Those who love newspapers, politics or just a good American story should watch “Storm Lake,” a new documentary about a remarkable little paper in Iowa.
The film’s timing couldn’t be better. The public and Congress are beginning to realize how important local journalism is to society and democracy, and how many newspapers are teetering on the brink of extinction, especially in rural areas.
“Yes, it’s a film about The Storm Lake Times, but we hope it can spark conversations nationwide, wherever it goes, about the necessity of local news and the challenges local news is facing,” Beth Levison, co-director and producer, told me by phone.
The twice-weekly is helmed by a Mark Twain-esque editor, Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017.
“Storm Lake” follows Cullen and his family as they report on everything from presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa to a city council candidate growing cabbage and feeding neighbors.
“Storm Lake” doesn’t have the star-power of “Spotlight,” the 2015 movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation of sex abuse by Catholic priests.
But it’s a compelling bookend to such big-city newspaper movies, pulling back the curtain on thousands of smaller papers that play a critical role in binding and informing most of the country.
“Storm Lake” premiered in June and is barnstorming through festivals, including the Seattle International Film Festival’s DocFest this week and next.
In Seattle, “Storm Lake” shows at 4:45 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 1, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian; details are at SIFF.net. I’ll be moderating a virtual conversation with Cullen, Levison and the audience right afterward.
“Storm Lake” is also presented online by SIFF next week, from Oct. 4-7, and will air nationally on PBS starting Nov. 15.
Levison is now working to develop material for the film to be used in journalism schools. I think secondary-school civics teachers should also consider it because it does such a good job explaining how voters learn about issues affecting them, including immigration and demographic changes highlighted in “Storm Lake.”
As the film shows, Cullen and the family-run paper, circulation around 3,000, provide tremendous service to their evolving community.
The paper tackles big topics and runs hard news, along with readers’ heirloom recipes and stories about the first baby born each year. It also keeps the heat on state and national politicians.
“It was pretty overwhelming for me to watch it on the big screen,” Cullen told me this week.
The film helped the paper get some more subscribers and potentially donations. But it hasn’t changed things too much, Cullen said, and the family’s trying to open a bookstore to supplement the business.
What would really make a difference, he said, is single-payer health insurance and reining in postal-rate increases.
As for the newspaper industry, Cullen thinks “we hit rock bottom.”
“I do believe that we hit bottom in the first of this year, and there’s only one way to go from here,” he said.
Cullen’s Pulitzer caught the attention of Brooklyn filmmaker Jerry Risius, who grew up on a hog farm an hour from Storm Lake. He connected with Levison, who was sold on the project in part after reading a fiery, pro-immigration Op-Ed that Cullen submitted to The New York Times.
Risius was a field producer on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” “Storm Lake” has a similar lovingly realistic style, reveling in rich, authentic characters at the paper and in its orbit.
The film follows coverage of Iowa’s bungled 2020 presidential caucuses. It continues through the pandemic when outbreaks at local food-processing giants were national news.
Along the way, the Cullens struggle to keep the paper afloat. At one point (now retired) Publisher John Cullen, Art’s brother, chuckles about whether to pay bills or buy medicine, and it’s not clear that he’s joking.
It’s revealed that John Cullen stopped taking a salary to make ends meet.
Not mentioned is that Art Cullen followed suit. He told me that after the paper’s federal paycheck-protection loan ran out, he also stopped taking a paycheck and took early enrollment in Social Security.
This reveals the depth of the Cullen family’s commitment to its community and local journalism.
It also shows that one way or another, the federal government must help keep this essential industry alive. Whether you agree or not, watch “Storm Lake” and see what’s at stake.