The pen, as the saying goes, is mightier than the sword. And, in light of recent international events – the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the detainment of Roman Protesavich – it is clear that good journalism still wields some power. Before the days of clickbait headlines and ‘fake news’, journalism was exposing corruption; telling the truth; asking uncomfortable questions. As cinema goers, we have seen this realised in the likes of All The President’s Men and, more recently, Spotlight.
Whilst these types of revelations rarely happen at The Storm Lake Times, a twice weekly newspaper serving a rural Iowan county of around 15,000 residents, its importance is every bit as critical. With local news, in particular, on the decline, some 65 million Americans live in what is referred to as ‘news deserts’, where there is almost no local coverage. Who voices their issues? Who gives them insight? Who fights on their side?
The Storm Lake Times, as revealed in Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’ documentary Storm Lake, is very much a family affair. Founded by John Cullen in 1990, the current editor is his brother, Art, whilst Art’s son and wife make up the rest of the journalistic team. It’s a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year operation; preferring paper and phonecalls to dictaphones and WhatsApp.
The newspaper, like so many other local titles, is barely squeaking by. Advertising revenues are down as local ‘mom and pop stores’ close in the town and circulation is down, owing to people expecting news online for free.
What feels like a friendly, warm operation – Art is the fluffy haired, slightly hunched editor in bow ties and woolly jumpers – belies a critical source of local news. Whilst Art jokes that the Storm Lake residents are “more interested in garbage day than presidential elections”, the newspaper is providing the community with access to school board reviews, local council meetings, construction planning and justice reports. Even the weather updates – seemingly innocuous reports on corn growth or “ice out day” – are providing information about global warming. The front pages hold local mayors and would-be politicians to account on local, rural issues.
The importance of keeping the community informed is most evident during the electoral caucuses. “How can you vote as to what’s going on in your town if you don’t know what’s going on?” yells candidate Andrew Yang to a hoard of eager reporters. And, at a time when partisanship in America seems to be getting progressively worse, he has a point. Local news stories – not decisions made thousands of miles away – are what matter to local voters. Small communities, such as the one here in Storm Lake, feel underrepresented or not listened to on bigger platforms – their newspaper can give them a voice.
The film draws comparisons between the decline of small towns – Storm Lake’s main employers have now been swooped up and merged into three large conglomerates – and the decline of local news. The newspaper – and the Cullen family – are battling on two different fronts throughout the documentary. There’s the changing face of the local community (from “lily white Republican” to a veritable melting pot of cultures, races and religions) and the digitalisation of news.
Pulitzer prize-winning Art, in particular, seems reluctant to adapt to his son Tom’s ideas of podcast and paid-for subscriptions for fear of losing the journalistic integrity of the print edition. But, when the camera pans to a sad stack of local titles announcing their last editions – backing this up with a statistic stating that, over the past fifteen years, one in four newspapers have shuttered within the US – you can’t help but wonder if the mild-mannered editor is fighting a losing battle.
The documentary ends with the arrival of Covid-19. And, whilst front pages show pictures of empty shelves and school closures, the newspaper itself continues to rally against a lack of funds in order to take local authorities to task on lack of PPE and testing. The Storm Lake Times, it seems, has no fear when it comes to asking difficult questions of the town’s three main employers – all of whom demonstrated flagrant disregard for the health and safety of their largely migrant workforces. Art notes that it is his duty to ask these questions, highlight the numbers and call out the failures. At such a local level, who else will?
The film ends with a voiceover from Art declaring, “Readers decide our future. The pay is lousy and the hours can be terrible … but journalism can change the world.” There is no doubt, from Levison and Risius’ documentary, that the Cullen family – as a team of dogged local journalists defying the odds and their bank balance – have left an indelible imprint on the Storm Lake community.
Storm Lake has its World Premiere at the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival June 2-6, 2021