Journalist Judy Muller and organizers from the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) hosted a screening of the award-winning documentary “Storm Lake: A Newspaper, A Community, A Family” Monday night at the Sheridan Opera House.
Muller, a longtime national journalist and member COLab’s Board of Directors who lives in Norwood, said the goal of the event was to “raise money and funding for COLab,” which is a nonprofit that supports journalists from more than 150 news outlets and communities statewide.
Muller, who has worked as a correspondent for ABC and CBS, recently retired from teaching journalism at University of Southern California and joined the COLab Board of Directors last year. She helped orchestrate Monday’s screening in an effort to bring attention to journalists and small publications on the Western Slope.
According to a 2019 report by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, “one in five of the country's local papers has vanished in recent years.” The report exposes a loss of 1,800 papers since 2004. Half of the remaining 7,112 papers in 2018 were “located in small and rural communities.”
Kim Richard, who has lived in Telluride since 1990, decided to attend the screening because she believes in the importance of local journalism and wanted to show her support. Her favorite stories to read are pieces about fellow community members.
“If you know them it’s fun to read about,” she said. “And if you didn’t know that person, you get to meet them.”
The documentary is about the biweekly Storm Lake Times newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa. Not only does the publication have the largest readership in the county, but it is also the only locally owned paper in Buena Vista County.
One of the film's two directors, Jerry Risius, hopes the film aptly displays the relationship between the community and the paper. He describes the film as an "homage to community journalism and the world of civic engagement."
The Cullen family runs the Storm Lake Times. The paper is led by editor Art Cullen and his brother John Cullen, who is the publisher after starting the paper in 1990. In 2017, Art won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for his work about agricultural corporations in Iowa and their role in safeguarding and defending the pollution of local waterways.
Risius first decided to follow the paper’s story when he read about the Pulitzer in the New York Times. Risius, who was born and raised in a small Iowa town an hour and a half outside of Storm Lake, reached out to the Cullens with his idea to create a documentary with Art Cullen as the main character.
“However, little by little, the more we went back, we realized that this is a real ensemble being. This is a whole family newspaper, and in fact, includes the whole community,” Risius said.
Beth Levinson, who also works as the film's producer, codirected the film. Levinson, who has spent most of her career working on documentary films, was drawn to the real and honest nature of the film, which she referred to as "verité."
“I am interested in stories where we don't know what's going to happen. They require real leaps of faith,” she said. “As compared to when you're doing an archival film about a story that's already happened, we know that narrative arc, and we know who the characters in the film are going to be. You can see it from beginning to end.”
The 85-minute documentary follows the paper as it covers everything from the controversial 2020 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses to the county's recently crowned Pork Queen, as she visits a local second-grade class to talk about the importance of the pork industry. The film follows the paper as the COVID-19 pandemic starts and the subsequent economic impacts on the community, particularly how closures of local businesses directly impacted the newspaper.
The Cullen family cares about the community, and the community cares about the paper. Tom Cullen, Art’s son, describes growing up in a town where everybody knew his father and teachers would use Art's editorial pieces in class to either prove or refute their own opinions.
The films tagline is “a newspaper, a family, a community,” and each of those aspects cannot exist without the other, Levinson said.
“I think that all three have near equal weight,” she added. “What the film really explores is how they are all interrelated, and how they are all interdependent.”
While Art Cullen is a well-known name in national journalism now, that notoriety does not hold much weight with the people living in Buena Vista County. Levinson and Risius debated following him in 2018 as he went to vote for the next Pulitzer Prize winner in New York City. However, they decided against it, thanks to Art's own words.
“If it doesn't happen in Buena Vista, it doesn't happen,” Art said midway through the film.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Buena Vista County had a population of 19,620 in 2019, including Storm Lake's population of 10,322. The city is only slightly bigger than San Miguel County, which had a population of 8,197 in 2019.
Much like the Storm Lake community, Telluride locals depend on local news to inform them about everything from the next council election to exciting accomplishments or awards their nextdoor neighbor might have received, Levinson explained.
“If there's one thing that we walked away learning after making the film, is that a newspaper is only as strong as its community," she said. “And a community is only as strong as its newspaper.”
The documentary will be available to stream on PBS on Nov. 15.
For more information about COLab, visit colabnews.com.