Documentary producers point lens on Storm Lake

David Sampliner films Steve Tate. TIMES photo by DOLORES CULLEN



We found out what it’s like to be on the other side of the camera last week as a couple documentary producers spent three days in Storm Lake.

David Sampliner of Brooklyn, NY, and Rachel Libert of Los Angeles, Calif., visited The City Beautiful Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday trying to get a feel for The Storm Lake Times and the community it covers. They spoke with and photographed public safety officials, a Buddhist monk, Latino business owners, Storm Lake School Supt. Carl Turner, farmers and a bricklayer.

And us.

Sampliner called a few weeks ago after he spotted a column on The Times by James Warren, media writer for Vanity Fair and the Poynter Media Institute ( Warren is a former correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who had heard about Storm Lake and The Times, and called to see how we were reacting to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and travel.

“We’re trying to figure out who’s getting the shaft,” I told Warren.

As it turns out, it was people from Myanmar who were and are stuck in Thai refugee camps. Catholic Charities and The Bridge of Storm Lake, we pointed out, were working together ecumenically to help presumably Buddhist refugees who have nothing to do with ISIS when the family got wrapped up in the travel ban.

Sampliner said he always wanted to tell the story of a community through the prism of a newspaper.

How does the newspaper interact with readers? How do you deal with readers who disagree with your opinions? How does the community react to immigration, or environmental challenges to agriculture, or rural depopulation and how we report/analyze/opine?

It was all a stimulating experience that helps me re-examine why we got into the business and why we stick with it.

Q. What is the role of a newspaper?

A. To be a mirror on the community, good and bad.

Q. What is the role of an editorial page?

A. To inform, advocate and maybe even persuade using facts and reason.

Q. What do you say to people who don’t like your editorials?

A. If they bother you, don’t read them. Turn to the obituaries on the next page.

That’s what my old buddy Steve Tate, the brick mason, told them. They wanted to know why he subscribes to our paper when he doesn’t agree with us on much of anything. We’ve been friends since little league, he explained, and he doesn’t read most of our stuff on politics because it just irks him. So he skips it, just like I read The Wall Street Journal but take their political insights with caution. And Steve and I are still crazy together after all these years.

The main point I tried to make is that the role of a community newspaper is to be a builder.

Our main goal is to build the community through honest reporting, campaigning for community causes and always cheering to forge ahead. Because in rural Iowa if you are not marching ahead you are falling behind. Storm Lake marches ahead.

It’s an example of an isolated rural community that is charting a way forward while so many others are evaporating ever so slowly.

It’s mainly because of immigration.

But it’s also because of a locally owned newspaper that attempts to challenge the community. And it’s also because of four locally owned banks. It is because of a city council that committed to lake dredging over a decade ago. It is because of a community that gambled on building a resort — and they did come, as King’s Pointe has been a profitable success. And it’s because this town always supported education in ways that other places have not.

We always have been a college and salesman’s town. We are used to people coming and going. Those of us who remember a simpler Storm Lake may pine for its return. But most of us believe that new blood makes us stronger.

Storm Lake also started a statewide conversation about preserving and promoting our natural amenities. We believe that agriculture and the environment can work together. We explained that Henry Wallace, the greatest Iowa statesman, believed in feeding the world and doing it sustainably. So did Nobel Prize laureate Norman Borlaug with the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, Iowans both. Those themes are woven into the state’s character. We know that despite political dithering and the resulting painful litigation, Storm Lake will be part of a solution that brings urban and rural Iowa together.

John and I sorta think with one brain, and that’s really what we believe.

We also know that these are uncertain times. We have a president and a congressman who have declared that they would like to deport much of our labor force. Avian flu could knock out our livestock industry and cause huge economic disruptions. We don’t know how a federal judge will rule on our basic enterprise — agriculture — this summer and what its implications might be for all of us. And, we don’t know the future of the newspaper industry, which has faced tremendous challenges in the face of intellectual laziness. We would like to think that our success is built on hometown knowledge, honest reporting and provocative opinions, and that the formula will carry us into the next generation of Timespeople.

We don’t know where this documentary will lead. It might lead nowhere. After three days of shooting Sampliner and Libert are trying to discern what the story is. “Cogitating,” he says. They will pitch it to money people using clips shot last week. They are successful producers — Sampliner has an autobiographical documentary on Netflix called “My Own Man” about the father-son relationship, and Libert won an Emmy award for a PBS feature-length documentary and also worked with Oprah Winfrey on the highly acclaimed CNN series “Beliefs.”

They probably will return during warmer months if a story and some money emerges. “It was totally delightful, stimulating and encouraging to the spirit to spend a short week in your town with you and your family and the rest of the crowd that you connected us to,” Sampliner wrote on his return home. Sounds like a good start.