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In a nation of news deserts, the film ‘Storm Lake’ chronicles a Pulitzer Prize-winning oasis

Jerry Risius (top left) and Beth Levison (bottom left) are co-directors of Storm Lake
Storm Lake
Jerry Risius (top left) and Beth Levison (bottom left) are co-directors of Storm Lake

Tens of millions of Americans live in news deserts – counties with only one local newspaper, or none at all. But in an era where local journalism has nearly become an extinct species, The Storm Lake Times bucks the trend.

To be sure, the owners pinch every penny to keep the lights on, but their efforts don’t go unnoticed. In fact, The Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer Prize for its excellence in reporting in 2017.

The newspaper is the centerpiece of a new documentary, Storm Lake, which has garnered some of the year’s best reviews at festivals across the U.S., and is about to air on PBS, Nov. 15.

Indeed, Storm Lake spotlights the essential nature of great journalism, but it is also a chronicle of how difficult it is for a family-owned business, let alone a newspaper, to survive in the 21st century.

“I think we felt like this was an opportunity to highlight a voice from the middle of the country, part of the country that isn't heard from as much,” said Beth Levison, co-director of Storm Lake. “So we did think that there was an opportunity here to not just share a voice, but a perspective that isn't often heard.

Levison and co-director Jerry Risius visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about their film, the unique nature of The Storm Lake Times and their excitement to see their movie showcased on public television.

“You can change the world through journalism. That's the only good reason to get into this trade, because when you're looking for a friend, remember that the dog can't read.”
Art Cullen

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Storm Lake, Iowa, population 10,134. The latest census says the population is inching down a bit. There isn't truly an everytown America. It probably doesn't exist. That said, Storm Lake, Iowa has a downtown of mom and pop stores, it is in many ways and Ag-based economy, and there's a meatpacking plant just outside of town. So, in many ways, Storm Lakes does ring familiar - with so many new residents of Storm Lake, some of whom have immigrated to the U.S., Storm Lake feels like a lot of towns in the 21st century. “Storm Lake” is also the name of a must-see film. It has garnered some of the year's best critical notices, and it airs on PBS November 15, and we're lucky to have the film's directors, Beth Levison and Jerry Risius with us this morning. Good morning to you both.

JERRY RISIUS: Good morning.

BETH LEVISON: Good morning. Thanks for having us, George.

PRENTICE: Indeed, it is a story that considers the current state of journalism, and I want to talk about that in a minute. Could you talk about how it's also a story of people… a community through the lens of a family that owns and operates the Storm Lake Times?

RISIUS: Yeah. Thank you, George. You know, I think we knew that we wanted to make a film about a newspaper. And then we also knew that as we went out over a couple of trips to do our filming, it was about the family of the newspaper, the Cullens, and then the longer we stayed, actually, it became much more about also the community. So, you know, it is about the Cullens, it's about their newspaper, but really it's about a community and it's looking at the community through the eyes of the newspaper. And that community is, you know, it's in rural northwest Iowa. They might consider themselves, as Art would say, maybe a blue dot in a purple county in a very red district.

PRENTICE: Beth, talk a bit about the timing of your film. You arrive in the wake of the Storm Lake Times putting big media on notice with its winning of a Pulitzer Prize. Then in 2018 and 2019, we have this raging national debate over immigration. And then comes the all-bets-are-off 2020 presidential campaign, which runs right through Iowa.

LEVISON: Yeah, we started what we call principal photography, which is your main cinematography period in March of 2019. So, Art was tapped to moderate the very first multi-candidate event for the Democrats in the 2020 presidential cycle. We had been researching the Cullens and reading Art’s writing and really thinking that maybe there was a movie here, and once he was tapped for that, we felt OK. We could start this movie at the very beginning of the 2020 presidential cycle and possibly finish, you know, around the election. And so the film does start in March 2019. We are there through the seasons as the corn, you know, doesn't grow as high as it's supposed to because of the rains. And then we are there as the candidates come to town. We're there for the Iowa Caucuses, which were sort of notorious, and then we were even there as COVID strikes this meatpacking town. So we ended up filming from early 2018 through about the end of 2020, and I think it was a more tumultuous period for Iowa and the people of Storm Lake than we could have ever imagined.

