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'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. According to one study, 1,800 local newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004, and many communities are becoming so-called news deserts without any source of regular local news coverage. The new documentary "Storm Lake" profiles a local paper struggling to stay alive and serve the rural town of Storm Lake, Iowa. The paper is run by our guest Art Cullen, along with his brother John, the publisher, and his wife, Delores, a photographer and feature writer who will happily pen a story about a two-headed calf. Also on the staff are Art's sister-in-law, Mary, who writes a food column, and his son Tom, the paper's lead reporter.

Art Cullen has a mop of white hair, a horseshoe mustache and often a bow tie, inevitably drawing comparisons to Mark Twain. But he's a serious journalist. He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing for what the Pulitzer committee described as tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa. Art Cullen has also written op-ed pieces for The Washington Post and The Guardian and is the author of the 2018 book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper" (ph). The documentary film "Storm Lake" is directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. It opens in theaters tomorrow and will be shown on PBS November 15.

Art Cullen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ART CULLEN: Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: You know, the typical career path for a journalist is to start in a small market and then gradually move to bigger markets where there's hopefully more money and a bigger audience and more impact. You were well underway in your journalism career when you came back to Storm Lake, a town of - what? - a little less than 11,000. Why?

A CULLEN: Well, my brother John had the crazy idea of starting a newspaper in our hometown in 1990, about the worst time in retrospect, about the worst time you could imagine starting a print publication in rural northwest Iowa. And I had been working at a daily newspaper. I'd been working my way up Interstate 35 to - in hopes of getting a job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. And I was at the Mason City, Iowa, Globe Gazette, a daily newspaper where I was the news editor. And I was kind of tired of corporate journalism, working for a large, publicly traded company. And John wanted to start this newspaper in our hometown. And so I came home.

DAVIES: You became the editor. It publishers twice a week - Tuesday and Thursday - right?

A CULLEN: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about Storm Lake and the surrounding area.

A CULLEN: Well, Storm Lake is a meatpacking community. We're not sure how big it is. It's somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people. The census says about 1,000. But again, because about, you know, maybe half our population is immigrant, we're not really sure. And a large percent of them are undocumented who work in a Tyson pork plant and a Tyson turkey slaughter facility. And then there's also - Rembrandt Foods has about 5 million laying hens producing liquid eggs just a few miles north of Storm Lake. So this is a very - this is what you'd call a protein center, actually, for America, fueled by immigrant labor.

DAVIES: The Salt Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County, which, if you look on a map, is a perfect square. A lot of farms in the surrounding community, right?

A CULLEN: Right. Yeah. And it's - Storm Lake is the county seat, home to a 3,000-acre glacial lake which has been sedimenting in over time thanks to agricultural practices. And it's also home to a small liberal arts college called Buena Vista University. So it, you know, it's an interesting, very interesting little rural community.

DAVIES: People who follow journalism have been saying for a long time that people need real information, reliable information, not just something that pops up on a social media site, but something that's published by someone who will be there and is credible and, you know, has libel insurance and talks to people of all sides. It's important that people get real information and news about, you know, the world and politics and policy. But it's also, you remind us, important for maintaining a community. You say Iowa - towns in Iowa are generally about as strong as their banks and their newspaper. What does your paper paper do for the community, do you think, its presence there? What does it do besides just give people information?

A CULLEN: Well, for example, our lake was sedimenting in from agricultural runoff. And we launched a campaign to restore the lake through dredging and watershed protection - conservation practices in the watershed and working with Senator Tom Harkin and Governor Tom Vilsack. We were able to build a 20-year watershed protection and lake dredging operation which removed 700,000 cubic yards of silt from Storm Lake. That's Iowa black gold sitting at the bottom of our lake. And that's just one example of what the newspaper has has been able to accomplish. And by bringing the community together, farmers, bankers, environmentalists, fishermen, we're all pulling for lake dredging.

