This Family-Run Rural Newspaper Won a Pulitzer for Taking On Big Agricultural Companies

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The Storm Lake Times, with a staff of just 10 people, just won a Pulitzer for its relentless coverage of big agricultural compan

In a recent issue, the front page story announced that a second-grader had found a four-leaf clover behind her school.

It was the little editorial that could. Showing that great journalism comes in all shapes and sizes, one of the surprise winners of the Pulitzer Prize, announced this week, is The Storm Lake Times — a tiny Iowa newspaper with a circulation of just 3,000.

The publication — a family-run newspaper where most of the 10 employees are related to one another — won in the editorial category for a series of editorials in response to a lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works against several Iowa counties — including Storm Lake’s Buena Vista County — accusing them of allowing farm drainage systems to release inappropriate levels of nitrogen into local rivers. The counties fought the lawsuit with the help of anonymous donations from major agribusiness companies, and editor Art Cullen and his family worked long hours uncovering the names behind the campaign.

“Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America,” Cullen, who co-owns the paper with his brother, wrote in his March 2016 editorial. “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.”

The Pulitzer Prize team lauded the “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise, and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

Unfortunately, the lawsuit was eventually dismissed by the courts, but Cullen told The Guardian that he still feels vindicated in doing what was right.

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“We’ve always believed that The Storm Lake Times should be as good at covering Storm Lake as The New York Times is at covering New York,” he told The Guardian. “There’s no reason why an editorial written in Iowa shouldn’t be as good as an editorial written in Washington.”