Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

And the Pulitzer Prize goes to… an editor in rural Iowa April 13, 2017

Art Cullen is in the center of this photo on The Storm Lake Times website. That’s his brother to the right, his son to the left.

 

HE BEAT OUT WRITERS from the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post.

He is Art Cullen, 59-year-old editor of The Storm Lake Times. On Monday he won the Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing “for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

 

A farm site just across the Minnesota-Iowa border on the west side of Interstate 35. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

That’s right. Rural Iowa. The state that welcomes visitors to “Fields of Opportunities.” The land of corn and beans and hogs. I like Iowa, just an hour south of my Minnesota home. It reminds me of my native rural southwestern Minnesota with fields, farm sites, small towns and wide open spaces.

That a writer from a northwestern Iowa community of around 10,000, from a newspaper with a circulation of 3,000, won the Pulitzer Prize delights me. You don’t need to be big city famous or work for some well-known newspaper to be recognized and honored. You just need to do outstanding work. It’s not easy being a journalist in a small town. I remember. I worked as a reporter, photographer and more at Minnesota weeklies and dailies decades ago.

To take a strong stand on the editorial page like Cullen did against corporate ag takes guts. And a deep understanding that the editorial page is the heart of the newspaper. As a journalism student at Minnesota State University, Mankato, in the late 1970s, I heard repeatedly that message of editorial importance. It ranked right up there with the basics of reporting—who, what, when, where, why and how.

 

Small farming communities define Iowa. This is downtown Garner, just across the Minnesota/Iowa border. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Cullen clearly understands community journalism and the accompanying responsibilities of a strong editorial voice no matter the risks. And there are risks—financial and otherwise. Express an unpopular opinion and you risk raising the ire of advertisers, subscribers and others. Read a sampling of Cullen’s editorials, and you begin to understand why he won the Pulitzer Prize. Here’s a man determined to consider the facts and then offer his common sense opinion.

I doubt Cullen’s new-found fame as a Pulitzer Prize winner will change how he approaches his job at The Storm Lake Times, a newspaper he co-owns with his brother and where his wife and son also work. I expect he will continue to work with the enthusiasm of a man passionate about community journalism. I appreciate that family-run newspapers like his still exist in an age when too many towns/cities have lost their hometown papers to newspaper chains. When that local ownership is lost, quality and quantity of local coverage usually diminishes.

The Storm Lake Times remains undeniably local. Alongside a photo and headline announcing the Pulitzer Prize are stories about a cat sanctuary, a second grader finding a four-leaf clover and a popular area fishing spot. It doesn’t get much more down-to-earth rural, more “this is still life in Iowa even when you win the Pulitzer Prize” than that.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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