Art Cullen, the 60-year-old editor of the Storm Lake Times, doesn’t bother with rinky-dink journalism contests. “I don’t need a wooden plaque or a piece of paper,” Cullen told the Erik Wemple Blog on Monday. That’s when he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing at the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times in Iowa. “They give you 15 grand. That’s worth it,” said Cullen.
So how’s Cullen and Co. spending the money? “We intend to put a jag on, then donate the rest of the money half to IFOIC and other local charities, probably all the other half to Catholic Charities to help resettle refugees in Storm Lake. After the bash, that means IFOIC gets $5 and the refugees get a Big Mac and fries,” writes Cullen in an email.
The IFOIC is the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which describes itself as a “coalition of journalists, librarians, lawyers, educators and other Iowans devoted to open government.” Its role in the Storm Lake Times’ Pulitzer started with a journalist whining over the phone. The Storm Lake Times had been pressing three northern Iowa counties — Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac — for internal records relating to just how they were financing their defense against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works, which claimed that the counties had allowed elevated nitrate levels in the Raccoon River. For some unknown reason, the counties stonewalled the requests from the 3,000-circulation newspaper with little Internet profile.
“County officials had done exceptional job of ignoring them, and Art was complaining in a phone call one time, and I said, ‘Let me take a crack at it,’ ” says Randy Evans, the 66-year-old executive director of IFOIC. Having spent 40 years at the Des Moines Register, Evans knew the regional journalism scene and had some time to dig into the law. He sent correspondence to the counties that apparently forced a new attitude about the records. Receiving mail from Des Moines might have had something to do with the turnabout, surmises Evans. “When the Iowa FOI Council got involved, I think they probably took a deep breath and thought ‘Oh my gosh, what are we getting into?’ ” says Evans, noting that membership of the IFOIC includes the state’s biggest television stations, newspapers and other organizations of long standing in the state. “I think the counties realized that the Storm Lake Times as well as IFOIC meant business and they were going to ignore the requests at their own peril.”
The counties coughed up a bunch of paper. The Storm Lake Times was able to establish that the counties had spent “$1 million just in fact-finding and brief-writing” financed by so-called “dark money” from agri-business interests.
As for his contribution to the Storm Lake Times’ national distinction, Evans insists it was “minor.” His organization runs on a budget in the $20,000 range — though the coming year will be a more prosperous time for the organization. Since the Pulitzer announcement, Evans reports receiving $12,000 in donations that have “just come over the transom and that we were never expecting.”
Meanwhile, $4,000 in new subscription revenue has blown into the Storm Lake Times — “almost all online and with little interest in Storm Lake, just people wanting to contribute to the cause,” writes Cullen in an email.