PASS THE AIR FRESHENER
As a general rule I don’t bitch about the hand I’ve been dealt.
Too much. I mean, bitching can be quite fun. In moderation.
On Thursday, there was an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Art Cullen, Managing Editor of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. His family publishes a semi-weekly newspaper in a town of 11,000, so there are some similarities.
Except that out of the ten employees at his paper, five are family members.
None are ass-trologers.
But before we delve further, one small detour. It’ll make sense later.
There were 12 bear calls listed in the latest Mammoth police blotter for September 6-12.
Peter Bernasconi didn’t make one of those calls, though he had a bear trash his driver’s door handle. You figure there’s got to be two unreported calls for every documented one.
Heard rumor of a potential petition to be circulated demanding former Wildlife Specialist Steve Searles be reinstated. Sure seems like a 2022 Town Council election issue.
Back top the NPR piece. As with most stories these days about small town journalism, this one felt like another doom-and-gloom piece. “1,800 locals newspapers have gone out of business or merged since 2004.”
Cullen’s paper in Storm Lake is an anomaly (like The Sheet) because it is an independent, family-owned and operated enterprise.
The five family members are Cullen, his brother, their wives, and Cullen’s son, who is in his late 20s and is the paper’s lead news reporter.
Since the pandemic began. Cullen and his brother both laid themselves off and took Social Security to save on payroll.
Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize a few years back for his editorial writing on a pollution story. Des Moines (downriver from Storm Lake), was having issues with its drinking water because of all the fertilizer runoff courtesy of corporate agriculture.
As Cullen describes in the interview, he helped set up a meeting between the Buena Vista County Attorney and the head of the Des Moines water department, largely because the two entities couldn’t arrange such a meeting themselves without political upheaval.
Cullen: “And so they arranged for a quiet secret meeting in Fort Dodge at a Perkins restaurant. And when the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors caught wind of that meeting, they said, no way are you going to that meeting. We aren’t talking to those people. We got lawyers, and we got money. Why would we talk to them? And so that’s how, you know, we’ve become in America. I have a bunch of – I got a million bucks from Monsanto and the Koch brothers. Why should I meet you at a Perkins?”
NPR’s Dave Davies: And I read that the board of supervisors of the county said if Art Cullen says something, we’ll do the opposite which is…
Cullen: That’s exactly right. That’s how stupid it got.
Davies: Well, it’s kind of a depressing kind of measure of your own clout, isn’t it?
Davies: So you can get the wrong thing done by suggesting…
Cullen: Yeah, so that’s how stupid – you know, people dig their heels in. And they can’t even talk to each other. And that’s where we – you know, it speaks to the larger issue, I think, of how we conduct our politics today.
Which is why Steve Searles will never get rehired. Not as long as the current Council sits in those Brady squares on Zoom and has easy access to the mute button and can short-circuit public discourse.
Even when the Town’s own Mayor had a bear break into his house recently.
It’s the oddest thing. You know you have a problem and you know a guy who can solve it, and you’ve got so much pride and so much turf to protect that you can’t dial the phone.
Councilmembers will cry and point their fingers elsewhere. When they have the power to solve the problem.
Dan Holler has the wrong job title. They shouldn’t call him Town Manager. They should call him the Town Babysitter.
Davies: You know, I thought we would finish with a letter that you wrote to your son, Tom. It’s really a letter to a young journalist. You want to just tell us, you know, how you came to write this and publish it and maybe just read, share a bit of it with us?
Cullen: Oh, sure. My son Tom was in college, and he had an economics degree from the University of Northern Iowa. And his professors, who all admired him very much – he was a four-point student – and they said, you know, you could go to law school or you could get a Ph.D. in econ or you could go work at the Chicago Board of Trade. What the hell are you going to work at a newspaper for?
So, you know, and Tom told me that. And again, always searching for a column idea, I said, well, there’s a column there welcoming Tom home and explaining, you know, what is it – why should you work long hours for lousy pay and sometimes no pay at all at a little newspaper in the middle of nowhere? You know, we think we’re somewhere, but everybody else thinks we’re flyover country. So, yeah, I wrote this column called “Letter To A Young Reporter.” But yeah, I’ll just read a paragraph if you don’t mind.
(Reading) A pretty good rule is that an Iowa town will be about as strong as its newspaper and its banks. The best journalism is that which builds communities. You build your community by publicizing good deeds done by reporting on the cheats and scoundrels and other politicians, by urging yourself and those around you to do better by allowing dissenting voices to be heard, and by making certain that your town’s issues are heard in Des Moines and Washington. Use your power to build and the newspaper will grow naturally. Always be honest. Again, credibility is your only stock and trade.
For the full interview transcript, visit https://www.npr.org/2021/09/16/1037890241/storm-lake-documentary-depicts-the-triumph-and-struggle-of-a-local-newspaper
Of course, I disagree with Cullen here in the sense that I would not pressure my kids to jump into a dinosaur industry just because old Dad may not be strong enough to lift the musket in a few years.
A law degree would be so useful …
I said to my reporter Emily Crocetti today, “Your generation is gonna observe the complete collapse of American democracy, but on a positive note, rebuilding that democracy which your parents and grandparents are seemingly intent on destroying will give you purpose and focus and strength.”