Documentary Review: A Pulitzer-winning small town newspaper hangs on in “Storm Lake”

Bathed in small town and newspaper life nostalgia, “Storm Lake” preserves, under glass, a moment in time. We see what might be the last burst of glory for a Pulitzer Prize-winning small town Iowa newspaper as it doggedly carries on, fighting the good fight, covering everything about its shrinking and changing community and playing its part in Iowa’s quaint, dated political caucuses.

As we see the newspapering Cullen family, which founded the Storm Lake Times 30 or so years ago, and its staff nickel-and-diming their way through another year, we can’t help but feel Beth Levison/Jerry Risius film is capturing a lot of things that are going away, sooner rather than later.

“Storm Lake,” now in theaters and coming to the PBS series “Independent Lens” Nov. 15, documents a year in the life of the paper, starting with the politicking, small town parades and picnics of 2019 and into the caucus and pandemic year of 2020.

Mark Twain-mopped and mustachioed editor Art Cullen runs the newsroom, which is basically his son Tom as reporter and photographer, covering city hall, the county board of supervisors, the courts and politics, and Art’s wife Dolores as photographer and features writer, writing “happy stories about all kinds of people” in and around Storm Lake. Art’s brother John is the publisher, who has gone on Social Security so that he won’t draw a salary, keeping their bottom line in the black a while longer.

The family setter, Peaches, naps in the newsroom. There’s deadline pressure, even in a newspaper that publishes twice a week where the reporters and editor are family. An office manager/saleswoman walks door to door in the shrinking downtown, selling ads to the ever-declining number of “mom and pop” businesses in a community that used to service independent farmers, all of whom Big Ag and Tyson Foods have steadily swallowed up.

The Times won the coveted public service Pulitzer Prize for covering and editorializing about this change, the forces that were killing the town, emptying out Buena Vista County and dooming its newspaper.

Art preaches the “local, local local” ethos that is the difference between papers like this that hang on, and the hundreds that have ceased publishing, creating “newspaper deserts” all over America. “A pretty good rule is that a small town will be as strong as its newspaper and its banks,” and wax poetic that “the fabric of the place becomes frayed” if its newspaper fails or fails in its civic duty.

But a reader notes that “Art’s the voice of the Democrats, here,” a Jeremiah serving a leadership role in embracing immigration as the salvation of dying towns like this all over the Midwest. Thanks to food processing immigrant labor, Storm Lake has become more diverse, overnight. The county, slowly emptying out, is white, older and more conservative by the day thanks to the steady diet of Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting TV and radio stations.

And those folks “didn’t like” the fact that The Times won a Pulitzer for covering the big businesses and Republican policies that are wiping them out.

Levison and Risius show us a newspaper with a circulation of 3,000 cover climate change, because Iowa “is getting warmer and wetter” every year, hitting agriculture hard. It covers immigration, schools that have to embrace dual language learning, and a Hispanic local Tyson worker who makes a mark in a Spanish language TV network’s national talent show.

And Art Cullen, fresh in the blush of their Pulitzer win, is interviewed by NPR and international reporters traveling in to cover Iowa’s increasingly out-of-step political caucuses, an entitlement that the state clings to, like overwhelmingly white and old New Hampshire, even though it no longer looks or votes like the majority of America, and looks nothing like the Democratic Party.

“Storm Lake” celebrates the professionalism of a newspaper family — the elders worked at newspapers elsewhere before starting this one — who put out a clean, polished news product week after week, embracing some changes and dodging others (Tom pitches the idea of a podcast. Art says “If I’d wanted to do radio…”). It’s an interesting companion piece to the 2011 film, “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” showing America’s starvation diet in local news from ground zero.

Small town civility is heralded. The people who disagree with the paper, from neighbors to teachers Tom remembers him complaining to him when he was in school, always do so with a neighborly respect, at least in the documentary.

But they aren’t subscribing. News sharing and co-publishing deals with a Spanish language statewide paper won’t save The Times, and the people who aren’t subscribing have become low information voters, blaming the wrong people for their woes because they’re told to, embracing the prejudices and agenda of conservative media that comes in via Facebook, cable TV or the omnipresent Sinclair.

And someday, all we’ll have to document this decline and fall will be a documentary about a plucky newspaper that printed fact-based news, sounded alarms, and paid the price for telling people what they don’t want to believe.

Rating: unrated, smoking, some profanity

Cast: Art Cullen, Dolores Cullen, Tom Cullen, Dr. Jill Biden, John Cullen, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro

Credits: Directed by Beth Levison and Jerry Risius. A Park Pictures/Good Gravy Films release

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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