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Guest Commentary

The making of a newspaperman


How Art Cullen won a Pulitzer

Editor’s Note: The following is an April 19 column from Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorial writing in The Storm Lake Times. Connections with Art and his brother John date back to my childhood days in Algona, my college days in Storm Lake and our mutual relationships with Michael Gartner and Gary Gerlach. I am proud to share this “biographical novella,” as he calls it. Congratulations, Art, and thank you for all you have done — and continue to do — for our industry, for rural Iowa and for our entire state. — Shane

The sun breaks through

Tom Cullen, Art Cullen and John Cullen of The Storm Lake Times.

Tom Cullen, Art Cullen and John Cullen of The Storm Lake Times.

Just when you think: It’s Monday, I have no column, the sun won’t shine, Republicans will control the statehouse for the rest of my life and there is no God or justice in this world …

This happens:

It’s 2 p.m. You wrenched that column out of your bowels about how a Democrat will never be governor again. You tune into and they call it out on the World Wide Web:


“For editorials, a challenge to corporate agricultural interests in Iowa, the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing goes to Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times.”

The sun broke through.

The calls exploded

Former Sen. Tom Harkin, my progressive populist political hero and best friend of Storm Lake, rang me up. We carped about Donald Trump and Steve King for a good half hour. We both wished he were 20 years younger.

Former Secretary of Agriculture and Gov. Tom Vilsack and best friend of Storm Lake rang me up. He and Christie got me crying. I have a framed note from him at my desk on his gold-sealed letterhead from when he was at USDA. It says: “Your article hit the nail on the head about Rural America. Thanks for your thoughtful perspective. We need folks to understand the potential — which is unlimited.” That note means the world to me. I was a blubbering fool on the phone.

Then former Gov. Chet Culver called. This one was tricky. We endorsed Mike Blouin in the primary against him. We never forgot that Culver’s administration ran off Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Vonk, the best friend of Storm Lake — and said so repeatedly. Culver didn’t want anything but to congratulate us. We hashed out everything. And I have to tell you that Chet Culver is a bigger man than me in more ways than one. The Big Lug has a big soul. He made me drop my guard.

The phones and Facebook and Twitter were exploding for our 15 minutes of fame that lasted from Monday afternoon well into Tuesday morning. I was trying to get my act together Monday afternoon after hugging Fearless Leader John and Fearless Reporter Tom, my Big Brother and Loving Son respectively.

I was trying to lock up our front page Tuesday with the studhorse bold hed: “THE TIMES WINS THE 2017 PULITZER PRIZE. BUENA VISTA COUNTY’S HOMETOWN NEWSPAPER BEATS WASHINGTON POST, HOUSTON CHRONICLE”. The phone won’t leave me alone, in particular a BBC producer who was doing what I tell Tom to do: If at first they don’t call back, try again. The good Brit tried and tried again. I told him to bugger off until after 11 a.m. Then I hung up the phone and cursed to my patient wife, Dolores: “Why can’t a (bleeping) Irishman call?!!”

What say, Irish national radio just phoned to ask if you could sling a little blarney.

My confirmation name is Thomas, after the doubter.

This is weird.

A secret is revealed:

Somehow I knew this would happen.

At about 2:01 my heart was thumping out of its cage.

The Elks Lodge in the Sky

St. John Bosco, patron saint of editors and pressmen, was leaning heavily on Brett Stephens of The Wall Street Journal, who chaired the Pulitzer editorial writing jury of five.

Pulitzer Administrator Mike Pride called out the winners in international reporting, local reporting, national reporting and about a dozen others. The Washington Post, The New York Times, the New York Daily News.

And then The Storm Lake Times.

I shot out of my chair and bumped my head on the breaking clouds.

“We won! We won! Holy (manure) we won!”

John thought I was going to meet our parents, Pat and Eileen, up in the Elks Lodge in the Sky (as John put it first, darn it) or for a brief visit to the Cherokee Mental Health Institute before Branstad shuts it down.