And the newspaper was leading the campaign. So it did bring the community together. And oftentimes, and especially in rural communities, it's very difficult to pass a bond issue to build a new school building. And Storm Like passes with 60% or 70% approval ratings because the newspapers constantly urging the public that we've got to be a growing rural community, otherwise we're declining. So I think those are two great examples.

DAVIES: You know, you describe in your book this wonderful moment where I think it's the head of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is there. And he's a guy sitting by himself on the bus. You sit down next to him, and you strike up this conversation. And you realize that he was a guy who is perhaps willing to put some state resources into this dredging process, provided the community, you know, shows up too and makes it clear they want it. And this sort of initiates this campaign. You know, this is sort of not the role that people typically think of journalists as playing. You know, you become not just a chronicler, but, you know, an actor, a player.

A CULLEN: Well, we're an advocate for the community. And if nobody else has enough sense to sit down next to that guy on a bus tour around the lake, I'm going to. Not only do I want to talk to him and get some good quotes, you know, and get some news out of him, but at the same time, I, you know, I - as Garrison Keillor said of the Herald Star, I got to live here too. And I have every bit as much an interest in seeing a healthy lake as anybody in Storm Lake. And so, you know, I think through our editorial page, we have a responsibility to advocate for the community in Des Moines and Washington, and that's what we do.

DAVIES: Right. And in that case, a huge operation was developed with local and state funds that made an impact. You know, you run a small shop. A lot of people are your relatives. I assume everybody does a little bit of everything. Give me an example of a moment in your week in which you stop and say, yes, this is the reward of being here. This is why I'm doing this.

A CULLEN: Well, it used to be when we had our own press, and I was the pressman. And I'd hang a plate on the press with my byline on the front page. And then (laughter) you know how you'd wrap up the press. And it's this classic male testosterone moment when you hear the press roar and you're speeding it up and you're covered in ink and you see your byline on the front page. And, you know, I don't care if I had - I couldn't cash my paycheck that week. At least I had that moment of satisfaction. And now that moment is, you know - is seeing the paper come back from the printer, which we now have - we print an hour away. John and I got too old to run the press and the mailing machines. And so now we print about an hour away. And I still get a kick out of seeing that paper come back with my column in it - or even better, when you're at the newsstand at a grocery store and you see somebody actually laying down a dollar for that newspaper. And it just - it's a thrill (laughter). It's a thrill.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Art Cullen. He's the editor of the Storm Lake Times, which is featured in the new documentary film "Storm Lake." He also has a book, "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Art Cullen, the editor of the Storm Lake Times, which serves the rural community of Storm Lake, Iowa. It's a newspaper that's featured in a new documentary called "Storm Lake."

You mentioned the printing press. You're often wearing a bow tie. The two are connected, right? (Laughter) Explain this.

A CULLEN: Well, yeah, back in the old days when we printed with lead type, if you wore a - you would have a page laid out in rows of lead type. And when you would lock up the type and tighten it down, if you wore a long tie, you were likely to get your tie caught in the chase. And so editors wore bow ties to keep the spaghetti off their ties and to keep them from getting clipped by hot type.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Right. You went there in 1990, which is actually the year that I went to a daily paper in Philadelphia and was there for 20 years. And so I know, as you do, that those were the years that the traditional business model of newspapers fell apart as display advertising and classified ads disappeared into the internet. And I assume that what that means for you now is that you really need to rely on what we call circulation revenue. That's the people plopping down a dollar for the paper. And that means you've got to have local stuff that they want to read. Give us some examples of this - the things that keep people coming back to open the paper.

A CULLEN: Well, you know, I think it - first of all, it's community news about the two-headed calf and the blind bowler rolling a perfect 300 game.

DAVIES: Did that really happen?

A CULLEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Dale Davis, a blind bowler, rolled a perfect game at Century Lanes in Alta, which is a tiny community nearby. And people turn to it for the school board coverage and the city council coverage and, you know, sewer rates. We just, you know, got our water bill today, and it's significantly higher. And we've been covering this all along in the newspaper about how we're going to have significantly higher water rates going forward. So those are the things that keep people - the obituaries, the weddings and engagements. Those are the things that keep people coming back. And it's not about necessarily what the politicians said this week.

DAVIES: I mean, the film has some lovely moments like that. There's the - you always do a story on the first baby of each year, the, you know, first born on January 1. And then there's a moment where I believe your wife, Dolores, goes to cover the visit of the Iowa pork producers' Pork Queen....

A CULLEN: Right.

DAVIES: ...It's a beauty queen. She goes to visit a second-grade class carrying what? You want to tell us this story (laughter)?

A CULLEN: Well, yeah. The Pork Queen's carrying a pig with a diaper on it (laughter) because, you know, pigs poop. And so it's a great moment. And, you know - and then Dolores was just talking about one of the big issues in Iowa is the stench from confinement units with thousands of hogs in them or poultry. And so it was just kind of funny that here is this hog wearing a diaper - actually, a pig wearing a diaper. It wasn't a full-grown hog. And - but it's - in Iowa, that scene is a completely normal thing. And - but when viewed by an audience in Vermont, it's hilarious.

DAVIES: But kids get connected to an important local employer and, as you write about often, a source of local pollution. There's complexity to all this. Yeah.

A CULLEN: Costs and benefits.

DAVIES: I want to play a cut from the film. This is where you're in a diner with your brother, John, munching on sandwiches. And also, your son, Tom, the reporter who is - how old is Tom now? Is he still in his 20s?

A CULLEN: Yeah, late 20s.

DAVIES: OK. OK. You're sitting there. And I guess this is sort of a brainstorming session. And Tom sort of tosses out a couple of ideas. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "STORM LAKE")

TOM CULLEN: Is there anything else we could be doing with, say, the website or something like that? I like the idea of, like, Starbucks selling Wall Street Journal subscriptions.

A CULLEN: Oh, yeah. I saw that. Yeah.

T CULLEN: Like, why can't we do that? If you could pitch it to a place where as soon as you log on to public Wi-Fi, you get, like, a daily, complimentary access to stormlake.com. You promote it. And it's free if just for one day only.

JOHN CULLEN: I don't know that we have enough critical mass to make it work. But who knows?

A CULLEN: If it sells us a couple of subscription, what the hell?

J CULLEN: Yeah.

T CULLEN: An idea that I raised before is an idea of a podcast. And then you would be the star of it if we could do it semi-regularly, maybe once a month or something.

A CULLEN: Who's going to sell the sponsorship for a podcast that has 100 listeners? I think this should be about reporting, and I should stick to writing columns and editorials. And I don't understand podcasts, necessarily. And if I wanted to get into radio, I would have gotten into radio.

T CULLEN: I understand this whole - if the podcast idea is like - I'm not married to it.

A CULLEN: No, I know.

T CULLEN: But...

A CULLEN: I like the idea that you're bringing things up, but it's just that we got to concentrate on circulation, I think. We're putting out a good paper. That's all I know.

T CULLEN: Yeah.

A CULLEN: Ultimately, that will pay, right?

T CULLEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: And that is our guest, podcast skeptic Art Cullen, the editor of The Storm Lake Times. Now, that was, I guess, a couple of years ago that was filmed. And you've actually done a - not - you've appeared on podcasts, right?

A CULLEN: I've appeared on podcasts, yeah. And my son Tom is actually still looking into trying to start a podcast. And I (laughter) - you know, and I'm - that's good that he is. It's just that I'm getting - I'm too old.

DAVIES: Well, you know, what we're really talking about here is looking for ways to keep this business viable. I mean, you mentioned once, you know, you had a check in your desk that you couldn't cash. That - I assume that's because the bank account was so slim that whatever salary you were getting, well, you can just go without it for now. How are things going? I mean, the pandemic obviously helped - obviously affected everything. Any of these new ideas about the web or anything yielding new, you know, financial initiatives?

