Tiny, family-run newspaper wins Pulitzer Prize for taking on big business


If you know Art Cullen, it’s not exactly a surprise to learn his initial words upon watching the livestream of the Pulitzer announcements and learning he’d won for editorial writing.

“Holy shit,” he yelled out to his brother, John, the publisher of the family-run, 10-person Storm Lake (Iowa) Times.

The only surprise was that there wasn’t a longer string of un-family-like adjectives or adverbs.

Big-paper editorial writers, perhaps laboring in well-appointed individual offices in relative urban splendor, be apprised: Writing editorials is merely one of the multiple daily duties of Art Cullen, Monday’s Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing.

Sitting in an office he calls a “gray metal wreck,” he’s de facto city editor, part-time reporter and editorial writer at the twice-weekly, 3,000-circulation Storm Lake, Iowa Times.

He won for editorials that confronted the state’s most powerful agricultural interests, which include the Koch Brothers, Cargill and Monsanto, and their secret funding of the government defense of a big environmental lawsuit. His “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing” were quite self-evident if you’ve seen his labor (which actually spanned two years, though he won for last year’s efforts).

But he cranked those out while functioning as a de facto city editor, part-time reporter and editorial writer. He lays out the main news pages and used to run the press until printing was moved to Sheldon, Iowa, an hour away.

“Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all around the country,” Cullen, 60, said Monday.

“Art has attacked local farmers, lawyers, county supervisors, Monsanto, the Koch Brothers, agribusiness and the Republican Party — all icons in northwest Iowa,” says Richard Longworth, a retired and esteemed Chicago Tribune reporter and foreign correspondent who has chronicled the changing Midwest economy in recent years for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“He called Sen. (Charles) Grassley, an Iowa institution, ‘nothing more than a lapdog for the Republican establishment,’ and the other Iowa senator, Joni Ernst, ‘the only woman as vulgar as Donald Trump,'”

“Art’s Pulitzer is virtue rewarded,” Longworth said. “Sometimes the good guys really do win.”

Storm Lake is an 11,000-person, immigrant-filled meatpacking town in northwest Iowa. The winters can be snowy and dreary. Politically, there are many Trump supporters even though his actions and declarations on immigration remain a source of consternation. For example, 88 percent of the elementary school kids are of color, with 75 percent Latino, and a total of 21 languages are spoken, Cullen said.

Related Training: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writers: Secrets of Their Craft

So he does his various jobs while joined in the effort by John and his wife, Mary; his wife, Dolores, and their son, Tom, who helped with reporting those winning editorials. And there’s his family’s dog, Mabel (or “Mabel the News Hound,” as he calls her), who hangs out at the newspaper offices most of the time.

Cullen is a passionate fellow who speaks candidly about how Storm Lake’s immigrant workforce has been exploited as cheap labor for the slaughter of hogs and the manufacture of ethanol out of the corn-rich environs. As he characterizes the overriding economic reality:

“So we ship in Mexicans to slaughter hogs because we’ve put them out of business with NAFTA and are shipping everybody all our finished corn and pork, polluting the river in the process.”

The river at the center of his prize-winning entry is the Raccoon, which is a primary water source for Des Moines and part of an intense environmental fight.

Want more news on local news? Sign up for Local Edition.

The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled in a big environmental lawsuit involving Des Moines Water Works, a municipal water utility serving 500,000 customers in Des Moines and nearby counties. The court said the company couldn’t win damages in a suit against three counties over nitrate pollution in the Raccoon.

But for several years, Cullen has been unrelenting and also assisted by the struggling Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Together, they brought to light the secret donors backing the counties’ defense.

It was all part of a post-Pulitzer announcement phone chat we had.

So, since you’re rather inclined to colorful language yourself, what the f— was it like the moment you heard you won?

I was watching this livestream video on the Pulitzer site, and they went through national reporting, local reporting, etc., and then got to editorial writing and said “Art Cullen,” and I started screaming to my brother, “Holy shit, we won!” My brother, John, is the publisher and started the paper in 1990. I started screaming and he thought I had gone nuts.

What would you like to think are the most important points you made in the editorials?

It’s all about transparency in the funding of the environmental lawsuit (defense). We took on the state’s biggest agricultural players and said their donations should be made public. The biggest players: the Koch brothers, Cargill, Monsanto were all conspiring to fund the defense of the (Buena Vista) county.

We found out they (elected officials) had met with Monsanto executives and Koch executives. My son, Tom, did most of the reporting. And he tracked down how the Agribusiness Association of Iowa was working with the Iowa Farm Bureau to funnel the secret donations to the country.

We cried foul and worked with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They wrote several letters saying these were public records under Iowa law. They wouldn’t release them, but they shut down the fund. It’s all a matter of transparency in government financing.

How has being in a small place fueled your passion? Is it easier or harder when arguably there’s greater accountability since, well, you may run into people whom you write about on the street?

I lost some friends, but some people don’t understand us, why we would badger county supervisors so that their sugar daddy went away. I said, “Because it wasn’t right.” We felt the public deserved to know who’s paying our bills. We did a lot of groundbreaking news reporting and my son (who’s 24) did most of the heavy lifting.

We’ve spoken before about your work on immigration, especially right after President Trump’s controversial executive order. Is the confusion and fear that we’ve talked about in the Storm Lake area when it comes to immigration still the same?

Things have calmed down. The police chief (Mark Prosser) has calmed things down. He arrives in his police uniform at public forums and says, “We’re not arresting you just because you are undocumented.”

A lot of editorial writers sit in very nice offices in big-city buildings with lots of creature comforts. If you’re at a place like The New York Times or The Washington Post, bigshots come to you and there aren’t many problems in getting calls returned. What’s it like for you?

I sit with piles of newspapers around three-week-old page proofs, and people can come in and start yelling at me. The office is a wreck. It’s a whole different environment.

What, at first blush, does this recognition say about the people like you, laboring in more isolated environs, busting their asses to survive and believing as you do in journalism?

Journalism really matters, and good journalism is being done all across the country.

Any final thoughts?

Yes. Put in a plug for the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. They are broke and have little support.

Well, then, that’s fair enough. Here’s its website and address: Iowa Freedom of Information Council, P.O. Box 8002 Des Moines, Iowa 50301. And with congratulations to them, too.