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PBS Documentary Storm Lake chronicles a family’s fight for local journalism

By Clarke News  |  October 18, 2021

The Storm Lake Times earned national attention when editor Art Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 2017. His impassioned and thorough exploration of the dark side of corporate agriculture in his small Iowa town also caught the attention of filmmaker Jerry Risius. Over the next several years, Risius and producer Beth Levinson worked to bring this unique story to the screen, resulting in the new Independent Lens DocumentaryStorm Lake, premiering November 15 on PBS.  

The documentary, which has also seen showings at film festivals throughout the country, follows The Storm Lake Times staff as they work to bring news to their community. This includes Clarke alumna Dolores (Gales) Cullen ’81, who is not only the paper’s principal photographer but also feature writer, part-time salesperson, and whatever else the paper may need. The staff of 10 includes her husband Art, their son Tom, Art’s brother John and sister-in-law Mary, as well as the paper’s unofficial mascot, Peach the News Hound. 

For Dolores, the documentary serves as an extension of her work by telling the stories of the people who are often overlooked in heated conversations around COVID response, immigration, growing economic disparities, and more. 

“While the crew was fun to have around, we still had a paper to get out twice a week,” Dolores said. “We do big important pieces like water contamination and immigration, but I really enjoy the smaller stories like two-headed calves and the first baby born in our town each year. Those stories put a face to and humanize the larger issues that can seem so overwhelming. It’s a reminder that these things impact our families and community, and we have a duty to be informed about them.” 

This includes stories featuring members of the growing Hispanic and international refugee populations in Storm Lake, many of whom have family that work at the nearby Tyson meat processing plants. These groups were some of the hardest hit in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hundreds of workers became seriously ill and working conditions at the plant were called into question. Dolores strives to tell the stories of these families in a personal, compelling way – a perspective she developed during her time as an Art Education major at Clarke. 

When I was a student, the BVM Sisters were bent on teaching us it was a way bigger world out there, and that included the legendary Sr. Lucilda O’Conner,” Dolores said. “I was this naïve kid who didn’t think learning Spanish would ever matter much. Then I went on a mission trip and my eyes were opened. The BVMs’ sense of mission and purpose were an inspiration to me. Now, even though my Spanish is very elementary, I at least try to speak to these families, and they appreciate my effort. It creates a connection.

As the documentary brings attention to the Cullen family and their work, it also emphasizes the importance that local papers play in a community. In the last 15 years, 1 in 4 local papers has shutdown, unable to compete with social media. While free, these sources on social media seldom provide reliable coverage of local issues. 

“I think the film shows how important it is to be informed,” Cullen said. “Facebook won’t come to your city council meeting and advocate for a stoplight. If you care about your community you need to know what is going on with the schools and the city council and things, because those decisions affect you, and your friends and neighbors. Local journalism covers that in a way that Facebook and social media can’t.” 

To learn more about the documentary and The Storm Lake Times, visit https://stormlakemovie.com/.