Dark clouds hang over the vast cornfields of Storm Lake, Iowa, which has seen its fair share of change in the 40 years since Big Agriculture came to town. Farmers blow their life savings on new equipment they hope will keep their livelihoods intact. Migrant workers flock here from all over the world, welcome and not, for their slice of the American Dream. The people of Storm Lake confront challenging circumstances corporate, political, and environmental forces—and even a global pandemic—threaten to overwhelm their already precarious existence.
Enter: 63-year-old Art Cullen, an old-school journalist who has dedicated his life to his family’s biweekly newspaper The Storm Lake Times. In 2017, Art unearthed a conspiracy between Big Agriculture and local county officials that won him a Pulitzer. Now, his liberal voice reverberates in this conservative district in a critical swing state. While he has the power to change minds and rally votes, his pugnacious voice makes waves; disgruntled residents don’t always agree with his point of view and have been known to write him and his paper off, completely.
As nearly 2000 local papers have shuttered in the last 20 years—a crisis accelerated by COVID-19—the stakes have been especially high for the Cullens, who comprise half The Times’ 10-person team. Art’s 27-year-old son Tom is the lead reporter, his wife Dolores the photographer and culture reporter, his older brother John the publisher, and John’s wife Mary the food columnist. Against tight deadlines and slimmer margins, the Cullens doggedly report on their town and wonder how the paper will survive as readers—with a preference for their social media feeds—cease to support journalism like they used to.
STORM LAKE opens in March 2019 as Art steps on stage to moderate the year’s first multi-candidate Democratic event alongside such contenders as Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Julián Castro. Art then returns to his cramped newsroom to rally the team for their next issue. “Most people in Storm Lake care a lot more whether garbage is getting picked up than whether Elizabeth Warren’s in town,” Art says. “In fact,” he continues, “If it didn’t happen in Buena Vista County, it didn’t happen. That’s our motto.”
Over the course of 2019, we witness three weighty concerns that this agricultural community faces and the Cullens cover: the Sisyphean efforts of farmers to earn a living wage, the struggle of immigrants to make this community home, and the willingness of local politicians to justly serve their citizens. Last summer, Art visited with “Big John” Snyder, a second generation farmer who had his single-worst corn crop in 25 years. Since 2018, Tom has followed the systemic neglect of a hardscrabble trailer park; by October, one 30-year resident had become so exasperated by its inevitable decline that he ran for city council—and won.
All the while, Dolores’ crafts one profile of a hard-working Tyson Foods factory worker from Mexico who makes the third round of a Spanish-language “American Idol,” and another about the Iowa Pork Producers “Pork Queen,” who brings a baby pig to a second grade class and tells the students, “It’s really important for us to make sure that [pigs] have everything that they need so they can grow fastly and efficiently—that’s what the pork industry is all about.” These scenes paint an intimate portrait of a surprising and diverse community largely oriented around production agriculture or “Big Ag.”
But by 2020, things start to take a dire turn. While the paper made a $2900 profit in 2019—the first in over ten years—January’s 24% hike in health insurance premiums canceled it out. Then, the Iowa Caucuses debacle unfolded on the Cullen’s watch with grave consequences for the state, the nation, and the newspaper. Finally, in March, the Cullens and The Times were struck once more—by COVID-19 and its tightening grip on the community. By late May, StormLake—home to a major Tysons meatpacking plant—became the COVID-19epicenter in the state. By mid-June, Storm Lake was one of the fastest areas of COVID-19 growth in the nation. Ultimately, the public health catastrophe posed an existential crisis for not only the people of Storm Lake—many of them immigrant meatpackers— but also The Times as ad revenue and newspaper sales also suffered a serious blow.
And yet, the need for The Times is more vital than ever—credible journalism is under siege. Our democracy hangs on by a thread. Racism fuels inequality and puts lives at risk. But despite the setbacks, the financial losses, and even quarantine, the Cullens continue to deliver their best for their neighbors. They may not have much to say in Tallahassee or Toledo, but the paper means a fighting chance for their beloved hometown, and by hook, crook—or this summer’s GoFundMe campaign—they’ll make the most of it. There’s simply too much at stake.