A CULLEN: Over the past year, we've launched a new website, and it's still a little clunky by my taste. But we're seeing a significant increase since the pandemic in digital subscriptions, which is fantastic. And so we publish our entire newspaper online. And, you know, people are making the conversion from print to digital news consumption and it's - even at the local community newspaper level. And so that's a good thing. And circulation's growing. I think that people really did realize during the last electoral cycle and during the pandemic when - that, you know, that factual information is worth something and that the press does play a role in ferreting out lies and disinformation and that people really began to value it. And I think they became cognizant that a free press was becoming imperiled by all the attacks on fake media whatever and all the fantasies that are being spread as fact on Facebook. I think people are catching on to it.

DAVIES: And so how's the paper doing? Is it staying afloat? Is it a daily or monthly crisis to balance the books?

A CULLEN: It's a monthly crisis to balance the books, as it always has been. And - but it's just gotten worse in the last five years. For example, the major grocer in Iowa, Fareway, just pulled its pre-printed inserts out of all the community newspapers in Iowa.

DAVIES: Oh, no.

A CULLEN: And that's a big hit to all those papers. One friend of mine, it's $100,000 a year - 15% of his revenue. So what happens? You got to reduce expenses by 15% if you're breaking even, which he was. So what - we broke even in - we had a terrible first half of the year. And, of course, the whole - 2020 was a disaster. Advertising just completely disappeared. We've seen a rebound in advertising in the second half of this year, and we're - we broke even in July, and we had a little slight profit in August, so I'm hopeful.

And another thing we did is we organized something called the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, which allows - not - tax deductible donations to be given to support independent, family-owned community newspapers in rural Iowa, like ours. And that really helped us, too. We got $15,000 recently from that foundation to help support our payroll. And - but I also have to say the Payroll Protection Program saved us. We would have been sunk without it.

DAVIES: The COVID relief bill, right? You qualified for help there, yeah? Right.

A CULLEN: Yeah.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Art Cullen. He is the editor of The Storm Lake Times and author of the book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper." The paper is featured in the documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in theaters tomorrow and will be aired on PBS November 15. We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking about preserving independent journalism in American communities with Art Cullen, the editor of a twice-weekly newspaper serving the rural town of Storm Lake, Iowa. Cullen, who runs the paper with his brother, wife, son and other relatives, is profiled in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in theaters tomorrow and will air on PBS November 15. Cullen is also author of the 2018 book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper." Storm Lake is the county seat of Buena Vista County. How has the - I don't know - the demographic makeup of the county and, you know, the political texture of the county changed over the years you've been there?

A CULLEN: Well, very interesting. This is - I call northwest Iowa a little slice of Texas. And you know, it's - this is very much a live-free-or-die kind of place. Farm Bureau dominates our politics, you know, very much, a libertarian style of - it was once said about Iowa that Iowa will go Democrat when hell goes Methodist.

(LAUGHTER)

A CULLEN: So this is a very Republican area, and Storm Lake is a little dot of blue. It's very much like the country writ at large. The rural areas are very deeply red, and Storm Lake is this little blob of blue populated by a large contingent of Latinos, many of whom are from Mexico, many of whom are from San Antonio. So it's a very different place than most of rural Iowa. And so Storm Lake proper votes Democrat - supported Barack Obama and Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. But the county itself negates that vote and voted strongly for Trump in the last election.

DAVIES: And a lot of these immigrants work in the meatpacking plants and poultry processing plant that are - that's in the area. How have you engaged that part of the community?

A CULLEN: Well, for one thing, we've been a very strong advocate for Latinos in particular who, you know, are here as DREAMers and, you know, young people who were brought here at age 2 or 3 at no choice of theirs. And now they're here stuck without papers. And you know, at one point, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump said they wanted to deport them all. So we've been a very strong advocate for legalizing the undocumented, not only DREAMers, but people with temporary protected status from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and for the people - hardworking people here in Storm Lake who came here avoiding drug gangs and desperate poverty in rural Mexico, Jalisco mainly.

