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Indie Lens Pop-Up: "Storm Lake"

Two men in front of a newspaper printing press
Gary Fandel
Gary Fandel
Brothers John and Art Cullen reviewing a copy of The Storm Lake Times hot off the presses.

Storm Lake highlights a family-run newspaper The Storm Lake Times, and its declining business despite its critical importance as its community faces existential challenges.

Storm Lake Screening Event

Enjoy a screening of the Independent Lens film, Storm Lake which highlights the challenges of a family-run newspaper as they struggle to report critical news to their community in an increasingly digital world. Afterward, join a community conversation exploring the topics addressed in the film such as the national decline of community journalism, the impacts of media polarization, and environmental journalism.

Discussion Moderator: Jennifer Fuller, Associate Director of News and Public Affairs, WSIU Public Radio

Guest Panelists: Annie Hammock, Managing Editor of The Daily Egyptian newspaper at SIUC Renee Trappe, group editor of the Southern Illinois LOCAL Media Group and Deputy Managing Editor of The Daily Herald.

Stream Online at pbs.org: November – December, 2021

Resources related to this film are locatedhere.

About The Film

Storm Lake paints a picture of an agricultural community being threatened with change—from corporate to political and environmental forces, all while facing a pandemic. Farmers spend their life savings on new equipment in the hopes of keeping their livelihoods intact, while migrant workers flock to the town—welcome or not—to achieve the American Dream.

Leading the charge to keep the community informed is 63-year-old Art Cullen, an old-school journalist who has dedicated his life to his family’s biweekly newspaper The Storm Lake Times. In 2017, Art won a Pulitzer Prize for his story that challenged powerful corporate interests and local county officials about the pollution of local waterways. While he has the power to change minds and rally votes, his pugnacious voice makes waves. Disgruntled residents don’t always agree with his point of view and have been known to write him and his paper off entirely.

Nearly 2,000 local papers have shuttered in the last 20 years, a crisis accelerated by COVID-19. The stakes have been especially high for the Cullen family; they comprise half The Times’ 10-person team. Art’s 27-year-old son Tom is lead reporter, his wife Dolores the photographer and culture reporter, his older brother John the publisher, and John’s wife Mary the food columnist. Against tight deadlines and slimmer margins, the Cullens doggedly report on their town, and wonder how the paper will survive as readers—with a preference for their social media feeds—cease to support journalism like they used to.

Risius and Levison had their cameras rolling throughout 2020, as the pandemic upended life as we knew it. In June 2020, Storm Lake became the COVID-19 epicenter of Iowa, making The Times’ reporting even more vital. The public health catastrophe posed an existential crisis for the paper as ad revenue and newspaper sales suffered a serious blow. Despite the setbacks, the financial losses, and even quarantine, the film documents the Cullens as they continue to deliver the news.

“Answering the question ‘what do we lose when local journalism is gone?’ is an urgent issue with devastating consequences for communities across the country,” said filmmakers Jerry Risius and Beth Levison. “We wanted to show the high-stakes nature of what’s going on with media, through the prism of the Cullen family; dedicated, talented, outstanding journalists, who are committed to delivering the news to their town. Their reporting throughout the pandemic showed their resilience, and the critically important role that local journalists play during uncertain times.”

Director and producer Levison won the New York Women in Film & Television Filmmaker Award for “Storm Lake” at the Provincetown Film Festival, and the film won the Audience Award for best feature at AFI Docs. Both Levison and Risius won the Best Directors Award at the Duluth Superior Film Festival in August 2021, and the film was named Best Documentary Feature Runner Up at the 2021 Woods Hole Film Festival.

About The Filmmakers

Jerry Risius (Director & DP) Iowa-born and raised, Jerry Risius brings over 25 years experience as a Director of Photography on such projects as the Anthony Bourdain series’ “Parts Unknown” (CNN) and “No Reservations” (Travel Channel), “The Kingmaker” (Showtime, 2019), “Generation Wealth” (Amazon Prime, 2018), and “Seeing Allred” (Netflix, 2018) to “Storm Lake,” his directorial debut.

Beth Levison (Director & Producer) NYC-based, Levison’s recent producing credits include “Women in Blue” (INDEPENDENT LENS, 2020), Emmy-nominated “Made in Boise” (INDEPENDENT LENS, 2019), and “32 Pills” (HBO, 2017). “Storm Lake,” which she also produced, marks her return to directing. She is a co-founder of the Documentary Producers Alliance and an AMPAS member.


Additional Resources

The Battle to Keep Local Journalist Alive: https://www.npr.org/2021/09/16/1037925730/the-battle-to-keep-local-journalism-alive

‘Storm Lake’ film screening discussion at SIU explores local journalism: https://thesouthern.com/news/local/siu/watch-now-storm-lake-film-screening-discussion-at-siu-explores-local-journalism/article_9a88a889-93d3-530f-9a78-e5810aa338f7.html

Newspaper documentary shows highlights and pitfalls of small town journalism: https://dailyegyptian.com/110306/uncategorized/editorial-newspaper-documentary-shows-highlights-and-pitfalls-of-small-town-journalism/

Sponsored by Carbondale Public Library, SIU School of Journalism, and Southern Illinois University

WSIU VIRTUAL FILM EVENTS Indie Lens Pop-Up is a WSIU media project that brings people together for film screenings and community-driven conversations. The project, which features documentaries from the PBS hit series Independent Lens, draws local residents together to discuss newsworthy topics to family, relationships, and more. These virtual screening events are free and open to the public.

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