By Chris Adams
The first time he entered his work for a Pulitzer Prize, Art Cullen came away with nothing.
“And I said, ‘Ah, the heck with it, I’m not entering another contest in my life,’ ” Cullen said. “Let’s just serve our readers and forget about this stuff.”
Easier said than done. A few years later, Cullen wrote a series of editorials for The Storm Lake Times that highlighted the water-quality problems caused by farm runoff – and the efforts by local officials to hide who was supporting a lawsuit over the issue. Cullen’s writing is fiery and aggressive.
“Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes,” he wrote in one editorial. “Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.”
He knew he had something good, and so Cullen sent off an entry to the Pulitzer Prize. This time he won.
On April 10, he was watching the livestream at the Pulitzer website when his name was called as winner of the $15,000 prize for editorial writing. He let out a shout – along with some salty language – to his brother John, who had founded the newspaper and was sitting five feet away.
“We got up and hugged each other – which is the first time we’ve hugged each other maybe in our lives,” he said. “We’re not big huggers.”
Cullen beat out two other finalists, one from The Washington Post and one from the Houston Chronicle.
Cullen had no advance warning on the win. Although the Pulitzer process is supposed to be secret, word often leaks about who the finalists are and who the winners are (for each category, first-round Pulitzer jurors select three finalists, which then are forwarded to an overall board to pick winners).
“It was completely out of the blue. I’m not in the Beltway, so I don’t get the leaks,” Cullen said.
John Cullen started the paper in 1990, deciding to compete in a market that already had a newspaper. For a while, both papers were daily; the Times now prints twice a week, its competitor three times. The Times’ circulation is 3,000.
The Times is a family enterprise; Art’s wife Delores is an illustrator, photographer and feature writer; son Tom is a reporter and played an important part in unearthing information about the water-quality lawsuit that became part of his father’s editorials. They are joined by other family members, including Mabel the newshound, who greets customers coming in the front door.
Nestled in deeply Republican Northwest Iowa – and represented in Congress by conservative firebrand Steve King – Storm Lake is immigrant-heavy and Democratic, matching Cullen’s politics and his editorials.
Cullen believes the provocative editorials and his progressive politics help bring in some readers. But beyond that, the paper’s formula is pretty simple: Cover local events and sports, connecting with as many families as possible.
“We want to cover every refrigerator in Buena Vista County with pictures,” he said. “That’s our goal. That’s how we try to sell newspapers – through celebrating families and so on. And then you put the serious news in there, too, and fulfill your mission.”