I’d been in conversations with the saints, to be assured.

Never one to keep a secret, I allowed myself to be scooped by telling Erik Wemple of The Washington Post that we will donate the $15,000 in prize money to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Catholic Charities, halvesies — after we blow some of it on a good jag. When the bar tab is paid, we hope to have at least $5 left for IFOIC and a Big Mac and fries for Catholic Charities.

IFOIC deserves to share the award, if not all the cash prize, with The Times for its support in our struggle to make public attorney billing records and other documents from the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. The lawsuit alleged that drainage districts were polluting the Raccoon River, and it sought to regulate drainage tiles under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.

The Agribusiness Association of Iowa set up a fund to cover the counties’ defense costs. We wanted to know who the donors were. Nobody would tell us. IFOIC Director Randy Evans of Des Moines joined us by writing fancy letters quoting the Iowa public records law, and by helping shape our story.

We published scads of editorials over the past two years on the topic seeking transparency and a settlement of the case. While we were able to put pressure on to shut down the dark money in our court system — the bar calls it “third-party defense financing” — the counties ultimately won the case with the water works. US District Court Judge Leonard Strand dismissed the lawsuit because the drainage districts and counties lacked standing to be sued.

The water quality issues remain.

We took some heat for our editorials, even our straight news reporting by Tom. We were accused of being anti-farmer.

Some of my best friends are farmers.

Like Big John Snyder and his son, Matt, who we featured every Fourth of July for 25 years standing in a corn field, measuring the boy against the maize. It was our annual ode to the Sulphur Springs Farmer until Matt decided to get bigger than John and had another little Snyder of his own.

My wife is a farmer, having grown up where her father Ernie tilled next to the Des Moines River at St. Joe. My Grandpa Art Murray of Bancroft made a fortune converting swamp to fertile farmland through drainage. The proceeds from his work were used to seed the founding of The Storm Lake Times, ironically.

It was not about farming per se. It was about transparency in Buena Vista County government. And it was about how Iowa needs to use sustainable methods to keep agriculture and the environment whole, using a scientifically based regulatory framework that binds virtually every other enterprise but agri-business.

We suffered with the farmers of Kossuth County, John and I, when we served successively as editor of the Algona Upper Des Moines and the Kossuth County Advance during the Farm Debt Crisis of the 1980s. John left Algona to find a woman and take a job at Buena Vista University in public relations. He found Mary. I stayed on and gave up on marriage. Tom Wallace, my photographer buddy who replaced John’s eye at the Upper Des Moines, would sit with me at the same restaurant every night trying to figure out how to live like monks on Scotch.

The next day, I was pasting up a page — yes, indeed, the Opinion Page — at the Algona office when the summer intern’s sister walked in wearing Spandex bike shorts. It was lust at first sight, then after three dates love, and six months later we married along the Des Moines River at St. Joe. In a blizzard.

Dolores gave us Tom, along with his twin Kieran and Joe and Clare. Dolores and Mabel the Newshound keep the news coming that makes a community while Tom haunts the courthouse and I, like the late great reporter Joe O’Malley, lay back at the office and think great thoughts.

How did that happen?

A carton of smokes

We published our first newspaper when I was in junior high. Our English teacher at St. Mary’s, Sister I Can’t Remember Her Name PBVM, told us about the First Amendment. She said we were free to express ourselves. Dan Statz, Charlie Dick, Guy Golvin and I decided to push the envelope and see how far the Constitution would stretch in a dictatorship. We commandeered Brother Jim’s mimeograph machine, on which he published Ampersand, an underground newspaper for St. Mary’s High School. We started in competition with Schizophrenia. I was the editor, Charlie was the senior writer, Dan was our ace columnist and Guy was the art director.

