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

 

Yes, I sent this to Jay Leno June 11, 2013

I HOPE THE SON of my long ago boss possesses a sense of humor. When I received my June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub, a community newspaper in Gaylord in southern Minnesota, I chuckled at the in-house subscription renewal ad published on the classified ads page.

Fortunately, I am not about to expire. Or at least I hope not.

Published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

Read the ‘Hub’scription ad published in the June 6 issue of The Gaylord Hub.

And, yes, I mailed this to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for consideration.

Now, please continue reading of my association with, and deep appreciation for, The Gaylord Hub in a letter addressed to the current publisher and editor, Joe Deis.

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Dear Joe,

Thirty-five years have passed since I arrived at your dad’s weekly newspaper fresh out of college with a journalism degree ready to set the world afire. Or at least Gaylord, Minnesota.

Your father, Publisher and Editor Jim Deis, set up a corner office furnished with a desk and chair and equipped with a phone and a Remington manual typewriter. He also handed me a stash of thin yellow paper upon which to type my news stories. (Yes, I can hear the quips about yellow journalism.)

Being the first reporter ever hired to cover happenings in Gaylord, I came to The Gaylord Hub in 1978 as a bit of a shock to the locals. Here was this 21-year-old out-of-towner suddenly asking questions, quoting public officials and seeking out stories beyond the usual Legion Fish Fry.

I was particularly disliked by the school superintendent; by a certain teacher, whom I quoted (how dare you do that) at a school board meeting; and by a local realtor, whom I had also quoted at a city council meeting. I will never forget their anger—which to this day I find totally unsuited to men in these positions. When you speak at a public meeting, expect to be quoted.

Your dad, bless him, totally backed me up. On everything. He knew my standards, my dedication, my journalistic ethics in getting it right. Today I still hold to the highest standards in decency, fairness and accuracy.

For two years I covered news and events in Gaylord, transitioning from greenhand to experienced in all aspects of community journalism—reporting to photography to lay-out to overseeing the final product at the printing plant to delivering the bagged newspapers to the post office.

I covered major fires (church, school and chicken barn), wrote about tragic accidents, sat through endless public meetings, found local angles in national news stories, covered the controversy over chicken barns and more.

Joe, I shall be forever grateful for your dad’s guidance those first years as a reporter. Every newbie needs a mentor and Jim was mine.

All these decades after exiting Gaylord for work at another weekly newspaper and thereafter a southern Minnesota daily, I still get The Hub each week. I read the familiar names, sometimes in the obituaries now (including your dad). And I think back on those long ago years of entering journalism shortly after Watergate was exposed by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

The profession was wide open then; I had my pick of jobs.

So much has changed. While community newspapers like yours still exist, many papers today are owned by large media companies. With that often comes a loss of community connection and care. Not always. But finances, more and more, take precedence over the editorial side. The internet, certainly, has factored into the demise of the newspaper as we once knew it.

Times change. I got out of the newspaper profession decades ago, knowing the long and odd hours would not be conducive to raising a family. My family became my focus and I’ve never regretted that choice.

Yet, during those years away, I never lost my passion for writing and have returned to writing, although not at a newspaper. (Click here to read a list of the projects I’ve pursued in recent years.)

All of that said, I find it remarkable, Joe, that you are carrying on the tradition of community journalism established first by your grandfather, Frank “Chick” Deis, and then by your father, Jim. Three generations running a small town newspaper. Outstanding, from my perspective.

Warm regards,

Audrey, “The Cub from The Hub

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling