Small-town paper brings Gov. to its knees and wins journalism’s biggest honour

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“Google doesn’t care about Storm Lake, Iowa. Yahoo! News doesn’t care about Storm Lake, Iowa but the Storm Lake Times care about Storm Lake, Iowa,” says the award-winning local paper’s publisher.

Nestled between hog and turkey factories in the “protein centre of Iowa”, Art Cullen, his brother, his wife and his son spend their days writing and printing the local paper.

But between stories about “five-legged cows and four leaf clovers” is Pulitzer-winning, multi-year spanning, investigative journalism.

Earlier this year, Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times newspaper won one of journalism’s highest honours for his editorial series on shady government dealing.

We used to have clean air and clean water and honest and open government and we’re losing all that… Somebody had to say something. So we did.

In 2015, Art and his son, Tom Cullen, started reporting on a story about water pollution in their local area.

“We used to have clean air and clean water and honest and open government and we’re losing all that… Somebody had to say something. So we did,” says Cullen.

“It used to be a state of smaller family farms and now it’s a state of large family corporate farms… They used to graze cattle in Iowa on grass, that’s all been ploughed up and planted to corn ... And so agriculture is greatly specialised and there are huge environmental consequences that flow from it as a result.”

He means that literally. Fertiliser runoff from the corn and soy fields was finding its way into the river system. This mix of nutrients was causing environmental damage downstream and affecting the drinking water supply for nearly half-a-million people.

The local government was being sued for polluting the drinking water of its citizens. They had deep pockets for their legal defence, but they refused to say who was paying their legal bills and why.

They had deep pockets for their legal defence, but they refused to say who was paying their legal bills and why.

Tom Cullen says, “Our questions were how they were paying for the attorneys that were representing them in that case. They could have chosen their county attorney but they chose not to, they chose several law firms locally, state-wide and nation-wide.

“We consulted with our freedom of information counsel and our local counsel at Hamilton Law Firm and we said are these records public? We demanded to know who the donors were to this secret defence f und and they refused to tell us over a two year period and so we wrote a series of editorials over two to three years talking about this lawsuit, talking about how it was being financed and how dirty money, dirty, dark money, which has already grossly distorted our politics, is now seeping into our court system.”

Art Cullen adds, “It raised questions for us as to who was actually determining the future of our locally elected government. Was it the electors of Buena Vista county or was it the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and Koch Fertiliser and Monsanto. Who is running this state? Is it us or is it somebody else? And it appears somebody else.”

Art’s brother, John Cullen, who’s also the publisher of The Storm Lake Times, chimes in:

“I think it was Mark Twain who said the role of a newspaper is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and that’s what we try to do.”

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