Our first issue broke all newsstand sales records. We spent the proceeds on a carton of smokes. A classmate revealed our identities under duress, and we were first called into the principal’s office under the stairwell where we were met by a stern Sister Maureen, who sent us over to the Rectory — No Lord, not the Rectory, please, a thousand years in purgatory but not the dark recesses of the Rectory — where we would be tried by Msgr. Sweeney for heresy, libel, poor taste and treason against the Holy Roman Empire. He told us to give the money back from our ill-gotten sales. We had to admit we had smoked it. He said he was going to put a red note in our file that would stay with us forever.

I purchased a Kevlar flak jacket using secret cash proceeds from illegal cigarette sales in the St. Mary’s parking lot before I went home that night for the whipping of my life.

I found Mom and Dad settled in with a highball laughing like Red Skelton.

Anything in defense of satire and iconoclasm. That was the message I got.

Sister Ruth Marie, knowing I was marked with the cardinal letter, told me in high school that I “have a way with words” but I consistently failed to apply myself. I used an Alford defense and got out of town pledging never to return.

No panache

I told Mom I was going to attend the University of Iowa so that I might perfect beer drinking with John Johnston, John McKenna and Ab Tymeson.

“The hell you are,” the English graduate of the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul said. “You’re going to St. Thomas.”

It was the family school, brother academy to St. Kate’s. All men. I protested, but she told me if I left to Iowa City don’t bother to return to Storm Lake. You did not question Eileen Cullen’s declarations, so I packed for St. Paul.

Music would be my major. No, they said, you can’t play the piano. How about theatre? You must read large volumes of history. Okay, then, business. I flunked accounting because I never did the work sheets. (Never applied myself.) With an Ireland Hall eviction notice on the way, I had to recover fast. I went through the college catalogue in a haze and landed on journalism. The only requirement was that you type 25 words per minute. I could do 26, thanks to St. Mary’s typing teacher Rose Sessions.

Father Whalen, a Madison Avenue ad man before donning the collar, sized me up and tamped his pipe during his Persuasion in Writing Lectures and shook his head, thinking: “Kid, you have no panache.”

Get a job

This college thing wasn’t for me. I went home on break whining about how I was broke and how could I possibly afford to add to my Schmidt decorative beer can collection? Big Brother John, who was sports editor at the Storm Lake Register and Pilot-Tribune, told me to get off the couch and get a job.

Shooed back to St. Paul, I whined to my journalism advisor, Prof. Norm Larson about how mean my big brother was. He told me to get a job, too. He knew just the person to call, Gary Heer, supervisor of the copy boys, as Norm had worked at the Minneapolis Tribune as a copy editor.

There was no way out. I had to go get a job. Heer was nice enough to hire me.

That’s where I got my real Introduction to Journalism 101 — ripping teletypes, jumping when Asst. City Editor Terry Murphy (who had my number) yelled “COPY!”, occasionally fetching coffee and hanging around to eavesdrop while big decisions were made by the sharpest minds in the Twin Cities.

We had just put the Sunday paper to bed and raced across the street for Last Call at the Little Wagon when the bar phone rang. It was the Associated Press in New York calling. “Hey, the Pope died,” the bartender said. “What Pope?” the night managing editor Steve Ronald said. “We just got a new Pope. Is there some other Pope?” The bartender gave him the phone and started pouring our drinks into Styrofoam cups in violation of Minneapolis city ordinance. It was trumped by the call of the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall not violate Last Call.

We ran back across to the Trib. I was told to find everything I could in the clipping morgue on Pope John Paul. They ripped up the newspaper in no time, remade it and called back the fleet of Teamsters rolling out to North Dakota with the Sunday paper.

“Stop the presses!” somebody must have cried.

Right then and there, I decided this was for me.

And then my time was up. St. Thomas had enough of me. Father Whalen had done everything he could. I went to the authorities at the Trib and told them that I had to leave unless I could get a job as a reporter. They told me to inquire in the human resources office, where I sat down for a lovely exit interview. I think they stamped my file “drunk, disorderly, disheveled.”

