It may not come wrapped with a bow, but every week of the year this paper is a gift to the towns it serves. At this time when presents are much on the minds of many, it seems appropriate to think about that and be thankful.
Forgive me, if I sound like a cheerleader for community journalism, but – full disclosure – I am one, and I’m not afraid to say so.
It is not only the holiday season that got me thinking about this. It is also The Storm Lake Times in Iowa. A paper in Iowa? Yes, Iowa, but it could be a paradigm for hometown papers anywhere.
The Storm Lake Times is a twice weekly broadsheet with a circulation of just under 3,400. Impressively, its editor, Art Cullen, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017. Think about that a minute. Not The New York Times or The Washington Post, but a rural paper with a circulation under 5,000.
A new prize-winning documentary airing on PBS tells the Storm Lake story.
Scenes include Art Cullen sitting at his computer quarterbacking his staff, nudging them about deadline, or joking sardonically while he types his regular column for the editorial page.
His usual office attire is jeans and a sweater or occasionally an untucked white dress shirt.
When the issue is on press, he smokes nervously waiting outside for the run to be done. Once the paper is printed, he helps deliver bundles of the brand-new issue to news drops in town. He likes doing it.
“The best stories in the world aren’t any good if you don’t get ‘em out so people can read ‘em,” observes Art’s brother, John, who serves as the publisher of the paper.
He and his cohorts seem totally immersed in their work.
Art’s wife, Dolores, is a reporter/photographer, their son Tom is a reporter, and the family dog, Peach, the News Hound, lolls around the office or under Art’s desk. Peach often goes on assignments with Dolores in her van, which Art calls the Timesmobile.
Somewhat eccentric, a little bit quaint, but ever devoted, the small staff of about a dozen people seem entirely committed to the mission of sustaining the paper and keeping the readership informed.
The film offers a quintessential portrait of a small-town newspaper in 2021, and there are a lot fewer of them in the country than there were a decade or so ago. Over the last 15 years one in four newspapers in the United States has closed.
The documentary informs the viewer that “65 million Americans live in news deserts.” The relatively new term refers to areas that are served by just one or no newspapers at all. The Storm Lake Times, and similar publications, strive to be like a jug of fresh water for news parched audiences.
The grit and determination of the Cullens and their employees and the quality of their product offer an inspirational example of how dedication, perseverance, long hours, and hard work can make a difference.
The documentary, simply called “Storm Lake,” tells the story with a behind the scenes account of how the local paper has fought to remain vital and continue serving the people who depend on it to stay connected to their town and to each other. Anyone who has ever worked in print journalism will recognize the feel of the newsroom and see it as a prototypical news operation. Local color is fused with local pride. Dedication to the community is of primary importance. So is getting it right. Telling it like it is outweighs telling the readers what they want to hear. These are tough balances to maintain and still remain a profitable business. In the film, the Cullens and their staff explain why they believe it is all worth the effort.
In the context of commenting on James Madison, an author of the Constitution and later the fourth president of the United States, Art comments “The reporter is the cornerstone of an informed electorate and a functioning democracy.”
Tom Cullen, who is a reporter for The Storm Lake Times, observes “the prospect of newspapers not being around terrifies me. A newspaper is the most important pillar of a community.”
So, coming in early and going home late, helping the editor and publisher deliver the latest issue to the coin boxes and merchant racks, mopping up leaks, or mollifying disgruntled patrons, feel like they’re all in a day’s work. It’s simple. You love it or you leave it.
In 1996 the founders of these papers, Tom Ward, Jamie Quinn, and Marcia Green knew it. They took a leap of faith and formed Breeze Publications.
Ward notes that the company was “started with several sawhorses and hollow core doors for desks in my living room.” It’s a safe bet to assume they often delivered the papers at the outset also.
I did it too as editor of the original Observer for just under 20 years. Not even a lightning strike deterred us. A bolt hit a tree outside the office in Greenville and ricocheted into the building. It wiped out most of the telephones and half the computers and pretty much traumatized the staff. However, no-one even thought of missing an issue. The show must go on, and somehow it did.
The Storm Lake Times, like every newspaper, was challenged to the max by COVID-19 and the resulting drop in advertising revenue, but they banded with other companies, cinched up their belts, and reworked their web platform. The documentary says their site has had 1.2 million page views as of earlier this year when the film was made.
The last word goes to Art Cullen: “All we have is our own credibility. The readers decide our future, not any branch of government. You can change the world through journalism.”
Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
(Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Type this link into your browser to see the trailer to the Storm Lake documentary and more about the paper.