REVIEW: A Moving Memoir from a Small-Town Iowa Newspaper Editor

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Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper by Art Cullen

Viking, 336 pp.

 By James O’Shea

It’s pretty hard to keep myself out of a book about Storm Lake.  

I began my career as a journalist in 1971 when I got a job as a green reporter for the Des Moines Register, at the time one of America’s great newspapers that covered Iowa like the New York Times covers America.

Soon after I joined the staff of the Register, Storm Lake slipped on to my radar when I covered a bruising strike in frigid winter weather at a meat packing plant there.

Years later, I told a New York editor that I wanted to write a book called “Storm Lake,” about the struggles a small Iowa town faced trying to cope with an influx of Asian and Central American immigrants lured to the state by Iowa Beef Processors, a thuggish, union-busting company that swept into Storm Lake and changed the face of the place with as much grace as a meat packer guts a cow. .

I thought it would make a compelling story, but my New York editor cast doubt on the title. “Sounds too much like a novel,” she said. I remember thinking what’s wrong with that?

Now 40-plus years later after a career as a reporter, editor and author of several books of my own, I’m glad I didn’t embarrass myself by trying to write “Storm Lake.” Indeed, my effort would have paled in comparison to Art Cullen’s moving story about small town life in Iowa, a place he calls home.  

To make a book like Storm Lake work, you have to live, work, play, and breathe in the town for years, a commitment Cullen made as a Storm Lake native and editor of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times, a twice-weekly newspaper where he won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

The pages of Storm Lake clearly demonstrate why Cullen won journalism’s most revered prize. He’s a real newspaperman who doesn’t spend his days entertaining the viewers of Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. He doesn’t react, he reports. And he doesn’t waste the time of his 3,000 readers engaging in journalistic foreplay with Trump’s latest Tweet.

“I don’t pay much attention to the competition anymore,” he writes in Storm Lake. “That’s like letting someone else edit our newspaper. When we react, we make the wrong choice. When we lead with our own reporting, our own thinking, we are better off every time. I’m aware that another newspaper is published in Storm Lake as I am aware that there are banks on the Bank Corners. I don’t dwell on it because I should dwell on our newspaper and nobody else. If we can’t find out the news without reading another paper or turning to the radio or melding our minds on Twitter and Facebook, then we are not reporters.”

You’ve got to love this guy.

On one level, Storm Lake is an engaging, folksy read about how a small-town newspaper editor copes with existential threats to a way of life and an industry vital to American democracy in a state known for its extremes of weather, economics, and politics. He tells good stories and writes with a journalistic flair that prefers punch to polish. . 

He’s is an equal opportunity critic, too, skinning Democrats in Iowa and beyond with as much gusto as Republicans. But he’s at his best when reporting on his Republican congressman, Rep. Steve King, the Storm Lake native elected continuously since 2002. King was for building walls along our southern border and courting evangelicals when the Trump we call President was still in his political diapers. And more recently, he has been in the news for widely condemned remarks about white supremacy.

“King remains the voice of a hardscrabble western part of the state,” Cullen says, where he makes waves with angry white men who think they have been forgotten, neglected and flown over, even though Cullen presents persuasive evidence that the opposite is true “Big waves can drown anyone,” he says, “but King’s nose is so long he can breathe through a tsunami.”  

Yet Cullen’s book is about much more than the Iowa political theater that America suffers through every four years.  It is an elaboration on Storm Lake Times editorials that the Pulitzer judges cited for their “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

Cullen documents the complex relationships between farmers who neglect soil conservation and mindlessly pursue crop production that drains the land of crucial nutrients; the unfettered influence of corporate agribusiness giants who push their chemical fertilizers at the expense of healthy soil and clean water; the pernicious threat that corn-based ethanol production poses to the nation’s food supply, the bigotry and prejudice against farm workers and packing plant employees with different colored skin and climate change, which is having an obvious impact on agriculture in America and around the world.  

In Cullen’s telling, the agricultural malpractice creates a storm that is bigger than Storm Lake and is flushing Iowa’s top soil into lakes and rivers that carry it away and deposit in the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing a cycle of agricultural negligence that fattens the profits of chemical companies and the Koch Brothers at the long-term expense of the nation’s food supply.

Storm Lake has its faults. Cullen’s folksy style sometimes leaves a reader confused about exactly who he is referring to when he talks of small-town life and his neighbors.

It’s also not a total tale of gloom. He writes about his new neighbors from Asia and Central America with the understanding and compassion that laces his story with hope. And he reports on moves afoot to grapple with the environmental problems created by the agribusiness giants.

Overall, though, Cullen’s book demonstrates the important role that local editors play in standing up and speaking to power in America despite the existential problems that face journalism, particularly local journalism. So, our best hope is that Art Cullen doesn’t become as endangered a species as those he chronicles in Storm Lake.

James O’Shea is an author and journalist in Chicago.  Prior to returning to Chicago in 2014, he was the Howard R. Marsh Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of Michigan. A former executive editor of the Los Angeles Times and managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, he is the author of three books, including The Deal From Hell, a non-fiction narrative about the tragedy that sent the Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, into the hands of real estate mogul Sam Zell and bankruptcy court. O’Shea is also a co-founder and former editor of the Chicago News Cooperative, a journalistic start-up that produced Chicago news for its own website and the Midwest edition of The New York Times. Prior to his news management career, O’Shea was a reporter, editor and Washington correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the Des Moines Register.