In the PBS doc "Storm Lake," a tiny Iowa paper fights for the future of high-quality local news

Salon talks to the filmmakers about The Storm Lake Times' no-nonsense mission to cover all the news that's local

Published November 15, 2021 5:03PM (EST)

Tom Cullen, a reporter for the Storm Lake Times in "Storm Lake" (PBS)
Tom Cullen, a reporter for the Storm Lake Times in "Storm Lake" (PBS)

"Storm Lake" is a folksy — and that's meant as a term of endearment — documentary about a year in the life of the Storm Lake Times of Northern Iowa, the oldest continuously printed, twice-a-week newspaper in the country. With a circulation fo 3,000, the paper is a family affair: founded by John Cullen, who serves as publisher, the staff of ten also includes his brother, editor Art Cullen, with Art's wife Dolores and son Tom working as reporters. In 2017, Art Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials, making the Storm Lake Times the second-smallest paper to ever win a Pulitzer.  

Stories the paper covers include the 2020 Iowa caucuses (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, and Jill Biden all make appearances); a Latino singer who works at the local Tyson food plant; members of the agricultural community, like Big John, a farmer; climate change; and, of course, a response to the pandemic. Filmmakers Beth Levison and Jerry Risius use these topics to address issues of democracy, the plight of the undocumented, freedom of the press, corporate takeover of farms, and other topical issues.

Throughout, Art Cullen remains an unflappable voice of reason — except when there's a deadline. (And with good reason; every hour delay costs $100.)

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Levison and Risius spoke with Salon about making the film, the importance of local news, and the shared future of newspapers and documentaries. 

How did you connect with Art and gain his trust to let you tell his and Storm Lake's story, and what access did you have?

Jerry Risius: I grew up on a small farm in Iowa, even smaller than Storm Lake. Once I reached out to Art, and he learned of my Iowa-ness, he felt I was someone he could speak shorthand to and talk about farming and things Iowan. And there is a connection we had as journalists. We ask questions — who are you? what do you do? — and we definitely connected with him on the journalism and documentary side. It's wasn't an attempt to gain trust, but a real connection. 

Beth Levison: They were just so busy, and we didn't get in their way. We shot and observed them and hung out with them. We didn't ask them to do things that they didn't do or didn't normally do. The Iowa-ness was key. Dolores expressed such relief: "We don't have to explain anything to you!" It was just spending time and following what was happening, and not expressing any kind of judgment and letting things happen. They were shocked when they saw the film and how it all did come together.

Every time we showed up, there was no pomp and circumstance. They were like, "Hi guys, great to see you. We're really busy."

What decisions did you make about your approach to the film, the topics you covered, and the style you employed — mostly verité, some interviews?

Levison: From the very beginning, once we got influx of cash to shoot Heartland Forum, we had this idea we would bookend the film with election day and include the caucuses, and that created a timeline of the democratic process in the film. But we knew we wanted to tell about struggle of newspaper and the role it was playing in the community. The conversation between Art and John, we asked them to speak to us about the struggle of newspapers. So, we were paying attention to that struggle and how it expressed itself. But it was ever-present on a day to day basis. We knew we wanted to show the value of the paper, so that meant us going out to see how they reported stories to show what they were doing.

We came to understand each Cullen's individual role in the paper. Art is the editor. Delores does the human interest stories. Tom is hard news. John writes the checks. We knew what threads we had and where we were going, but we had no sense COVID was going to happen, which changed things. Art says he thinks it made the film better, and he's probably right. 

"Storm Lake" allows you to illustrate the Iowa caucus process, talk about issues of immigration, politics, the economy, farming, big business and other subjects. Can you talk about the film's (and by extension) the paper's content and how a local story can have national or global impact? As Art says, a story can change the world — or at least your world.

Risius: Both Beth and I realized early on the true north of their reporting was that if it didn't happen in Buena Vista County, it didn't happen. Art says they are more interested if their garbage is picked up than if Elizabeth Warren is in town. As we learned about the Cullens and their roles in paper, we were thinking about all these things they were covering: Big Ag and labor issues, immigration and climate change, and we thought, how are we going to organize all of this? As we saw the edit come together, they were all naturally baked into the process and that's the touchstone that cuts across universal themes. We have a micro story of a small community newspaper that touches on same theme everyone in the country is talking about. As we started editing, we realize it was all there. And it all came into relief during COVID.

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Levison: We went into the film wanting to just tell a story about the Cullens and the Storm Lake Times and how the paper reflects this local community back to the community itself. In the process, when we talk about climate change, Big Ag, immigration, they are massive, complex human constructs and issues, but they were playing out on a small scale and you can see how they are interconnected. Big John is a farming and agricultural story. Emmanuel [Trujillo, a Tyson employee] is an immigration story. But as the filmmaking proceeded, we saw how all interrelated it is. The beauty was seeing that on a small scale.

We didn't intend to make a film that addressed these big national things, it was as we filmed that we realize this has national resonance. We got lucky not only to have Art, who is articulate and smart, and this family that was so fascinating. But also, that we were in this small town where these dynamics were visually at play.

I wonder if another key piece of it is that we directed together, and we were shooting and there wasn't anyone on the outside. That had an impact on our ability to tell this story.

Do you think Art should change his business model and go weekly? Why try to produce two issues a week if it's barely breaking even?

