’s a scene where John Cullen is agonizing over cutting back on TV shows. This will save thousands of people, but piss off loyal readers.
We see Art Cullen pulling $ 7 from a plastic jar. The day’s catch of copy sales.
Tom Cullen tries to convince his dad and uncle that a podcast could get more subscribers. They are not convinced. “I think it should be about reporting and I should stick to writing columns and editorials,” Art Cullen told his son in the film. “I don’t necessarily understand podcasts. If I had wanted to get into radio, I would have gone into radio.
Cullen’s hope is to keep The Times alive, to prevent Storm Lake from becoming another news wasteland. There are 65 million Americans living in what are called information deserts, places without a credible source of information. “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 a brutal photo it sparked the end of the Vietnam War, ”Cullen wrote in this column to his son. “This is the only good reason to get into this business. Because, when looking for a friend, remember that the dog cannot read.
We don’t give spoilers when telling you this is a story about life on the edge. It’s a story we can relate to here at Martha’s Vineyard Times.
Like Storm Lake, the pandemic has reduced our advertising revenue to the size of a crater. An already difficult affair has hardened. How to keep a strong storytelling reporting staff with even less money on hand. How to keep the lights on and the presses running. It would make a good movie. It makes a good movie.
When Times co-owner Barbara Oberfest heard about “Storm Lake,” the documentary, on NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, it resonated. She told her husband, Peter, about it, and a plan was made to bring this film to Martha’s Vineyard by sponsoring a party at the MV Film Center.
The documentary tells stories we are not good at. We don’t tell the story of our industry well. We don’t let you in enough, our readers.
“Our hope is that newspapers can see the film as a tool to help them tell their stories to their readers,” said Levison.
We hope you will join us for a special screening of “Storm Lake” at the MV Film Center on Thursday November 18th at 7:30 pm. Then you can stick around and watch a short Zoom In on the Movie that features me, Art Cullen, Risius, Levison, and MV Film Society Executive Director Richard Paradise.
We hope you will be inspired to subscribe, and if you wish, a discount code is available for anyone attending the screening live or virtually.