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Review: ‘Storm Lake,’ by Art Cullen

September 28, 2018

Much hand-wringing accompanies the demise of newspapers as ad revenue dries up and readership shifts to blogs and social media. An earlier lament for the death of family farms began last century as corporate, factory farms came to dominate a hollowed-out rural landscape. Perhaps no region of the nation embodies those two changes more than the Midwest and, more specifically, the state of Iowa.

In “Storm Lake,” a collection of memoiristic essays, Art Cullen makes a strong and eloquent case that his home state is hardly an outlier to these shifts, but more of a microcosm of national trends. For 38 years Cullen has been a reporter and editor in his native state, winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 2017. Twenty-eight of those years have been spent writing editorials (1,404 columns and counting) for the Storm Lake Times, the 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly paper his brother John bought in 1989.

The brothers make up 50 percent of the staff. Their motto: “Print the truth and raise hell.” The Storm Lake Times has been doing just that, often to the displeasure of politicians of both stripes. A Republican board of supervisors chairman says: “If Art Cullen says do something, we’ll do the opposite.” When the Pulitzer was announced, a Democrat county supervisor wrote in a letter to the editor, “I guess if you tell lies long enough they become the truth in the mind of the teller.”

Storm Lake, in northwestern Iowa, has followed the downward trajectory of many small Midwestern cities. Walmart moves in; mom-and-pop stores struggle. Mental health and Medicaid services contract as state budgets shrink money from the public good. Young people head to the bigger cities for education and better jobs.

Yet, in the midst of this trend, Cullen writes that diversity is keeping Storm Lake alive. Many Latino, Laotian and Vietnamese families work in the packinghouses. Cullen argues that these families have thrown a much-needed life preserver to Storm Lake’s economy.

“They offer niches: nursing uniforms, quinceañera dresses, Mexican baked goods, health food, and handmade candy. … Downtown has more bars and restaurants than before.”

This little newspaper’s survival in this shifting economic and social landscape is a story Cullen tells with a self-effacing, homespun honesty — and not without a little well-earned pride. But, he cautions, “Unless communities support journalism, all the prizes in the world are worth what you can melt them down for.”

Again, the man prints the truth.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism, two of which feature Iowa: “The 1,000-Year Flood” and “Going Driftless.”

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