And we had this congressman, Steve King, who was, you know, a real xenophobe. And so we opposed him for 20 years. And I think the Latino community appreciates it. But one real issue we have is illiteracy. And so a lot of rural immigrants from Mexico or Guatemala lack reading, you know, literacy in Spanish, much less English. So that's been a real challenge for us as to - the next generation who are graduating from high school and college here now will be newspaper readers, but their parents currently aren't.

DAVIES: One of the fascinating things that I read in the book is that you kind of have a sister-city relationship with an area in Mexico where many people have come to Storm Lake. And you took a trip with - what was it? - it was the police chief and a city council member. Tell us a little bit about this and what it meant.

A CULLEN: Well, yeah, about 10 years - no, actually, it's over 10 years ago. We went down to a little town. There was about four or five of us from Storm Lake, had a little delegation, went down to develop a sister-city relationship with a community called Ayotlan in Jalisco. It's about an hour away from Guadalajara.

And it's an identical community to Storm Lake in almost every respect. It's about 11,000 people. And it's, you know, you see Pioneer seed corn signs, you know, which is an Iowa company (laughter) all over in Ayotlan. You know, they grow corn, and they process livestock. But they're poor. They're very poor. And I said, what can we do? I said to the mayor of the county, what can we do as Americans to help you in Ayotlan? Can we invest in new agricultural facilities or whatever? And he said, no, what we need is the rule of law.

And now - you know, I think there were 35 journalists murdered in Mexico last year. I couldn't go back to Jalisco now because it's being run by the New Generation Cartel. And I don't know what's become of that mayor. I think he's died. But I worry every day about Ayotlan and what's going on down there and you know, how we embarrass ourselves in front of those people who look up - look to us for the rule of law. And here was those honyocks jumping the walls at the U.S. Capitol, trying to bludgeon Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence. And what can we say to him now?

DAVIES: You're a progressive, and you live in a county that has a lot of Republicans. I mean, you're a journalist. You got to talk to all kinds of people. How do they react to you? What kind of relationships do you have?

A CULLEN: Most people think that we're fairly, you know, sensible or pragmatic progressives. And then there's a lot of people - 30% of the electorate, I would say, or the public would think that we're crazy Irish Catholic New Dealers, socialists and - which we are. We're Irish Catholic New Dealers. Can't help it. I was born that way. But they accept that, and we keep it to the editorial page. And I think what people really want is an honest discussion of the issues. And that's what we try and deliver.

DAVIES: You know, it's been my experience - and I covered politics for a long time in Pennsylvania - and that - it's been my experience that the kind of all-out war and bitterness that occurs between Republicans and Democrats at the national level is much less acute among local members of their parties because they have to live with these folks. I mean, it's just not so deeply partisan.

A CULLEN: Yeah, but it's getting worse.

DAVIES: Well, that's what I was going to say, was - it's - I think I see a change over the last few years. And I'm wondering what you see and particularly, you know, in the wake of this election in which president - former President Trump was, you know, and is still, you know, propounding these, you know, baseless theories that there was fraud and that the election was stolen. What are these relationships like in Buena Vista County?

A CULLEN: Well, yeah, it's Facebook mainly has really soured our civics. And so this movie's coming out, and it's a beautiful movie. It's not really very controversial. It's just holding up journalism and community life in sort of an idealized way, honestly. And there's nothing, you know, and, you know, 30 years ago, people in Storm Lake would have said, wow, that's really cool, you know. Storm Lake is being held up for something other than a forgotten town. And now with Facebook, you know, you got, of, the liberal rag, you know, who'd want to go see that?

