The Storm Lake Times is a community newspaper in rural northern Iowa. With a paid circulation of 3,000, they struggle from week to week to make ends meet. Art Cullen, the publisher leads this hardworking group of journalists to provide news, features and advertising for their small community. As we move into a digital age, real journalism has fallen by the wayside. The newspaper office is a worn, aging building packed with desks, computers, a printer and a dog bowl for the Cullen’s resident mutt who comes to work daily as well.
This deadline-driven industry finds Art, son Tom, wife Dolores, brother John and sister-in-law Mary hitting the beat around town interviewing, investigating and writing about who is getting married and buried, pertinent news for the community. Reporter Tom Cullen zips across the county taking notes using his easygoing nature to root-out his story. Dolores also uses her friendly demeanor to make her subjects open up about their lives. Tragedy and negativity may garner clicks online, but positive stories are staple for a community newspaper. The Storm Lake Times staff knows their community and its residents, and see them as real people. As the paper struggles to make a profit and advertisers struggle to stay afloat, Art can’t blame the advertisers for being frugal.
Some may see newspapers as a thing of the past, a bygone media that has seen its peak. In the past 15 years, 1 in 4 U.S. newspapers have closed. Art wonders aloud how long the community will support journalism. There are over 300 news deserts (communities with none or one newspaper) and that number is growing. Small towns of 20,000-30,000 have no newspapers, no connection to a community that is withering due to the loss of family farms.
This worthy documentary will probably fly under most radars since all the other medias have claimed newspapers are dead. However, as a community newspaper owner, I can tell you that community newspapers are still relevant, vibrant and essential.
This documentary shows the traditional method of journalism – following a story to its source, interviewing, listening and writing facts. The Storm Lake Times is a left leaning paper which frustrates some in this conservative rural community, but in the words of its readers, “ . . . I still want to read what he has to say.”
The Iowa Caucuses, if you remember, were a disaster and Storm Lake Times covered it with growing trepidation and frustration. The national news ran story after story insulting Iowa communities they have probably never visited, as the new caucus app failed – Ironically, Iowa farming communities were humiliated by the failures of the digital age.
Although this documentary unfolds at a slower pace, the themes and messaging are worthy and truthful. Real journalism is rooted in truth and that’s about all that the Storm Lake Times has left.
“Storm Lake” gives an honest peek behind the curtain of community newspapers and their ongoing struggles in a digital age, offering a glimpse into the eyes of both desperation and principle. Art states it best, “ . . . The best journalism is that which builds community.” He goes on to say, “ . . .the pay is lousy, the hours are worse, but you can change the world.” Will you continue to support journalism?