Democracy Dies in News Deserts

Claiming territory like a conquering army, a vast desert is on the march. It swallows small towns, suburbs and the wide expanses of farmland in between. Art Cullen is determined to beat back the tumbleweeds.

The Storm Lake Times’ editor and co-owner is battling the spread of news deserts, the ominous name given to communities without local newspapers to expose corruption at City Hall and cover high school football rivalries under the Friday night lights.

Cullen and his family newspaper — five of its 10 employees are related — are profiled in the documentary “Storm Lake,” which premiered Monday on PBS after generating buzz on the film festival circuit. Through directors Beth Levison and Jerry Risius’ lens, the twice-weekly Iowa paper is a microcosm of American print media.

“Most people in Storm Lake care about community,” Cullen says in the film. “But how long does a community support journalism? Because now people want to get their news for free, and people are saying, ‘Oh well, that’s not worth a dollar.’ And that’s not how you sustain a democracy.”

Three years after winning a Pulitzer Prize, the Storm Lake Times was fighting for survival.

Its struggles mirror those playing out in small newsrooms from the heartland to the coasts.

Print advertising plummeted as businesses shifted their focus online, where Facebook, Google and Amazon gobble up nearly 70% of digital ad dollars.

“Our ads fell off a cliff, just like every other newspaper,” says Art’s brother, publisher and co-owner John Cullen, who chose to forgo his paycheck when he became eligible to receive Social Security benefits.

More than 2,000 U.S. newspapers have shuttered in the last 15 years, according to journalism professor Penelope Muse Abernathy’s research. The communities they covered are now news deserts, bereft of both the watchdog reporting that makes crooked politicians shudder and the positive publicity that makes civic boosters beam with pride.

If Art Cullen is a prophet crying out in the wilderness, the adage about prophets going without honor in their hometown rings true. Winning the 2017 Pulitzer for editorial writing led to a book deal, speaking engagements and a national platform, but it didn’t make Cullen a celebrity in Storm Lake. Advertising manager Mary Cullen explains in the documentary that conservative business owners fumed when her brother-in-law was honored for his progressive pugilism on the opinion page.

Sales were so dismal last year that the Storm Lake Times resorted to crowdfunding to keep the paper in print and its reporters on the beat. A GoFundMe campaign raised $31,145 to sustain the enterprise.

Comparatively, the Times was lucky. COVID-19 crippled the small businesses that still advertise in local papers. The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center and think tank, reported more than 90 newsroom closures during the pandemic.

Crisis brings opportunity, but also opportunists. Some 1,400 online news outlets sprang up in the last several years. While some publish journalism in the public interest, many are news aggregators that provide little original content. Others are thinly veiled commentary mills bankrolled by conservative and liberal megadonors.

Writing for trade publication Editor & Publisher, Henry Scott reports that 174 American local news sites are “managed by interconnected companies headquartered in Dubai, Bahrain, and Sydney, Australia.”

“Storm Lake” poses an existential question: What happens if we lose the news?

The answer, according to a University of Notre Dame study, is local tax increases and higher interest rates for government bonds. The intangibles might matter even more.

There’s value in having the modern equivalent of a community bulletin board that lists everyone who was married and buried, announces local fundraisers and showcases Christmas parade floats. Visit a news desert and ask folks what that kind of resource would be worth to them. Far more than a newspaper’s single-copy price, I’ll bet.

“Storm Lake” is streaming for free on the PBS Independent Lens website. Watch the documentary to find out how one extended family and one exceptional paper are weathering the news crisis. If it spurs a desire to act, vote with your wallet and subscribe to the local newspaper in your own community.

The desert is gaining ground, but if we heed Art Cullen’s warning, we can make it an oasis.


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