You know, actually, it celebrates civic engagement in Storm Lake, Iowa, and how the Iowa caucuses were really, you know, a great exercise in neighbors discussing issues and candidates. And it really holds up Storm Lake as an exemplar. And yet, because of the snarkiness and cynicism that's fed by - on Facebook and other social media, you know, people diss this movie, you know. And again, it's just a minority, but that just wouldn't have happened 20 to 30 years ago. It would have been Iowa pride suffocating any of that.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to another break here. We're speaking with Art Cullen. He's the editor of the Storm Lake Times, which is featured in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in select theaters tomorrow and will be aired on PBS November 15. We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Art Cullen. He is the editor of the Storm Lake Times and the author of the book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small Town Newspaper." The paper, which publishes twice weekly in Storm Lake, Iowa, is featured in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in select theaters tomorrow and airs on PBS November 15.

Art Cullen, I want to talk about the editorial series that got you the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. This kind of begins with an environmental problem involving the Storm Lake, which is the lake that is right next to the city of Storm Lake and another river, I guess the Raccoon River. What was going wrong here and in - with these bodies of water?

A CULLEN: All right. Back in the 1800s, when the white settlers arrived, this area was all marshland and tall grass prairie. And so they could farm. They drained all those marshes and slews and - with underground clay tile. And we've been increasing that - the amount of that underground tile through the years, especially since 1980. And what happens is when we apply fertilizer and you get a heavy rain, that fertilizer washes through the soil profile into these drainage tiles and hits the Raccoon River, which then flows to Des Moines. And Des Moines, with 500,000 drinking water consumers, draws its water supply from the Raccoon River. Hence, because of the nitrate pollution from anhydrous ammonia application to grow corn, Des Moines now has the largest nitrate removal system in North America. And so they sued these three northern Iowa counties upstream for polluting the Raccoon River.

DAVIES: Right. And they warned them that they were going to do this. The counties kind of didn't take it seriously. Your - in your editorial said this is a real problem. So the litigation begins. What happens next?

A CULLEN: Well, because it's a pollution lawsuit, we figure out that - the Storm Lake Times figures out that the county can't - its insurance company won't pay its legal fees for defending this lawsuit. So we asked the county board of supervisors, our county commission, how are you going to cover these legal bills? They could impact our property tax base. And they said, essentially, it's none of your business. We have friends. And we said, who are your friends? And they said, are you heard of hearing? It's none of your business?

And so then we went off and joined with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which is a nonprofit urging government transparency throughout the state. And we started writing letters saying the Iowa public records law requires you to reveal these donors. And eventually, they agreed to us after having spent about a million dollars from the slush fund in legal. And within - so the counties eventually pulled out of this illegal arrangement that was funded primarily, as we determined from our own reporting, by Monsanto, the Koch brothers and the rest of the fertilizer industry.

And so the counties had to pull out of this illegal agreement because we harassed them out of it. And six weeks later, a federal District Court judge ruled that - he dismissed the lawsuit because you basically can't sue counties for agricultural pollution. And so the issue - we won sort of a pyrrhic victory. We got dark money out of the federal courts after they spent a million bucks. But Iowa - in Iowa, agriculture and the environment, which are at loggerheads, never got the hearing it deserved because the legislature is essentially owned by the Farm Bureau and the agrochemical complex. And they will never give the environment a hearing. And we had hoped that the courts would give the environment a hearing, and they didn't. So we're hoping now that Congress will correct this pollution problem in the next farm bill.

DAVIES: So the issue was, in part, public information, right? I mean, you have a public entity getting huge sums of money from private interests that aren't disclosed. But beyond that, there was a real substantive issue. You were argued that, hey, county, don't simply defend these practices. Let's get together and reach a settlement and try to address the problem. Right? You actually suggested that they meet and resolve it. And I think one of the parties said that they were going to, and then they canceled it and blamed you. Do I have this right? (Laughter).