Risius: They have tried a couple of things. Art told us they lost $100,000 in the Aughts when they tried to go to a daily. Then they went back to biweekly. They did financial extrapolation and don't think it would work as a weekly. Even though the last year has been rough, they feel they are turning a corner — but are not sure what's around the corner. 

Levison: Every movie encapsulates a specific moment in time. Art has been very open. Five years ago, they would have said the print product is here to say. Now he is thinking in five to ten years, maybe they will go more heavily into digital, and a podcast is not off the table.

There is a line in the film about folks getting (fake news) from Facebook over breakfast, which emphasizes the need to be informed by a trusted source. What are your observations about the state of newspapers in particular and journalism in general today? Survival has been based on original reporting.

Levison: It's funny, there's this term out there now, "solutions" journalism. Dolores and Art never thought about it. But I recently thought she's doing "solutions journalism" on small-town scale, telling happy stories about her community. With the film, what has been interesting is that we wanted to make a film that people enjoy; we hope the film has impact. What has taken us by surprise is how many people in the journalism world are taken with the film and want to use it to build the future of local news or show it to their community.

But it just seems like we are in this problematic, negative feedback loop right now. Newspapers are struggling and can't do original reporting, that people expect or want to pay for. The newspapers are therefore not producing as "quality" a product. People are not buying it and they can't do reportage and get out of this loop. At the same time, people are getting their news for free on social media.

There are so many forces at work, the loss of media literacy, and issues related to education that have nothing to do with journalism. Our education system is not keeping up. Newspapers are struggling across the country, and most readers don't know about it. Art and John really communicate to their community that they are in trouble and that they need the community's support. We have gotten a sense that not all newspapers do that, and people think their papers are going to be around forever. 

Risius: The Cullens are particularly special. Lorena López [editor in chief at the Iowa newspaper La Prensa] says there, it is the fake news. It's Facebook. They live in the community. Art says we're not given a license to be journalists. We are market driven. We will only be in business for as long as people buy our newspaper. It is a cycle: the market is failing, people are not buying and not putting advertising in, and they are trying to figure out the way through. At the same time, all these other news sources on social media are gaining traction and it creates a bigger issue.

Levison: There is also value to someone who sounds like you and talks like you when you are reading that voice. I think David Brooks and Maureen Dowd are fantastic, but someone who is speaking in the vernacular can be meaningful to a reader. To get news from someone who went to your high school.

Risius: If you read the Pulitzer Prize-winning columns Art wrote, he would be submitting articles to The Washington Post, and I would be shooting over his shoulder and he was getting edits back and they were almost all red. The skeleton of what he was writing was there, but they were removing all of the Iowa-ness of it. They wanted to create the liberal voice The Washington Post reader. They took out all the vernacular. 

There are discussions with La Prensa, the area Latino publication, about sharing articles and efforts to increase readership, help mom-and-pop outlets, and generate community goodwill. What did you see in terms of community engagement and change over the course of the period you covered the paper for the film? 

Risius: I showed up and a woman was there to talk to Art, and only John and Tom were there. They let me film this amazing discussion. Storm Lake has a meat packing plant, and she's the journalist who writes for all six to eight towns around Iowa that read her paper. There are meat packing plants in all these towns, and they have immigrants — first generation — it is a real growing population. Her paper is all ad generated, and has its own business model. The Cullens realized early on they could not survive on the ads.

Levinson: Now that we've been steeped in the conversation about the paper, there is no one size fits all model. There is this idea that newspapers are all in competition with one another. This is not sustainable model anymore. Maybe there is a new model of newspapers coming together to ensure survival. This idea of let's collaborate not compete, and see us all sink.

Given the difficulties that print journalism faces, what parallels do you see with documentary filmmaking? Your film is like a print newspaper, capturing a moment in time only. A great archival record, but almost out of date a day later, yet it still has importance, history and meaning. What are your thoughts?

Levison: I might cry answering this question. I'm also one of the cofounders of Documentary Producer Alliance. We have 500 members and advocate on health and welfare of larger documentary industry. When I make films, I experience something in parallel in front of the camera. It was true in the film with COVID. We were all facing uncertainty on every level. Art and the Cullens are fighting for a free independent press. I think that we are in a moment when independent documentary film is in peril when we have all these streamers and market forces. Everyone is competing for eyeballs. We are seeing the commodification and commercialization of nonfiction, and what that means for storytelling is problematic, and what that means for independent voices is problematic. If you are having to make something commercially viable to get your film made or make a living, that dictates what stories get told and who tells them.

This film is about the dangers of trusts, and vertical and horizonal integration. We are at this moment where the streamers have so much power, and they are horizontally integrating. Amazon is buying MGM. I just think it is scary. There was an IATSE strike about working conditions, and it is all about profit now, and when things become paramount, independent journalism and documentary films fall by wayside. It's a really interesting moment in so many ways, and certainly, when it comes to media, journalism and documentary film. 

Risius: Many parallels. Even the style that we shot "Storm Lake" with — we went in thinking they are no-nonsense journalists, telling the story as it is, and we wanted to honor that. I am a cinematographer, and I shoot stylized. I will say, "We need a tilt and shift focus lens to create this crazy visual effect to pull people in…" but we wanted nothing like that. But we wanted simple no-nonsense storytelling, and that's being coopted.

"Storm Lake" airs Monday, Nov. 15 on PBS. Check local listings. Watch the trailer below via YouTube.

Read more of Salon's coverage of recent documentaries:

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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