Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Art Cullen is the co-owner of the Storm Lake Times, an independent bi-weekly paper in the seat of Buena Vista County, Iowa. In 2017, Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. His columns got lots of attention for challenging corporate agriculture interests in the state, and he continues to be a prolific producer of fiery, straightforward calls-to-action.
Just last week, the Storm Lake Times published two editorials from Cullen, one criticizing Governor Kim Reynolds’ characterization of the surge in unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border as “not [Iowa’s] problem,” and the other laying out actionable steps for saving the Raccoon River.
Despite national attention to his columns—and the consequent book deal that resulted in Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper—Storm Lake’s homegrown paper hasn’t been spared the year of hardship wrought by the pandemic. It turns out driving up paid subscriptions in a town of under 11,000 isn’t an easy task no matter how much the national media likes you.
Enjoy my conversation with Art Cullen about toying with nonprofit news, shifting perspectives on Iowa agriculture, and creating “The World’s Hometown,” below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Almost a year ago, you wrote an essay for The Guardian asking a lot of big questions about how the pandemic would affect the local news industry, and your paper, The Storm Lake Times, in particular. The headline on that piece was “The newspaper industry was already faltering. Will coronavirus obliterate it?” One year later, have you been taking stock? Do you have an answer to that question?
Art Cullen: The coronavirus has not eliminated us yet, but it certainly has compounded our fiscal problems. Local retail advertising was declining before the pandemic, and then disappeared last March. The Payroll Protection Program saved us last year from obliteration. We do not qualify for a second PPP because we appealed for donations last year. We lost a fair amount of money in the first quarter of this year. While we have seen steady gains in digital subscriptions at www.stormlake.com, holding print circulation steady, those revenue gains are not enough to supplant the loss of ad revenue (which we do not believe is coming back).
We have concluded that during the next five years we must depend on donations to float the boat, until subscription revenue can sustain us. Other local newspapers in rural Iowa have reached the same conclusion (at least three Iowa county seat newspapers closed last year, and several more have consolidated into larger chains). That prompted Doug Burns of the nearby Carroll Times Herald and me to form the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, which recently was granted non-profit status by the IRS. We have received interest from some donors, and hope that the check soon will be in the mail.
I believe that President Trump and the pandemic helped readers rediscover the value of accurate information and considered analysis. Increases in digital circulation across the country last year confirm it. Our fundamental question is whether our potential audience is large enough, as rural populations continue to decline and independent retail ownership withers. We need to increase paid circulation from 3,000 to 4,000. That’s a big order in a small town of 11,000.
“My perspective changes as Storm Lake does — and that change has been enormous. My perspective used to be: Iowa must feed the world. My perspective now is: Iowa can lead the world in the battle against climate change, and welcome a new generation of immigrants.”
DY: Before you started The Storm Lake Times with your brother John in 1990, did you imagine spending your career in your hometown? What does it feel like to keep choosing the same place? How has adding such a specific geographic parameter changed your perspective?
AC: When John founded the paper I thought he was crazy. I had no intentions of moving back to Storm Lake. But I was unhappy working for a corporate chain and my big brother who trained me into the business needed my help. I had to say yes. I don’t regret it. I wanted to be a reporter for the Minneapolis StarTribune. Now I can barely navigate the freeways. I prefer gravel at 35 mph.
Living in Storm Lake has given me a unique journalistic perch. This is a meatpacking town where 30 languages or dialects are spoken, and residents’ stories of swimming the Mekong River to freedom or fording the Rio Grande to get to an isolated town where blizzards are routine continue to captivate me. We are in the garden spot of the world here on the Des Moines lobe, flat and rich glacial loam, which now faces enormous challenges with extreme weather wrought by climate change. It is forcing agriculture to confront its limits — can we continue to produce 200 bushels of corn per acre while suffocating the Gulf of Mexico? My perspective changes as Storm Lake does — and that change has been enormous. My perspective used to be: Iowa must feed the world. My perspective now is: Iowa can lead the world in the battle against climate change, and welcome a new generation of immigrants.
“Our town was in a slump and getting slandered by a right-wing media frenzy aimed at feeding on immigrants. Our core belief from Day One was that Storm Lake is stronger because of diversity, and most people in town today feel that way. I would like to think we helped frame the discussion that shaped our identity into The World’s Hometown.”
DY: Obviously, providing factual and up to date information to a community is a public good. But the role of the local newspaper isn’t just to relay information, sometimes its role is to reflect a community back to itself. How do you think about your paper’s role in your town’s identity formation? Do you think about it?
AC: The first thing we did was to put the abandoned Storm Lake motto, The City Beautiful, on the flag of the newspaper. Our town was in a slump and getting slandered by a right-wing media frenzy aimed at feeding on immigrants. Our core belief from Day One was that Storm Lake is stronger because of diversity, and most people in town today feel that way. I would like to think we helped frame the discussion that shaped our identity into The World’s Hometown.
DY: What does staffing your paper look like? Do you pull writers from elsewhere (and if so how do they get on in Storm Lake?), or are you typically able to employ locals?
AC: We have 10 employees, half of whom are named Cullen working for chicken feed. All our staff are homegrown folks. My son Tom is our main reporter and my wife Dolores is our feature writer. John works for free and his wife Mary bills out legal notices and writes recipes. Our sports editor has been with us for decades. A former reporter we trained in high school came home from The Des Moines Register to be our web dude. We prefer to grow our own. My eye is peeled for a Spanish-speaking sales dynamo who can take photos, write features and collect on deadbeats without putting in OT.
DY: Lastly, what are you reading these days? What should people who care a lot about local journalism be reading?
AC: That’s easy: THE STORM LAKE TIMES! (And The Progressive Populist, which we publish with our brother Jim in Austin, Texas). To supplement that, I constantly read The Guardian, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Also, anything related to regenerative agriculture and climate (Civil Eats is a good site for that). Google up Leah Haberman who is doing dynamite reporting on meatpacking. Inside Climate News. Circle of Blue for water reporting. Successful Farming. Alan Guebert, syndicated ag columnist. The proliferation of solid journalism sites can be all-consuming for a grazer like me. Indeed, The Daily Yonder is the best site for rural affairs. But you really have to start with the category killers: NYT and WaPo. Their all-out war with each other is producing the best journalism ever known to humankind. It will either eat us little rodents alive or spark the greatest revival in local journalism since the penny press. The next decade will tell.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.