Whatever term you choose, Cullen and his small newspaper have scared something out of the powers that be in a few counties of northern Iowa. Since the founding of the Storm Lake Times in 1990, says Cullen, he and his brother John have been obsessed with how Iowa has changed its mode of agriculture. Gone are the cattle and grazing pastures, he says — they’ve been herded into feed lots. Meantime, the landscape has been gobbled up by expanses of corn and soybeans. With the changeover has come nitrate pollution. One of the first stories that the newspaper did, he recalls, reported how its coverage area had become “the hottest spot in Iowa for nitrate pollution.”
That emphasis led Cullen to a story he wrote several years ago: A threat from the Des Moines Water Works to sue Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. “Three or four years ago, when they said clearly, ‘We are going to sue your county and we’re trying to figure out when and how, the whole state ignored it,” says Cullen. The lawsuit happened, and that’s when Cullen’s story got hot. A big chunk of the newspaper’s Pulitzer submission addresses how the counties defended themselves against the complaint. Here’s how Cullen himself explained the arrangement:
The Storm Lake Times has been asking since the Des Moines Water Works sued the three counties just over a year ago how the counties would finance their defense. The counties refused to say, other than that they would ask their friends to contribute. Somehow Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross got involved, and set up the agricultural legal defense fund for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. AAI actively and enthusiastically sought donations from the likes of Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer, among others, compiling a war chest with hundreds of secret sugar daddies from the seed/petrochemical industry. We believe that the county officials involved agreed with the law firms involved to keep the financing secret and to shield the donors at all costs.
For the likes of the Erik Wemple Blog, that’s a welcome reminder that in 2016 there was a non-Donald Trump story or two out there.
As the newspaper reported, the Agribusiness Association of Iowa “bailed” on the setup “rather than disclose who its mystery donors are.”
Don’t get the notion that all this is just an Iowa thing. As Cullen’s paper has pointed out, pollution from Midwestern farming leeches into waterways and affects life hundreds of miles away, including the Gulf of Mexico. “They’ve changed the entire agricultural system since 1980, without any consideration how it affects groundwater or surface water. It’s a national story. It’s just that it happened in our front yard and we’re still reporting on it,” says Cullen, who says he was turned down three times by the Des Moines Register over his career.
A lot of the reporting comes from Cullen’s 24-year-old son, Tom Cullen, who works for the paper. “Tom is doing most of the hard work of confronting the county supervisors,” says Art Cullen, whose brother John Cullen is the paper’s publisher. “We both worked at newspapers for entire careers and worked together a long time, so we really share this award — me, John and my son Tom,” says Art Cullen. The newspaper supports about 10 staffers, says Cullen, with fewer jurisdictional boundaries than a big-city daily. “Everybody here does everything. If you want to buy an ad, I’ll sell it to you.” Print ads and subscription revenues, says Art Cullen, keep the newspaper afloat — as opposed to Internet revenues, which don’t. “We don’t do much online. We haven’t figured out a way to make money on it. It’s mainly just a headache for us. I’d just as soon not have an online version. People just take your stuff and circulate it on Facebook and you don’t get a penny.”
None of which is to say that the Storm Lake Times doesn’t know what people want to read. “We strive to have a baby, a dog, a fire and a crash on every front page, so, yes, we do pander,” says Art Cullen.
Cullen pulls down a salary of about $35,000 a year, though his Pulitzer will pad this year’s take-away. “They give you 15-grand. That’s worth it,” says Cullen, who doesn’t bother with all the lesser state- and local level contests. “I don’t need a wooden plaque or a piece of paper.”
Perhaps the sweetest part of the Pulitzer, says Art Cullen, is the vindication it brings. “We took a lot of heat,” he says, referring to attacks from people in Iowa that the Storm Lake Times and the Cullen family are “anti-farmer.” Not so, he says: “My wife grew up on a farm. I got sh−− on my boots. I ain’t anti-farmer, but I’m anti-pollution.”