Slake torm won the award for best documentary at the Woodstock Film Festival this year. We admit that this film is near and dear to our hearts.
The 85-minute film, which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens series on November 15, is about a spirited family – the Cullens – who are devout believers, like us at Hudson Valley One are, in the value of local journalism.
Twice a week they publish The Storm lake weather in western Iowa. Publisher Art Cullen is an evangelist of the concept that the press is the oxygen of democracy. “Journalists are the cornerstone of an informed electorate and a functioning democracy. Tyranny prevails whenever the press is not free. ”
Storm Lake is a town of about 15,000 inhabitants, a third of whom are Spanish speaking, in the heart of the pig country of Iowa. Tyson Foods’ slaughterhouses and meat packers and turkey processing plants dominate the economy. Family farms are disappearing, as are the local family shops they once supported, making advertising sales and the future of the newspaper a challenge. As Art puts it, “The question is, how long has the community been supporting journalism? “
How they do it
The journal was started in 1990 by John Cullen, brother of Art and publisher, “with the belief that honest journalism would attract large crowds.” It is a family business. The wife of Art Delores is a writer and photographer, his son Tom is the Times’ senior reporter, and her sister-in-law Mary collects recipes.
The Times covers the local administration, the school board and the courthouse. Last year, he covered the parade of Democratic presidential candidates circling the state in hopes of winning the Iowa caucuses. Her features include Miss Piglet, a junior beauty queen educating elementary school children about the eating habits of a diaper piglet and a local singer advancing in a televised Spanish-language talent contest.
Perhaps the most significant story in recent years has been the wave of Covid-19 deaths among Tyson’s undocumented workers in 2020.
The Cullens believe the best journalism builds community. “The Storm lake weather weaves the fabric of community in ways big and small, ”says Art. “Without strong local journalism to tell the story of a community, the fabric of the place is unraveling.
One in four American newspapers has closed in the past 15 years. A 2019 study found about 1,300 “information deserts” in the United States, cities of 20,000 or 30,000 people with no local information source. The Cullens are determined not to let Storm Lake Times meet this fate.
Neither John nor Art are paid a salary (they are both on Social Security). About a dozen staff members bring back a paycheck.
For Tom, “The prospect that the newspaper is not here terrifies me, because it is not just the newspaper, the most important pillar of the community. It’s the family.
It was the struggles of this industrious family that drew producer and director Beth Levison when cinematographer Jerry Risius showed her a video he had shot of the Cullens. Risius, who also directed Storm Lake, grew up on a pig farm in Buffalo Center, about two hours from Storm Lake. His exceptional camera work is complemented by a subtle score by composer Andrew Bird, whose grandfather owned a farm near Dubuque.
Their sense of agrarian life in the Midwest, combined with the skills of Beacon editor Rachel Sherman, give the film its intimacy and authenticity.
Risius presented the project after The Storm lake weather won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Art Cullen Editorial Writing. His op-eds have been cited for their “tenacious reporting, impressive expertise, and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate farming interests in Iowa.”
This award did not impress everyone in town. Ad sales fell for a while as conservative business owners showed their disapproval of Cullen’s liberal views.
The team started filming in 2018 and were planning a production trip to Storm Lake in March 2020 when the coronavirus brought it all to a halt. The pandemic posed an existential threat to Storm Lake Times. With the businesses shutting down, ad sales fell by 50%. Art was considering selling the Times building and leaving, but the community rallied. A GoFundMe raised over $ 28,000. This, combined with a loan from the federal government under the Payroll Protection Plan, allowed the newspaper to survive.
We too will continue
Hudson Valley One was also hampered by a pandemic-induced drop in advertising and growing six-figure debt. Publisher Geddy Sveikauskas made the tough decision to go all digital for ten weeks, then consolidate newspapers – New Paltz opening hours, Woodstock Hours, Kingston weather and Saugerties weather plus the free distribution part Weekly Almanac – in Hudson Valley One.
“It was terrible,” he said, “but it turned out to be the best thing we could have done.” Ulster Publishing is in the dark now.
Sveikauskas considers himself lucky. Along with Kingston, New Paltz, Woodstock and Saugerties, it has a much larger potential readership than The Storm lake weather, as well as more potential advertisers. He says he can afford to piss off one, because there are others that could replace him.
Of its five or six thousand subscribers, many still complain more than a year later that their hometown newspaper has disappeared. Sveikauskas concedes he can’t bring them all back. He is convinced that reading news from neighboring communities can be meaningful.
Now 82, Sveikauskas still lives in the same Mount Tremper house he moved to after falling in love with the Hudson Valley over half a century ago. He published newspapers in Ulster County for 48 years.
Like the Cullens, his business is a family business. Our associate editor and advertising director, Genia Wickwire, 47, is the daughter of Geddy.
Sveikauskas says his goal is to keep improving Hudson Valley One, with better journalism every week. Our website is undergoing a complete overhaul.
Beyond that, the future will be in the hands of his daughter. She started in the business at the age of two, on a blanket in her father’s office every Wednesday night, playing while he put down his first paper, Woodstock Hours. He insists that Genia, now 47, has earned her job with the company. He said, “The newspaper will be in good hands.
Art Cullen says, “Readers decide our future, not just any branch of government. The pay is lousy and the hours can be awful. But you can change the world through journalism.
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