Storm Lake

Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’s profound documentary is simultaneously a love letter to and a eulogy for local news—even more than that, it’s a sincere inquiry into the meaning of community and the role played by the dissemination of information in holding together further distabled societal connections. John Cullen began publishing small-town Iowa newspaper The Storm Lake Times in 1990; his brother, editor Art Cullen, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a series of op-eds about the connection between agribusiness and the nitrate pollution of a local river. The liberal-leaning, twice-weekly paper services a conservative meatpacking town of just over 10,000 residents, many of whom are immigrants. Levison and Risius follow Art and the rest of the paper’s staff (most of them family members) from March 2019 through early-to-mid 2021, including the start of the pandemic. During this time the paper and its personnel are integral in local goings-on around the 2020 presidential race, with Art and his son Tom interviewing such candidates as Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Pete Buttigieg. But the Cullens pride themselves on paying as much attention—more, actually—to what’s going on in their small rural community as they do the national news. The organization of the film allows for each of the newspaper staff to be featured: John, Art, and Tom are shown running the paper and covering a variety of news stories around town; Art’s wife Dolores is the paper’s photographer and resident purveyor of (much-needed) feel-good news; and Art’s sister-in-law publishes a selection of locally sourced recipes, et al. There’s even a newsdog, Peach. It’s a simple enough premise, but the inherent consequence of the subject gives this documentary a rare potency; I laughed out loud at times and tearfully celebrated and mourned this endangered medium. 85 min.