April 11, 2017
The salty, wild-haired editor of the Storm Lake Times penned the best editorials in the country last year.
So says the Pulitzer Prize Board, which is charged with recognizing and rewarding the best writing and reporting with journalism’s highest honor each year.
The winners were announced Monday.
“I (expletive) knew it,” said Art Cullen, 59, trying to temper his tongue.
Cullen is known by his peers to generally eschew journalism awards. Judges are fickle. He often points to the time that his mentor, Michael Gartner, won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in 1997 but was defeated for a similar statewide award.
At one point, Cullen told himself: “I’m not entering another contest in my life. Gartner said I’m the best editorial writer out there, and I said, ‘(expletive) that, that’s good enough for me.’ ”
But when Cullen reviewed his editorials from this past year, in which he blasted lawmakers and powerful agriculture lobbyists for blocking improvements to the state’s water quality, he thought he had a surefire Pulitzer winner.
Here’s a sample:
“Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes,” Cullen wrote in March 2016.
“Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.”
Those highly charged words didn’t sit well with many in Buena Vista County, which along with two other counties was the target of a Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that has since been dismissed. Cullen lost some friends, and his newspaper lost some advertising revenue because of his editorials.
“It rubbed some people the wrong way, but it’s important for a newspaper to challenge its readers’ perceptions,” Cullen said.
Cullen’s brother John launched the Storm Lake Times in 1990 to compete with an existing newspaper in town, the Pilot-Tribune, and Art joined him several months later.
(The story goes like this: John Cullen had offered to buy the Pilot-Tribune but was laughed out of that newspaper’s office, so he started his own. The Times’ circulation is now higher.)
For a time Storm Lake was the smallest city in the country with competing daily newspapers. John ran the business side, and Art wrote, edited and ran the printing press as he smoked cigarettes.
“Art Cullen is a terrific reporter and writer, and his editorials on the water issue were — as usual — outstanding,” Gartner said.
“The people of Storm Lake, and of Iowa, are lucky to have him relentlessly peering into things and then honestly and vigorously sharing what he has found.”
The Daily Times Herald has regularly published Cullen’s columns and editorials for years.
“As more and more newspapers are consumed by corporations and the shareholder shackles that come with Wall Street ties, it’s harder and harder to find fearless newspaper owners willing to tell truth to power — damn the torpedoes from readers and advertisers,” said Douglas Burns, a friend of Cullen’s and co-owner of The Daily Times Herald. “Art is the best editorial writer in the state. His opinion pieces involve in-depth reporting and an unrivaled knowledge and love of Buena Vista County. I admire him. It’s not easy being a quickly recognized iconoclast in a small town.”
The Times and Times Herald have longed advised each other on business and production matters.
“We are lucky to have such good friends in this business,” Burns said.
In fact, when the Times Herald presses were down for maintenance for a few days several years ago, the Cullens stepped up and printed the Carroll newspaper on the Times’ press.
“A lot of people at larger newspapers on the coasts would be shocked to see Art wearing his ink-stained suspenders and running the press,” Burns said
More recently, when the Cullens outsourced their printing to Sheldon, the Times Herald purchased the Cullens’ press.
“Art came to Carroll and worked with our pressmen on the transfer,” Burns said. “Art can literally do all the work required to take a story from the idea stage through the reporting to mechanics of the production process. He’s a treasure not only for community journalism but rural Iowa as a whole.”
Burns recalled the colorful weekly exchanges the northwest Iowa editor would have with then U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.
“Anyone who was on those media calls with Harkin and Cullen knows exactly what I mean,” Burns said. “They are both progressive, but, man, would they go at it sometimes. Art’s questions were usually reserved for the end because the give and take could go on for some time.”
In his decades in working in Storm Lake, a community with an increasingly diverse population, Cullen has cultivated a statewide, even national reputation, as a fierce advocate for Latinos and other immigrants.
“It’s excellent, and I’m very, very proud of him,” said Lorena Lopez, editor and owner of La Prensa, an Iowa Hispanic newspaper. “Art focuses on the full diversity of the Storm Lake community and is strong promoter of everybody. It makes me proud to be a journalist as he represents all of us working in the profession in western Iowa.”
Cullen’s award was especially meaningful because his editorials borrowed heavily from the work of his son Tom, 24, who is a reporter for the Times. Together, the two forced county supervisors to reveal who was paying high-dollar lawyers from Des Moines and Washington, D.C., to fight the Water Works lawsuit.
“It’s really bad that Tom’s name isn’t on the award, too,” Cullen said. “That’s a pretty special thing to share with your son — the Pulitzer-caliber writing and reporting.”
Cullen plans to give the bulk of the award’s $15,000 prize money to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which assisted the Cullens' struggle to find who was paying the lawyers.
“I am so pleased for Art and the Times,” said Randy Evans, the council’s executive director. “The Iowa FOI Council was pleased to be able to lend a hand to the Times in helping county officials in northwest Iowa understand their obligations under Iowa’s public-records law.
“The Cullen brothers pressed their case, in spite of the pushback from some readers, for access to documents about the lawsuit and how the counties were financing the legal defense.”
Cullen said his award will change little about how he does his job, but that he might do it with a bit more swagger.
“There’s good journalism everywhere,” Cullen said. “Good journalism matters, and it’s practiced everywhere. ... We do as good a job at covering our communities as the New York Times covers New York.”