Woodstock Film Festival favorite Storm Lake walks the walk

Storm Lake won the Best Documentary award at the Woodstock Film Festival this year. We confess this film is near and dear to our hearts.  

The 85-minute film, which will air on PBS’s Independent Lens series on November 15, is about a feisty family – the Cullens – who are strong believers, as we at Hudson Valley One are, in the value of local journalism. 

Twice weekly, they publish The Storm Lake Times in western Iowa. Editor Art Cullen is an evangelist for the concept that the press is the oxygen of democracy. “The reporter is the cornerstone of an informed electorate and a functioning democracy. Tyranny prevails whenever the press is not free.’’

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Storm Lake is a city of about 15,000 residents, one-third Spanish-speaking, in the heart of Iowa hog country. Slaughterhouses and Tyson Foods’ meat-packing and turkey processing plants dominate the economy. Family farms are going under, and so are the local mom-and-pop stores they once sustained, making advertising sales and the paper’s future a challenge. As Art says, “The question is how long does the community support journalism?”

How they do it

The newspaper was started in 1990 by John Cullen, Art’s brother and the publisher, “in the belief that honest journalism would attract a crowd.” It’s a family enterprise. Art’s wife Delores is a feature writer and photographer, his son Tom is the Times’ lead reporter, and his sister-in-law Mary gathers recipes.  

The Times covers local government, the school board and the courthouse. Last year, it covered the parade of Democratic presidential candidates traipsing through the state in hopes of winning the Iowa caucuses. Its features include Miss Piglet, a junior beauty queen educating elementary school children on the dietary habits of a diapered pigletn and a local singer advancing in a televised Spanish-language talent contest. 

Perhaps its most important story in recent years was the rash of Covid-19 deaths among undocumented workers at Tyson in 2020.

The Cullens believe that the best journalism builds community. “The Storm Lake Times weaves the fabric of community in ways large and small,” Art says. “Without strong local journalism to tell a community’s story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.” 

One in four American newspapers has shuttered in the past 15 years. A 2019 study found about 1300 “news deserts’’ in the United States, towns of 20,000 or 30,000 people now without a local news source. The Cullens are determined not to let The Storm Lake Times meet that fate.

Neither John nor Art is taking a salary (they’re both on Social Security). About a dozen staffers take home a paycheck. 

For Tom, “The prospect of the newspaper not being here terrifies me, because it’s not just the newspaper, the most important pillar of the community.  It’s the family.”

 Tenacious reporting

It was the struggles of this industrious family that attracted producer and director Beth Levison when cinematographer Jerry Risius showed her some video he’d shot of the Cullens. Risius, who also directed Storm Lake, grew up on a hog farm in Buffalo Center, about two hours from Storm Lake. His outstanding camerawork is complemented by a subtle score by composer Andrew Bird, whose grandfather owned a farm near Dubuque.

Their feel for agrarian, Midwestern life, combined with the skills of Beacon-based editor Rachel Sherman, give the film its intimacy and authenticity.

Risius pitched the project after The Storm Lake Times won the 2017 Pulitzer prize for Art Cullen’s editorial writing. His opinion pieces were cited for their “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” 

That award did not impress everyone in town. Ads sales dropped for a while as conservative business owners demonstrated their disapproval of Cullen’s liberal views. 

The team started filming in 2018 and were planning a production trip to Storm Lake in March 2020 when the coronavirus shut everything down. The pandemic posed an existential threat to The Storm Lake Times.  With businesses closed, ads sales fell by 50 percent. Art mused about selling the Times’s building and walking away, but the community rallied. A GoFundMe raised more than $28,000. That, along with a Payroll Protection Plan loan from the federal government, enabled the paper to survive. 

We too will keep going

Hudson Valley One was also clobbered by a pandemic-induced advertising dropoff and a growing six-figure debt. Publisher Geddy Sveikauskas made the difficult decision to go all-digital for ten weeks and then to consolidate the newspapers – New Paltz Times, Woodstock Times, Kingston Times and Saugerties Times plus the part free-distribution Almanac Weekly – into Hudson Valley One. 

“It felt terrible,” he said, “but it turned out to be the best thing we could have done.” Ulster Publishing is in the black now. 

Sveikauskas considers himself lucky. With Kingston, New Paltz, Woodstock and Saugerties, he’s got a much bigger potential readership than The Storm Lake Times, as well as more potential advertisers. He says he can afford to piss one off, as there are others that might replace it. 

Of his five or six thousand subscribers, many are still grousing more than a year later that their hometown paper is gone. Sveikauskas concedes that he can’t bring all of them back. He’s convinced reading about news from neighboring communities can be meaningful. 

Now 82, Sveikauskas still lives in the same Mt. Tremper house he moved into after falling in love with the Hudson Valley more than half a century ago. He has published newspapers in Ulster County for 48 years.

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Like the Cullens, his business is a family enterprise. Our associate publisher and advertising manager, 47-year-old Genia Wickwire, is Geddy’s daughter. 

Sveikauskas says his goal is to keep improving Hudson Valley One, with better journalism each week. Our website is being revamped.  

Beyond that, the future will be in his daughter’s hands. She started at the company at the age of two, on a blanket in her father’s office every Wednesday night, playing while he laid out his first paper, Woodstock Times. He’s emphatic that Genia, now 47, has earned her position at the company. He says, “The paper will be in good hands.”

Art Cullen says, “Readers decide our future, not any branch of government. The pay is lousy and the hours can be terrible. But you can change the world through journalism.”

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