By Ellen Clegg
Hollywood is a long way from Storm Lake, Iowa. So it might come as a surprise that the bible of the entertainment industry, The Hollywood Reporter, calls the documentary film “Storm Lake” a “vital celebration of the role of community-based news gathering at a time when media revenues are way down and the credibility of the press has taken a hammering across much of the country.”
The film by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison tracks two years in the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper with a staff of 10 covering Storm Lake and a handful of other small towns in rural Buena Vista County, Iowa. Cameras follow editor Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer in 2017 for editorials on Big Agriculture and the climate crisis, his wife, Dolores, who is chief photographer, photo editor, and culture writer, and their son Tom, general assignment reporter. The documentary recently won honors at the Provincetown Film Festival.
The film is noteworthy in its focus on the role a small-town newspaper can play in stitching together the social fabric of rural communities through sharp, knowledgeable (not to mention truthful) reporting. It also depicts how tough it has been for smaller newsrooms to scrap it out in the face of a secular decline in advertising made unimaginably steeper by the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Like many newspapers, large and small, the Times is surfing new revenue streams to make up the gap through targeted digital advertising, philanthropic fund-raising, and circulation. The paper is part of the newly formed Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, along with La Prensa in Denison, which covers the Hispanic population, the Carroll Daily Times Herald in Carroll, and the Greene Recorder in Greene. The nonprofit foundation aims to “help build a stronger democracy in western Iowa by protecting, strengthening, and expanding local public interest reporting.” At last count, it has raised about $26,000. The coronavirus pandemic has also brought into sharp focus the critical role that a local news outlet can play during a public health crisis – disseminating authoritative information from experts and discrediting misinformation. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that in early April 2020, half of the 2,485 counties that reported cases of coronavirus had either no local newspaper or only one surviving paper. Fifty-seven percent of those counties had no daily newspaper. Two-thirds were rural counties.
Masked and vaxxed, I recently flew to Minneapolis and drove a hard-to-find rental car south through tall corn and sprawling wind farms in northwest Iowa to Storm Lake, population 10,000, to talk with Art and Dolores in the Times newsroom. Their address: Times Square, also known as 220 West Railroad Street. I also got to meet Peach, a mellow white -and-ginger dog who ambled around the newsroom. What follows is a lightly edited Q&A.
Q: How has the pandemic affected readership?
Art: Readership has been growing, partly because we have a bit of dim celebrity from the movie. We dropped to a circulation of 2,800, but now we’re back up to 3,000, publishing twice a week. If we can get to 4,000 at our current rate, we can float the boat, mainly through circulation revenue. Leading up to the pandemic, we were losing our retail advertising base, so we knew we had to make the transition to reader revenue. That’s pretty difficult when circulation is stagnant to declining.
But, frankly, Donald Trump did wonders for the newspaper industry. It really did wake people up to the fact that freedom isn’t free, democracy has a price, and it costs just about as much as a cup of coffee. Readers have started paying that price. Although the New York Times and Washington Post rates of gain have slowed, they’re still increasing their digital subscriptions. The Star Tribune [in Minneapolis] and The Boston Globe are doing OK.
On a smaller scale, we’re experiencing the same thing. We were breaking even before, but it wasn’t like we were cutting the fatted calf! Detroit decided they didn’t want to advertise in print any more, so we lost $70,000 worth of auto advertising, and health insurance went up. Essentially, we’ve got to fill a $110,000 hole annually through circulation and fund-raising.
Dolores: We’re using Facebook and Twitter to tease stories in order to drive subscriptions.
Art: We’re talking with foundations, but they move at glacier-like speeds, and we’re losing money like a wildfire. Things have improved since May, and we broke even a couple of months, but it was pretty ugly for a long time.
Q: Your front page focuses on local people and events, and leaves national political debates to the editorial page. Does that allow you to cut across partisan divisions and reach a broader readership?
Art: Well, yeah, it does. It softens things. I can help create common conversations, whereas if we’re writing about [US senator] Chuck Grassley visiting Storm Lake, then all of a sudden people say, “Well, you’re taking a partisan view of that.” And no, we’re actually not, unless it’s on the editorial page, where we make it clear we are progressive populists.
Dolores: We take pride in writing about local people. We just heard today that someone caught a long-nosed gar. It’s a strange fish, with a snout, and that will probably be on our front page, along with the people who caught it. I don’t know anyone who’s caught one of those here. I’ve learned to squeeze tidbits out of people that are doing interesting things, to go out and get pictures with the idea that this is the first draft of history.
Art: People sometimes fail to comprehend that I’m agnostic on the front page. It’s not like we’re dealing with politics that much, anyway. We’re more pictures of fish. Stuff that people are actually interested in.
Dolores: We did put the Trump boat parade on Storm Lake on the front page.
Q: Gannett has eliminated editorial pages in some of its papers, in part because of a fear that strong opinions alienate readers. Have you considered that strategy?
Art: Honestly, our front page today is about infrastructure challenges to our city water and sewer systems. It’s not about [former congressman] Steve King or Chuck Grassley or [former US senator] Tom Harkin or any of that other stuff. People often fail to appreciate how the newspaper is constructed, as you’re well familiar.
[Eliminating editorials] is a loss. It’s tragic. It’s stupid, too, because one of the things I’ve noticed in my research is that if you’re doing an email newsletter, the strongest response rate is on opinion pieces. I’ve noticed that to be true on the email newsletter we do. People want opinion. They don’t want snark, I don’t think, but they want well-informed opinion or [laughter] well-written sarcasm. I think it’s a mistake for Gannett to eliminate it.
Q: What lessons are you taking away from the pandemic?
Art: Well, post-election, democracy prevailed. And our circulation has been going up. People have been really eager to find out what the straight facts were about the pandemic. We were aggressively asking: “How many cases are there at Tyson?” [the Tyson Foods pork processing plant in Storm Lake.] On the editorial page, I was hollering about it, but Tom, our general assignment reporter, was being very diligent and straight about it. We worked with ProPublica on an investigation [in December 2020.]
Dolores: We’d get calls from people saying, “Keep it up, keep it up.” It really bothered me that people were dying, and [the official response] was sort of like, “Oh, let’s just go on, nothing to see here.” That’s when I began combing Facebook and talking to people to find out who was sick, and who had died. I would write one story, and people would call and say, “Oh, yeah, I survived, too.”
Art: On our editorial page, I was excoriating them for their cynical approach to the way they treated vulnerable people.
Q: So you’re poking powerful institutions in town. How does that go over with advertisers?
Art: Well, it doesn’t matter much any more, there’s no ads, and Tyson isn’t going to buy any ads with us. I used to be a little more shy.