Community journalism makes a difference

Small-town paper strikes a chord for open government and garners top award.



Chalk one up for the little guys and give a shout-out to Iowans at the same time.                                 

When the highest award in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, was announced Monday, Art Cullen’s name was called.

“Holy ——“ he responded.

Cullen wasn’t referring to “cows,” but the notion his tiny newspaper, the Storm Lake Times, stood out for its heroic editorial writing. The 59-year-old editor was recognized for taking on big agriculture at its epicenter, which struck a chord with the judges.

Specifically, the citation noted Cullen was selected “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

Working at a 3,000 circulation twice-weekly paper requires Cullen to wear many hats. In addition to writing editorials, Cullen assigns stories, reports and even sells ads.

The family-run business includes his brother as publisher, his wife as photographer, his son as reporter and the family dog, affectionately known as “Mabel the News Hound.” Cullen credited his son, Tom, for doing the investigative reporting on which the guts of the editorials was based.

Young Cullen tried to find out who was financing tiny Buena Vista County’s defense of a lawsuit brought on by the Des Moines Water Works, which blamed the county and two others for allowing nitrates to run off farm field and into rivers wending themselves through Iowa counties. The utility said it spends $1.5 million a year ridding its drinking water of nitrates, which poses a threat to newborns.

The Agribusiness Association of Iowa and the Iowa Farm Bureau helped Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties – which have a combined population of about 40,000 – defend themselves against the waterworks. Donors’ names to the organizations, though, were kept secret.

“One thing that drives me crazy is when people tell me I can’t have public records,” said Cullen, who counts former Hawk Eye editor John McCormally as one of his influences.

The 10-person staff at the Storm Lake Times was helped by the Iowa of Freedom Information Council.

While ultimately, the lawsuit was dismissed, the Times’ work exposed the secret corporate donors underwriting the counties, agricultural giants like Monsanto, Koch Brothers and Cargill. The dogged pursuit of openness in government eventually shut down the fund.

The battle for transparency is done regularly at the Storm Lake Times, The Hawk Eye and hundreds of other publications across the nation.

Like Cullen, we take our role, protected by the First Amendment, seriously and appreciate the assistance offered by the Iowa of Freedom Information Council and Iowa Public Information Board. They, too, support the cause of openness and transparency.

Consider this a tip of the cap to Art Cullen and his staff for challenging his community and its leaders for helping make Storm Lake one of the many great places to call home in Iowa.

As Patrick Henry noted in 1788, “The liberties of people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”