Jerry Risius and Beth Levison’s astutely observed doc Storm Lake is 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. Chronicling roughly two years in the life of The Storm Lake Times, which has served the rural Iowan farm town for 30 years, the film is an engrossing account of a family business run with integrity and passion. It also doubles as restorative proof that, even in these divided times, respectful co-existence can still outweigh opposing political views.
Producer and co-director Levison won the New York Women in Film & Television Filmmaker Award for documentary for Storm Lake at the Provincetown Film Festival, while the film also won the Audience Award for best feature at AFI Docs.
The Bottom Line
A stirring mission statement wrapped in a survival tale.
Starting with the 2019 Democratic Primaries and spanning the entire pandemic year that caused so many small businesses to fold, the film is a workplace study that by extension illuminates the challenges facing independent farmers since Big Agriculture redefined the sector. It also examines the anomaly of a mostly Red state in which a rural town flipped to Blue with the waves of migrant workers that flocked there in the ‘90s.
Using editor Art Cullen as their voice — not to mention their shrewd and refreshingly frank main character — the filmmakers reflect cogently on a community’s responsibility to support journalism, especially now that so many people view news content as an unpaid component of their social media feeds. Stats displayed onscreen show that one in four newspapers have shuttered over the past 15 years in the United States.
The business model has fallen apart especially in places like Storm Lake, as rural communities were weakened by shrinking populations and more and more families lost their farms. The resulting impact on the town’s mom & pop companies pretty much killed the advertising dollar. That shift has created a growing number of “news deserts” across the county — towns of 20,000-30,000 people with no local news source, their stories seldom covered by the larger metropolitan papers that take their place.
The Storm Lake Times was founded in 1990 by Cullen’s older brother John, who continues to serve as publisher without drawing a wage now that he’s on social security. The twice-weekly paper had a moment of glory in 2017 when Art Cullen was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the dark money of local county officials in Iowan corporate agriculture. His liberal editorials, whether speaking out against the policies of the Trump government or in support of the town’s large Latino population, many of them undocumented, often go against the grain of conservative opinion. But the Times remains an impassioned and influential voice in the community.
Outside of election races, however, politics usually takes a backseat to coverage of more mundane local news and human interest stories — births, deaths and marriages, as well as environmental issues, farmers’ rights and agricultural market shifts. Kids’ artwork gets published alongside recipes; local beauty pageants and talent shows are covered, as is the unfortunately named “Pork Queen” contest run by the meat production sector. Stories of immigrant workers living in fear take on saddening weight in a follow-up when one young Mexican man is tracked down 22 years after being abruptly yanked out of the second grade and deported with his family.
The 10-member Times staff is a tight unit dominated by Cullens, including Art’s wife, photographer and culture reporter Dolores; his son Tom, the lead reporter; and John’s wife Mary, the food columnist. The family dog Peach is a regular presence, lolloping around the office. The doc captures the day-to-day newsroom grind of cobbling together an issue on a shoestring budget and sweating to meet each print deadline before exhaling for a minute and then gearing up for the next. Even following sales and circulation manager Whitney Robinson as she goes door to door selling ads is an insightful glimpse into the effort behind putting out a paper in an unaccommodating economic climate.
Some of the more significant developments covered include the unfortunate muddle with the vote count of the 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, which drew critical attention nationwide; and the outbreak of COVID-19 cases among factory workers at the giant Tyson meat-packing plant, as immigrants were forced into potentially deadly exposure situations with no testing provided. That made Storm Lake one of the country’s hot spots for infection rates.
The pandemic also exacerbated the financial strain on the paper, to a point where the Cullens were contemplating selling off the building to pay off the company’s debts. There’s real emotional investment from the filmmakers in the struggle of a commercial enterprise whose entire recent history veers between barely eking out a profit one year and slipping into debt the next. In order to survive, a GoFundMe campaign was set up, along with a fortifying pact with other family-run Western Iowan papers, including the Spanish-language La Prensa.
Edited by Rachel Shuman into an eventful yet unhurried narrative that covers a lot of ground while still leaving space to breathe, the film is distinguished throughout by co-director Risius’ evocative shots of the sleepy town and its rural surroundings, as well as a gentle score of plucky strings by indie multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird and Alan Hampton. Storm Lake is an elegiac heartland portrait, often melancholy in its reflections on compromises to the traditional fabric of local life, and yet colored by the hope of endurance, both for the newspaper and the community it represents.