The Storm Lake Times: How a Family Run Paper is Keeping Local Journalism Alive in the U.S

Still from
Storm Lake
Laoise Murray
May 3, 2024

Storm Lake is a sleepy lake-side town in northwest Iowa. It is home to fishermen, several meatpacking companies and one of the few remaining local newspapers in the United States.

Between 2019 and 2020, directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius documented how editor-in-chief of The Storm Lake Times, Art Cullen, and his family were keeping local journalism alive. This remarkable documentary is THE WHY’s Film of the Month for May. It is available to watch on our YouTube channel, thanks to a collaboration with American television station PBS and Independent Lens.

Levinson told us why she wanted to contribute this story for Film of the Month:

“I’ve known about The Why since it was a germ of an idea and I’ve shared its values from the start—that access to independent, well-crafted documentary films should be available to all.  I, too, believe that storytelling can change people’s hearts and minds—and the course of history.  Around the world and even from where I write, in America, democracies and basic human rights are under threat.  When the opportunity came about to share Storm Lake with The Why, I leapt at the opportunity."

Art and his brother John published their first paper in June, 1990. Art’s wife, a photographer, and son, a reporter, have since been enlisted into the family business. They go to print twice a week with a circulation of 3,000 newspapers.

For the past thirty years, they have faced a declining readership, weakened rural community, and seen their advertising base of local mom n’ pop shops be swallowed up by conglomerates. Despite this, Art won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his work challenging the corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, news has gone digital, collapsing their traditional business model. Once, residents of Storm Lake could walk into a local coffee shop and pick up a newspaper, still warm from the printer, and place a dollar note in the honesty box beside it. “You’ve got to have a strong business model to do good journalism. The problem is that the business model is falling apart.” Art says, as he discusses business with his brother in the documentary.

News deserts

Rural and urban areas where there is a lack of “sufficient, reliable and diverse information from trustworthy media sources” are called news deserts. They are rapidly increasing in number around the world. Researchers have found that half of all the counties in the US had just one local newspaper in 2020.

News deserts contribute to growing inequalities. While many media outlets are trying to continue their work in digital format, many people in rural communities are older, have limited access to broadband and low levels of digital literacy.

The result is that whole sections of the population are missing out on key, reliable information about local politics and events. And if they do have it, not many will pay for it. Social media has instead become the primary source of information, but it is rife with mis and dis-information.

It also means that there are less journalists investigating issues like pollution, corruption, and illegal mining or deforestation on the ground. In an era of global environmental crisis, accurate and fair reporting in all communities around the world is more important than ever.

Art sums it up in the final scene; “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 publicising good deeds done, by reporting on the cheats and scoundrels and other politicians, by urging yourself and those around you to do better.”

World Press Freedom Day

The 3rd of May, 2024 marks the 31st celebration of World Press Freedom Day. It was created to celebrate principles of press freedom, take a closer look at threats to media around the world and pay tribute to the 1,889 journalists who have lost their lives while at work since 2000.

Press freedom means that journalists can work independently, without undue influence from government, politics, or economic forces. It also means that information is not monopolised by the State or corporations, but that a diverse range of newspapers are published, expressing a wide variety of opinions.

This year, UNESCO is drawing special attention to journalism’s and press freedom’s essential role in the current global environmental crisis. Journalists help to provide reliable information about climate change, expose environmental issues and cultivate healthy public debate around the issues through the telling of local and global community stories.

Declining press freedom

Authoritarian governments, imprisonment and violence towards journalists are the most visible threats to press freedom. The Israel-Gaza war has killed at least 97 journalists since October 7th, 2023. In Russia, independent media have been banned and military censorship is absolute.

But one of the less visible threats to the freedom of journalism in Europe and the United States is the increasingly commercialised and digitised media landscape.

Every year, Reporters Without Borders issues a Press Freedom Index which ranks countries based on political, economic, legal, social/cultural and safety indicators. In 2024, Denmark placed second out of 180 countries. The US was ranked 55th, an alarming fall of ten places from the year before.

The main problem is the media business model. Just a few wealthy individuals own the most popular news outlets in the country which puts their objectivity, political neutrality, and trustworthiness into question. Local newspapers have been bought up and merged with other papers. The Storm Lake Times took over their local competitor, the Pilot-Tribune, in 2022 and became the last locally owned newspaper in the county.

Concepts of objectivity, neutrality and trust might seem high minded, but they are values upon which the institutions of journalism and democracy rest. Without them, power can become concentrated - to the benefit of the 1% and to the detriment of the 99%.  

Despite all the bad news, people like Art remind us that we can change the world through journalism. Just watch the documentary to find out how.

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