December 03, 2021

Documentary shows the challenge in community newspapers

GREENFIELD - A bowling alley. A movie theater. A swimming pool. A newspaper.

All of those items are common in American towns but one arguably has more importance and has the ability to tie the others together with the community according to a documentary and comments made Thursday.

But that tie is becoming weaker and fewer across the country.

The Warren Cultural Center was the site for the showing of “Storm Lake” a documentary about the town’s bi-weekly newspaper, the Storm Lake Times, produced by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. The hour-long film follows Art Cullen, who writes editorial for the newspaper that started in 1990 by his brother John. Other staff members are featured, too, including Art’s son Tom.

The film followed the newspaper from fall 2019 through the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, showing how a newspaper tells the story of politics and other stories in town, to the paper’s place in the economy as COVID wrecked the dollars and cents of places it infected.

David Swenson, from Iowa State University’s department of economics, was one of the panelists after the showing to discuss how rural Iowa’s troubles have impacted community journalism, like the Storm Lake Times.

Swenson said the development of technology, including what has been done in agriculture, over the years has changed Iowa’s rural areas that have an agriculture-influenced economy.

“We have more efficient agriculture and manufactured goods,” he said, adding how rural America has exchanged land for technology.

“You bought all of those things,” Swenson said how past generations of farmers relied on multiple places in town to purchase needs for their farming operation. “Now you bought technology.” He explained how many of those inputs have been infused in the seed, or chemicals that are applied on fields during the year.

Swenson said a rural county-seat town was the place to go for those needs, and other items, but even that has shown a decline as more emphasis is being put on the metro areas.

Swenson said there are some Iowa towns that may have not recovered from the 1980s farm economy crisis that also impacted Iowa.

“There isn’t a place on Main Street that makes you want to go in,” he said about some town’s lack of economic activity.

At the same time, the people remaining in the town have to commute elsewhere for work.

“I can lie down on Main Street at noon and take a nap. Everybody is gone,” he said.

Swenson encouraged rural Iowa towns to develop and use good leadership and consider collaboration with others to make improvements.

“I’m not going to set here and tell you magic,” Swenson said about knowing an all-inclusive solution to improving rural Iowa.

Just as small-town Iowa has changed, newspapers have, too.

Art, who was also in the panel, said despite a newspaper’s pursuit of truth and fact, they are in a society that has become more “ignorant” since the Vietnam War. The ignorance has been shown in “fake news” on internet websites, which  is false or misleading information presented as accurate truth. Fake news can be used to damage the reputation of a person or entity or to financially profit.

“The level of ignorance has been rising since the 1970s. That is the trend we need to talk about,” Art said.

Art won a Pulitzer in 2017 for editorials about the pollution of drinking water and the relationship of government and agricultural interests. Buena Vista County, the location of Storm Lake, was one of three rural counties sued by the municipal Water Works in Des Moines for permitting excessive levels of nitrate (a byproduct of farm fertilizer)  released into the rivers and waterways that provide 500,000 central Iowa people with drinking water.

Despite winning the prize, which has multiple categories for excellence in journalism, Art said he did have his critics. He said he has been labeled anti-farming knowing the subject of his work.

“I won’t talk to you because you are anti-farming,” he said was a common sentiment toward him.

But he defends his stance and opinion.

“It doesn’t make us anti-farmer,” he said. “We don’t want pollution in the Raccoon River.”

Rick Morain, former editor-publisher of the Jefferson Herald was on the panel and praised the Storm Lake Time’s quality product.

“Without that, the paper does not have a future,” he said. Continuing with facts is just the basis for what newspapers need to do to continue to have an influence on the town they serve Morain said. Constantly finding ways to reach their audience is another.

He showed an October copy of the Times that had the sample ballots for the Nov. 2 election. The Storm Lake Times printed the sample ballots in English and Spanish to reach the town’s significant Hispanic population because of meat-packing plants.

“That shows how its going to get done,” Morain said about a newspaper company willing to be creative in reaching the community it serves. Morain said newspapers must not rely on what has worked in the past. He referred to the last line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.”

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Nodaway Valley High School 2017 graduate Matthew Dickinson, who started writing sports for the Tipton Conservative earlier this year, was also in the panel and asked why he got into journalism knowing the struggles with the industry and towns’ ability and interest to support a newspaper. He referred to his grandmother receiving the Adair County Free Press, which covers Greenfield, and seeing occasional pictures of him from school events. Those papers had an emotional impact on her, he said.

“It’s the community aspect,” he said. “It meant a lot.”

For more about the documentary, go online to stormlakemovie.com

John Van Nostrand

JOHN VAN NOSTRAND

An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.