A Newspaperman Reflects On ‘Storm Lake’

Guest Article by Bill Presecky

John and Art Cullen are what some of us old-timers call newspaper men.  

“Storm Lake,” a recently-released documentary directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison chronicles the story of the trials and triumphs, the ins and outs and the ups and downs of the Storm Lake Times, a  locally-owned and locally-operated community newspaper published twice weekly by the brothers Cullen.

Both the Cullens and their family-run operation – about half of the Iowa newspaper’s 10-person staff are Cullens – exemplify a vanishing breed. Despite being buffeted by the same technological and societal headwinds that have decimated hometown newspapers by the score in rural and suburban communities both smaller and larger than Storm Lake, the Cullen family perseveres – for now, at least.

“Storm Lake” graphically illustrates the how and why of the Cullens’ and the town’s perseverance.

Day-in and day-out the Times delivers local news and biting editorials on a break-even (if all goes well) budget for their 3,000 readers. And this is not some rum-dum gossip rag.

Art unearthed a conspiracy between Big Agriculture and local county officials that won him a Pulitzer. Now, his liberal voice reverberates in this conservative district in a critical swing state. While he has the power to change minds and rally votes, his pugnacious voice makes waves; disgruntled residents don’t always agree with his point of view and have been known to write him and his paper off. 

As good a yarn as “Storm Lake” is, telling us about the goings-on at a struggling biweekly newspaper, this well-done documentary also serves as a valuable primer and object lesson for why local journalism of the purest kind is so important and why, when it is lost to time, as it has been in nearly 2,000 newsrooms nationwide over the last 20 years, we all lose.

“Storm Lake” opens Friday at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center.