A CULLEN: Yeah, kind of (laughter), yeah. They said - OK, so we had suggested in a series of editorials, can't you knuckleheads just talk to each other? Well, of course they can't. They couldn't talk to each other. Couldn't the governor, Terry Branstad, talk to Bill Stowe, the CEO of the Des Moines Water Works? They're, you know, they're five minutes apart in Des Moines. No, they can't talk to each other. We don't want to hear each other. And so finally, we suggested that the Buena Vista County Attorney and Bill Stowe of the water works - who has since died, by the way - have a meeting.

And so they arranged for a quiet secret meeting in Fort Dodge at a Perkins restaurant. And when the county board of supervisors, the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors caught wind of that meeting. They said, no way are you going to that meeting. We aren't talking to those people. We got lawyers, and we got money. Why would we talk to them? And so that's how, you know, we've become in America. I have a bunch of - I got a million bucks from Monsanto and the Koch brothers. Why should I meet you at a Perkins?

DAVIES: And I read that the board of supervisors of the county said if Art Cullen says something, we'll do the opposite which is...

A CULLEN: That's exactly right. That's how stupid it got.

DAVIES: Well, it's kind of a depressing kind of measure of your own clout, isn't it?

A CULLEN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So you can get the wrong thing done by suggesting...

A CULLEN: Yeah, so that's how stupid - you know, people dig their heels in. And they can't even talk to each other. And that's where we - you know, it speaks to the larger issue, I think, of how we conduct our politics today.

DAVIES: One of the other little details from the story that I love is some of the players involved in this were going to be at a - at some kind of a charity golf outing. And your son Tom went to the country club, tracked them down on the course, and then in the clubhouse, still didn't get any answers, right?

A CULLEN: Yeah, they spotted him trudging to the 18th hole, and they took off in golf carts, fleeing him. And then they got to the clubhouse where they issued a no-comment. And it was - the politicians and the money were all golfing together and all drinking each other's booze. And that's how politics is conducted.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Art Cullen. He's the editor of the Storm Lake Times which is featured in the new documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in select theaters tomorrow. We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINCY JONES' "MONTY, IS THAT YOU?")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Art Cullen. He is the editor of the Storm Lake Times and the author of the book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience, And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper."

You know, in the book, you say that you had 10 employees at the paper, five of them named Cullen. And you try to pay competitively and offer health insurance at no cost to employees. But you had a couple of employees that had serious illnesses. Briefly, I mean, what happened here? And how did it affect your ability to take care of your people?

A CULLEN: One of our ad salesmen - his name was Mike Dirks (ph) - had an organ transplant. And our health insurance premiums - this was pre-Obamacare. Our health insurance premiums went up 78% and 68% in successive years. And then we - our associate editor Tina Donath had cancer. And the insurance company said she couldn't get treatment in Storm Lake. She had to drive to Sioux City. Even though the treatment was available in Storm Lake, she had to drive to Sioux City an hour away to get her cancer treatments. And then the insurance company jacked up our rates another 58% the following year. And then heading into the pandemic year, the insurance company raised our rates 44%. (Laughter) So, you know, it's just very difficult to stay in business at that rate.

DAVIES: How did you manage that?

A CULLEN: Well, my brother John forsook his salary and went on Social Security and doesn't get paid for being publisher. And I'll tell you what, being a publisher and filling out postal forms and talking to bankers isn't that fun. And he's doing that for free. And then this spring, I went off the payroll. I went on Social Security early. And so I get a part-time paycheck now. But that's how we deal with it. And, you know, we had to cut down on our TV listings, which agitated a lot of our senior citizen readers who can't figure out how to use the channel changer. And so that's how we dealt with it. And, you know, we haven't been able to give raises since the pandemic.

DAVIES: Have you had to lay anybody off?

A CULLEN: No. We just laid off me and my brother, but we're still working.

DAVIES: You know, there is another newspaper in Storm Lake - right? - the Storm Lake Pilot Tribune. It's still...

