‘The hometown hero of the Pulitzer Prizes’

BY ELLEN McGIRT 

Fortune.com

April 11, 2017

Yesterday, the Pulitzer committee released its 101st class of prize winners. Here’s how the august body describes their work: “Through its rigorous annual selection process, the Pulitzer Board identifies America’s strongest journalistic and creative work, from gritty reportage and photography to transporting fiction, poetry, drama and music.”

Anyone who is not a fan of the “failing New York Times,” the “phony Washington Post,” or the “left-wing blog” ProPublica were disappointed in the results. Here's the whole list.

Scanning the winners, it’s impossible not to see a recurring theme around race, class, justice, and the quest for understanding. A series by The New York Daily News and ProPublica exposed widespread abuse by the New York Police Department. Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail won for a series about the opioid abuse epidemic in West Virginia, an investigation which took years. Hilton Als of the New Yorker - with his extraordinary ability to parse race, gender, and sexuality - won for his body of work as a drama reviewer.

Work exploring poverty and working class alienation also earned several awards. Lynn Nottage won for her play “Sweat” which explores life in Reading, PA, a community devastated by manufacturing job losses. (After the presidential election, she spoke with Fortune about what she has learned about white, working class America, here.) Sociologist Matthew Desmond won for "Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City," a meticulously reported investigation that follows eight Milwaukee families as they try to make rent, and reveals the system that keeps them poor. This photo series, from E. Jason Wambsgans of the Chicago Tribune, about a 10-year-old boy recovering from a gunshot wound, will break your heart.

And yes, Colson Whitehead is having his best year ever, and deserves it.

But I found myself marveling at the inclusion of Art Cullen, the publisher and lead editorial writer of a tiny paper called The Storm Lake Times. Twice a week, it hits the mail and in-boxes of the good folks of Storm Lake, Iowa, a rural area of 10,000 people living in the state’s northwest. Cullen consistently takes aim at inadequate politicians and Big Agriculture, taking no prisoners while defending the immigrants who now make up 20% of the Storm Lake population.

It’s a small business. The paper has a circulation of 3,000 – and, after losing hours to reading it yesterday, now 3,001. Cullen is a Storm Lake native and he owns the paper with his brother. It’s become a full-on family affair; his wife is a photographer and his son is a reporter on staff. I sure hope this Pulitzer business doesn’t go to his head, but I think that might be unlikely. Here’s one of his greatest graphs:

Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.

His editorials prove, time and time again, that all politics are local. The best reporting is too. In the example above, the villains were The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors, who “appear to have a religious tenet that drainage districts shall not be regulated.” He then goes on to call Senator Chuck Grassley a “doddering fool who needs to go.”

But now, Cullen, 59, has achieved the same level of journalistic heft as has The Wall Street Journal’s esteemed Peggy Noonan, who also won this year. They have very different styles and readerships, of course. And Noonan has well and truly seen some things. But speaking truth to a powerful person is a dicier proposition if you run the risk of bumping into them at the Piggly Wiggly later that week. Nothing against Noonan, but Art Cullen is exactly the kind hometown journalist so many kids dreamed of becoming when they grew up - the kind that knows dirty water when they see it and isn't afraid to say so. That it can still happen locally and matter globally is the best news to come out of the Pulitzers in years.