Small, family-run Iowa paper nabs Pulitzer for going after agri-industry

The Storm Lake Times has won the Pulitzer

Flickr/Jon S

The Storm Lake Times has won the Pulitzer

Flickr/Jon S

The Art of editorial. It’s hard to say which of these things is most exciting: 1) That Buena Vista County, Iowa’s hometown paper, The Storm Lake Times, now boasts a Pulitzer Prize; 2) That said paper is family-run, publishes twice a week, and has a circulation of 3,000; 3) That editor Art Cullen, who won the prize for his “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing,” co-owns the paper with his publisher brother, John; or 4) That food and agriculture journalists everywhere get the pleasure of tipping our plates to Cullen’s coverage, “which successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Bravo: our beat is on the radar in the house that Pulitzer built.

To visit the Storm Lake website is to be transported to the inside of a small-town grocery store circular (local bank and realtor ads, Hy-Vee coupons, and the like). Among the Times’ 11 verticals (news, sports, obits…) are two that feel to this urban desk jockey both particularly welcoming and wholly unfamiliar: “Family & Friends” and “Classifieds.”

One hundred percent no bullshit, either. Just a good, old-fashioned sturdy frame, built to house a robust body of knowledge.

But something I learned on reading Cullen’s bio on the Pulitzer website is that The Storm Lake Times publishes a staff editorial in every edition. That’s not quaint. It’s bold. Living as we do in an age of boundless citizen commentary, when a string of emojis can stand in for actual emotional engagement and every human on earth seems to be thinking only in the first-person, true editorial can be hard to detect—and harder to find.

Oh, it is out there, though. And it is an art. (In Cullen’s case, an actual Art.) Here’s what it requires: First, real intimacy—with subject matter and sources. Then, relentless reportage, near expert-level understanding of protagonist and antagonist, and a stance rooted in objective common sense. Making an argument is like building a house. First, you’ve got to draw up the blueprint and source the materials. Next, you have to lay the foundation. Only then, after you’ve insulated the structure, can you begin to erect the walls that hold it all together.

In short, you’ve got to see (and be able to support) all sides. Here’s a deft example, dated March of 2016. It’s one of many from Cullen’s ongoing coverage of Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against three northern Iowa counties whose agri-industrial runoff, the utility alleged, was compromising the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of residents with high levels of nitrates:

Legislative Republicans have their own ideas about water quality, as do Democrats. There are ideas to use checkoff funds, to target regional watersheds, to allow local option sales taxes for water quality — you name it, there’s an idea out there.

Which goes to show that nobody really knows what to do. The initial reaction to the lawsuit was to condemn the water works for interrupting our way of doing business. The second intuitive reaction was to throw a ton of money at the issue. The agri-industrial community has tried to convince us it will take $6 billion or $10 billion or $15 billion to protect Iowa’s surface water from nitrate pollution. It scares the bejeebers out of taxpayers, especially in defendant counties.

The truth is that it won’t take $6 billion. It will take judicious stewardship of what the good Lord gave us, something more than chasing another 10 bushels on a 200-bushel corn yield for a commodity that has declined in real value since the Civil War.”

No first-person there. No sweeping generalizations or partisan pontification. One hundred percent no bullshit, either. Just a good, old-fashioned sturdy frame, built to house a robust body of knowledge. (And adorned with a little local flair.)

A great editorial gets you into the mix in a near instant. It leaves you with an itchy ambiguity about right and wrong, winners and losers—about where you sit in the narrative. You don’t have to know a thing about nitrates or water quality or regional watersheds to invest ten minutes of your time in a Cullen editorial. But when you’re done reading, you’ll know enough to decide in what way you care.

I leave you with these four sentences from Cullen’s April 2016 piece on who paid the legal bills for Iowa’s agri-industry in the Water Works case. Consider this offering my homage to a multi-dimensional mind at work.

“To use a barnyard euphemism, every once in a while even a blind pig finds a nut. We are not so polished, but our snout smells something that is being hidden. We can’t see very well right now. But we can smell it.”

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.