PRENTICE: I would be remiss if I did not mention that Storm Lake, the movie, features cameos from Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Dr. Jill Biden and the through line of Storm Lake is the presence and voice of, as you said, Art Cullen, the Storm Lake Time's editor.

“The pay is lousy and the hours can be terrible, but you can change the world through journalism. That's the only good reason to get into this trade, because when you're looking for a friend, remember that the dog can't read.”

RISIUS: Yeah, so Art is, I think, an incredibly rich and engaging character. In the spring of 2017, I as a news junkie as I think probably most of your listeners also are, saw that the announcement for the 2017 Pulitzers headline was “Small North Iowa Newspaper Wins Pulitzer Prize” and it wasn't quite like the head spinning of an owl that you might see, but I certainly did. I had to do a couple of double takes and seeing that, I of course read his articles. I started looking him up within a couple of days. I called him, I thought. This is really a great article, he's a very unique voice. I reached out to him. I completely fell in sync with what he was doing with what he was saying. And you know, that voice of his and his writing, you know, really does come across as very Iowan, his voice. Listen, I think he certainly, you know, is driven by maybe fits of rage, but you know, he's angry, he's angry at what has happened to or what is happening to this country. And I really appreciate what he's doing.

LEVISON: I just wanted to add that I think that so much of the news that we have access to is really dominated by coastal voices, especially East Coast voices. I think we felt like this was an opportunity to highlight a voice from the middle of the country, part of the country that isn't heard from as much. You know, at the same time, it's not just that, it's just so brilliant and also has such a point of view that is informed by where he lives and the experiences of his community. So we did think that there was an opportunity here to not just share a voice, but a perspective that isn't often heard.

PRENTICE: Storm Lake has been featured at film festivals, winning awards along the way. And now here you are on the verge of seeing your film brought into homes across the U.S. on PBS. So, Beth, talk to me about your anticipation.

LEVISON: Yeah, we're absolutely thrilled that the film is going to be on public television. This film is about a unique voice and iconoclastic voice, an independent voice. We felt that it was really important that the film be available to as many people as possible, and we felt that because this film tells the story of people whose voices aren't always heard. We really wanted to make sure that the film was available to people who might not be able to afford a Netflix subscription or a, you know, a streaming subscription. We just wanted it available to all. That's really in the spirit of the movie. And so we felt like public television is available everywhere to everyone. In the end, we really hope that people who see the film don't just see it as a film about the Cullen family and the Storm Lake Times and Storm Lake, Iowa. We really hope that viewers perhaps see themselves in their own community in the film and that it encourages them or it inspires them to rethink their own relationship to local news. Are they subscribing to their local newspaper? Are they business owners placing ads in the local newspaper? Are they supporting this pillar of American democracy in their own community?

RISIUS: And I'm just going to add on to the back of what Beth said, but I'm also going to going to quote Beth because I think one of the last interviews we did is as we go out into these screenings, you know, we begin to have a Q&A and Beth was answering a question in the audience members started actually talking to the journalists. That was the moderator of these conversations. So this is this is a big, big push in that in such a positive sort of, you know, outcome of of getting the film out, which is that the community that's coming out is actually then looking at who they are and what is happening because, you know, newspapers many times tell stories about the local community, but they don't tell their own stories. Many people have no idea their media literacy is so low that they have no idea what's happening financially. They're just going to go on to Facebook and look at what the what might be reposted or something that they might be able to find scraps on and on social media. You know, we're really happy that this is this is happening and that we hope that people bring this conversation into their communities and continue to do so.

PRENTICE: They are Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, directors of Storm Lake. You won't want to miss it. It airs on PBS November 15 and will stream online at PBS soon thereafter. Great. Good luck to you. Congratulations. Thanks for giving us some time this morning.

LEVISON: Thank you so much.

RISIUS: Thanks George

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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