Brothers John and Art Cullen reviewing a copy of The Storm Lake Times hot off the presses. (Photo by Gary Fandel)

Storm Lake, a 2021 film directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, is, at once, about “a newspaper, a family, and a community”—each of which is inseparable from the rest. The documentary offers an extensive and intimate look into The Storm Lake Times—the Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper in the small agricultural and meatpacking community of Storm Lake, Iowa. With a population under 15,000, the town is a testament to rural Iowa’s changing landscape amidst climate change, immigration, and Big Agriculture. 

The film will have its broadcast debut Monday, November 15, as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary series.

Founded by John Cullen in 1990 and staffed entirely by other members of the Cullen family, The Storm Lake Times has diligently covered those big shifts, and much more. The documentary follows The Storm Lake Times’ small staff to national (yet deeply local) events like the 2019 primaries, and to the community spaces that form the heart of the local newspaper—an elementary school classroom, the county fair, the town’s Fourth of July parade, among others. 

“It’s important to know who had a baby and who died in a community of 10 to 15,000 people,” says Art Cullen, brother of John Cullen and editor of The Storm Lake Times. “It’s important to know what city council is up to.”

In a particularly telling scene, Tom Cullen, son of Art Cullen and a reporter for The Storm Lake Times, attends a small Q&A with U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley. Cullen asks Grassley how he might approach members of the Storm Lake community who are undocumented and face the threat of deportation. Grassley responds, “As a practical matter… there could be 100,000 people deported. Well, think—100,000 out of 11 million people. So why would you have to be very concerned?” 

Dolores Cullen, the photographer for The Storm Lake Times, shares a past copy of the paper. (Photo by Jerry Risius)

Much of the film’s strength comes from the fact that it shows, quite consistently, why a small news staff in rural Iowa should be, and is, concerned about these issues. Storm Lake takes on the challenging feat of guiding the viewer through the nuances of the newspaper’s community—a vibrant, agricultural, immigrant area whose demographics and politics have shifted significantly following an immigration boom in the 1990s. 

As outsiders to Storm Lake, the film’s crew strongly depicts the community in its uniqueness—an ever-necessary approach amidst monolithic representations of Midwestern rural communities in mainstream media. However, given the vastly diverse audiences that The Storm Lake Times caters to, it feels like there was a missed opportunity to include a wider range of the community’s voices in the documentary. Since the film is mainly centered around the Cullen family, it runs the risk of presenting the town’s “diversity” from a primarily white perspective, rather than engaging more closely with the communities that comprise the town and that the newspaper serves. 

One of the most captivating scenes in Storm Lake takes place during the town’s “Parade of Nations”—a core part of Storm Lake’s Fourth of July Celebration, during which community members from a variety of countries showcase their respective cultures. The parade is a rich celebration of Storm Lake’s immigrant communities, including, but not limited to, participants from Micronesia, Laos, and Mexico. The celebration, therefore, extends beyond “America first” patriotism—choosing, instead, to honor the cultures that comprise Storm Lake and much of the nation, as well. Powerful as it is, such a scene leaves something to be desired—namely, the perspectives of more of these community members regarding their relationship with the newspaper. 

In spite of this, given that it’s impossible to sum up a small town in under 90 minutes of film, the documentary succeeds at exploring the ins and outs of the Storm Lake community in a way that feels comprehensive and honorable—not shallow. From the fields, to the mobile home park, to the family kitchen, Storm Lake gives its viewers a tour of the town, highlighting, at every pit stop, why the community and the local newspaper are so essential to one another. 

The film reinforces that essential lesson, which can be learned from many local newspapers—the most powerful news coverage reflects that which is important and relevant to its community. In doing so, Storm Lake poses a tough yet increasingly pressing question to its viewers: what happens when these newspapers don’t exist? 

“A pretty good rule is that an Iowa town will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks,” reflects Art Cullen in the film. “Without strong local journalism to tell a community’s story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.” 

 At The Storm Lake Times, five of the 10-person staff are members of the Cullen  Family. (Photo by Jerry Risius)

Since 2004, over 500 rural newspapers have been shut down or merged into larger publications. This has left many rural counties at risk of becoming news deserts—areas without a credible local news source. With the lack of hyperlocal rural stories in most metropolitan newspapers, these widespread closures mean that many rural communities—particularly those who face the highest poverty rates—are not getting informed on the issues that directly impact them. 

As the documentary reveals, the fight against closure is an uphill battle for local newspapers like The Storm Lake Times. After not making a profit in over 10 years, the staff launched a GoFundMe campaign to continue supporting the newspaper’s operations, nearly reaching their fundraising goal by the end of 2020. The Storm Lake Times’ coverage, and its role within the community, is simply too vital to let go of. 

There is much to be said, then, about a film that advocates so strongly for a local newspaper like The Storm Lake Times, and which explores the Storm Lake community with such care and proximity. 

Dani Pérez served as a 2021 Daily Yonder Reporting Fellow.