Harvey Ingham’s chair

Big Brother John came to the rescue and got me a job at the Algona Upper Des Moines, where I learned about local banker Gardner Cowles. His editor friend Harvey Ingham moved to Des Moines to edit The Register and Leader, which were faltering in their battle with the Capitol and the Tribune. He implored Cowles to buy the R&L, which he did and turned it into the juggernaut that was to become The Des Moines Register and Tribune, the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, WCCO in Minneapolis and KCCI in Des Moines, and Look Magazine.

There I was in Algona sitting in Harvey Ingham’s old chair.

Michael Gartner and Gary Gerlach came along one day and bought the Algona paper from the guy who hired me, Denny Waller, whose family was a hard-bitten newspaper bunch that seldom walked away from a donnybrook. My first real story was covering the tornado that destroyed much of Algona on June 28, 1979. Denny’s dad, Russ, a grizzled old publisher, served as my personal editor and cut my teeth in spot news reporting. “This is crap. Get out of the way and get the news up front. Rewrite it, and fast!”

I owe the Wallers and Big Brother John everything in my career.

Denny was done in by high interest rates that killed off so many Kossuth County farmers. He got his start at Look Magazine. The G-Men had just been fired as the editor and publisher respectively of The Register for trying to buy the paper from the Cowles trust heirs. It was a complicated deal, but it ended up that Gannett bought The Register and the Minneapolis operations were sold and a lot of hearts were broken. Thank goodness the Strib is in the steady hands of Minnesota lover Glen Taylor today.

Gartner called Algona the “flagskiff” of their chain that came to include The Daily Tribune of Ames and, briefly, The Worthington Daily Globe. They packed me off for Ames when they got the keys, and my buddy Tom Wallace went down with me. Tom is now a features photo editor at the Minneapolis StarTribune and is godfather to my oldest son.

Changing breezes propelled me to a hitch in Mason City, and then home to Storm Lake in 1990 when Big Brother John had the crazy idea to start a weekly newspaper in our hometown that would compete against an incumbent chain-owned paper (that John once edited).

Print the truth and raise hell

John told me to put up an editorial page that would be the soul of the newspaper and the conscience of the community.

That’s how we merrily set on our way 27 years ago.

Print the truth and raise hell. Otherwise, you can make better money selling shoes. That’s what Gerlach told me.

But how will that work in an age when newspapers are said to be in decline, and with a couple brothers who had more sweat and vinegar than good sense? We went daily for a year. It cost us $120,000. We ran a shopping guide for a year. It cost us $120,000. We bought a press. It cost us $150,000. Our debt was over $500,000 and we had six little kids leaving diapers under our desks that had uncashed paychecks in their drawers so we could cover payroll.

This ship could go down, I thought to myself. John thought the same thing. But we never, ever said that to each other.

How did it not? By Tim Gallagher and Tim Cavanaugh and me driving to the printer in LeMars at 6 a.m. after we put The Times to bed literally on our hands and knees on the floor in our 20×20-foot office on Michigan Street. By running our own press at 1 a.m. after 10 hours of breakdowns, trying to make the morning mail truck. For a time, I was our only pressman. So I might be the only person who made love to a Harris V15A on a Saturday night — it was a filthy affair — who also won the Pulitzer Prize.

I suggested to John one Monday many moons ago that perhaps my time would be better spent selling ads than writing the column that never wants to come.

“The hell you are,” John said.

I have filed a weekly column without exception — not without fail — since 1990. And I have written an editorial in every edition. No rest for the wicked.

John made it clear to me that it is the most important thing we do.

There is no publisher in the whole wide world like that anymore. None who believes it like John does, for sure.

So we kept at it.

We’re still here, and I still have uncashed paychecks.