A CULLEN: That's what I hear.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You know, a lot of communities don't have even one newspaper. Why does Storm Lake need two?

A CULLEN: Well, because we're the only newspaper that's locally owned. And this newspaper is a satellite of a newspaper in Spencer, Iowa, which is 40 miles away, which is headquartered in Cape Girardeau, Mo., hometown of Rush Limbaugh, by the way. And so it's not really a local newspaper - no offense, but it's not. We're local. We live - the editor and publisher and the owners live six blocks away from the Times office. And all we care about is Storm Lake, Iowa. We don't care about Cape Girardeau, Mo., or Spencer or someplace in South Dakota. We care about Storm Lake.

And that's the difference. And I believe that's true. The reason I think that the Star Tribune in Minneapolis is the model for the industry right now is because they're independently owned by Glen Taylor. And The Washington Post is independently owned by Jeff Bezos. And the New York Times is independently owned by the Sulzbergers. And that's why they're successful. And I believe that's why regional newspapers owned by hedge funds are failing.

DAVIES: You know, I thought we would finish with a letter that you wrote to your son, Tom. It's really a letter to a young journalist. You want to just tell us, you know, how you came to write this and publish it and maybe just read, share a bit of it with us?

A CULLEN: Oh, sure. My son Tom was in college, and he had an economics degree from the University of Northern Iowa. And his professors, who all admired him very much - he was a four-point student - and they said, you know, you could go to law school or you could get a Ph.D. in econ or you could go work at the Chicago Board of Trade. What the hell are you going to work at a newspaper for?

So, you know, and Tom told me that. And again, always searching for a column idea, I said, well, there's a column there welcoming Tom home and explaining, you know, what is it - why should you work long hours for lousy pay and sometimes no pay at all at a little newspaper in the middle of nowhere? You know, we think we're somewhere, but everybody else thinks we're flyover country. So, yeah, I wrote this column called "Letter To A Young Reporter." But yeah, I'll just read a paragraph if you don't mind.

(Reading) A pretty good rule is that an Iowa town will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks. The best journalism is that which builds communities. You build your community by publicizing good deeds done by reporting on the cheats and scoundrels and other politicians, by urging yourself and those around you to do better by allowing dissenting voices to be heard, and by making certain that your town's issues are heard in Des Moines and Washington. Use your power to build and the newspaper will grow naturally. Always be honest. Again, credibility is your only stock and trade.

DAVIES: Well, Art Cohen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

A CULLEN: Well, thank you, Dave. It's been a delight talking to you.

DAVIES: Art Cullen is the editor of the Storm Lake Times and author of the book "Storm Lake: A Chronicle Of Change, Resilience And Hope From A Small-Town Newspaper." The paper's featured in the documentary film "Storm Lake," which opens in select theaters tomorrow and will be broadcast on PBS on November 15 as part of the Independent Lens series. Here's music from the soundtrack of the documentary, composed and performed by Andrew Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like with Colson Whitehead about his new heist novel "Harlem Shuffle" or with science writer Mary Roach about what happens when animals break the law, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews there.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, while discussing health insurance rate increases for the Storm Lake Times, host Dave Davies mistakenly said that insurance costs that an employer pays are influenced by the health care utilization of the employees in the company, so that serious illnesses among a few employees can cause large rate increases for everyone in the firm. In fact, the Affordable Care Act changed the rules so that rates for workers in small companies are now based primarily on the experience of all those insured in the relevant geographical rating area, not just the experience of those in the company in question.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 20, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this interview, while discussing health insurance rate increases for the Storm Lake Times, host Dave Davies said that insurance costs an employer pays are influenced by the health care utilization of the employees in the company, so that serious illnesses among a few employees can cause large rate increases for everyone in the company. In fact, the Affordable Care Act changed the rules so that rates for workers in small companies are now based primarily on the experience of all those insured in the relevant geographical rating area, not just the experience of those in the company in question.