Keep Iowa clean

We have held to two themes through thick and thin:

First, I told Tim Gallagher on my first day here — I remember it clearly — that the immigration story was the most important and compelling we could possibly tell. The second story was the painful change underway in rural America — its corporate consolidation, the tightening ag supply chain, depopulation, world trade and interest rates and, yes, the nexus where agriculture and the environment conflict. And our third theme was open government — Iowa’s entire reputation is built on integrity and honesty, and the state has always led the USA in keeping government open and accessible to everyone.

As I recently told a video documentary producer, two things define America in our mind: the Statue of Liberty and the First Amendment. We are a nation of immigrants. We are a free people.

And we have a moral obligation to keep Iowa clean.

To hell with the Pulitzers

A few years ago Gartner told me we should enter the Pulitzer Prizes. We do not enter contests normally, because you can end up writing for other editors who judge contests and not for John Snyder over in Sulphur. But Gartner is the smartest guy I know, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing while at The Daily Tribune in Ames, where I had served as his caretaker while he was running NBC News.

So we gave it a shot three years ago and lost. Gartner said I was the best, and that was all that mattered to me. To hell with the Pulitzers, I thought.

Gartner suggested it again and fed my ego, which is really what this is about.

So I entered in January, the 10 editorials about the water works. It was the little guy fighting the big guy. I knew it. I sent Gartner the entry for his review. He did not respond. The hunch hit me. I was right, for once.

But why? What’s it all mean, Mr. Natural? No, it does mean something.

Why was I sent to my purgation in Algona, where I met Tom Wallace and Dolores Gales and the Wallers? Why did it allow John and me to figure out that we work hand-in-glove together? Why was I thrown into the Cowles tradition and hooked up with Gartner? Why was I led to immigrants who have nothing? How did I meet the smartest farmer in the world, Jim Benson of Marathon, who showed me how to see around an issue 360 degrees?

What got us to campaign for dredging Storm Lake? What plopped me down in a bus to challenge Jeff Vonk to do it, and he in turn challenge me to get off my duff and help Gary Lalone lobby for it? How was it that Gartner was chairman of the Vision Iowa Board when Vonk and Lalone came up with the idea for a destination resort over a bottle of wine? “We need $10 million,” I told Gartner. “Will $8 million do?” Gartner responded. “Deal,” I said.

Why did Jim Robinson walk in the door to fix our press one day and stay here for years? Why is his daughter Whitney our sales manager now that Jim is fishing full-time? How is it that Jim, the son of one of our dad’s best friends, takes me around to every one of Northwest Iowa’s glacial lakes to show me how they were dying and to photograph it for the sake of historical documentation? Nobody would talk to us about it, and the story sort of died.

I was showing Jim’s photographs at the annual meeting of the Iowa Environmental Council about four years ago in Des Moines. Sitting next to me on the speaker’s panel was Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works. He saw Jim’s photos and said, “We’re going to sue your county.”

We reported the story immediately.

The state ignored us.

The county ignored us.

Then the lawsuit was filed.

Never shut up

As my old political mentor from Algona, Joe Bradley, once said, “Those Cullens would rather fight than eat.”

He understood us, if the Agribusiness Association of Iowa did not.

Why did they ignore us? Why did they refuse and rebut us over public records? Why did they pick the guy whose head starts spinning on its skinny neck when you tell him, “No, you can’t see those records.” Nothing, but nothing lights our fuse like that.

Why did it play that way, with me, of all the former ginjoint customers in the world?

Mom said I never shut up once I learned to start talking.

It’s time to quit asking questions. But that is what I do for a living.

What am I supposed to do with this?

Somebody is leaning on me.


No, not that. I hated sledding.

“Print the truth and let the chips fall where they may.” Harvey Ingham to a young Register reporter.”

Yeah, that. ♦

Reprinted with permission from The Storm Lake Times.





One Comment

  1. mike blair says:

    Bring back the old weekly magazine.More up to date and interesting,plus I got something to read more often.

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