May 12, 2017

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

A big win for the little guy

Art Cullen has his gripes about Catholicism, but he cannot deny its influence on the work that last month won him a Pulitzer Prize.

The story went viral: Small-town newspaper editor beats out the likes of The Washington Post and the Houston Chronicle to earn journalism’s highest honor. Score one for the little guy—in this case, The Storm Lake Times, a family-owned paper in Iowa with a 10-person staff and a circulation of 3,000.

Suddenly droves of people were Googling Storm Lake, and reporters were waxing poetic. “Viewed from above on Google Earth,” wrote The Concord Monitor, “swatches of Storm Lake, Iowa, a community of 10,000, look like corduroy, so heavily is the landscape furrowed.”

At 59, Art looks the part of the rumpled newspaper editor with his gray horseshoe moustache and a glint in his eyes, his lanky frame drowning in Lee jeans and Redwing boots. His brother John is publisher of The Storm Lake Times, his son, Tom, is a reporter, and his wife, Dolores, is the photographer.

Art’s series of Pulitzer-winning editorials took on powerful agricultural groups for allowing nitrogen runoff to pollute Iowa rivers. When the Des Moines Water Works sued three counties for this offense, they fought the lawsuit using money provided by undisclosed sources. Art demanded to know who those sources were, and ultimately uncovered funding from the Farm Bureau and other agricultural groups.

“Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America,” Art wrote in a March 2016 editorial.

The editorials cost the paper at least a few advertisers, but Art was undeterred, fueled by a sense of indignation.

He also has chronicled the transformation of rural Iowa unfolding before his eyes, writing about the immigrants who settled in Storm Lake, a meat-packing town, where he said 20 languages are spoken and 88 percent of the grade-school children are of color.

Twice a week, Art wields the power of print, his newspaper ink elevating the lowly and holding the powerful accountable.

It’s what the nuns who taught him in the ’70s would’ve done. The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary at St. Mary’s School in Storm Lake were as committed to social justice and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine baseball team as they were to grammar.

Even then, he was an imperfect Catholic—a fired altar boy, as he recalls, plucked out of class one day by Sister Redempta and released from his server duties after missing 6:30 a.m. Mass.

The credo that journalism comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable could well be lifted from the Gospels. There, Art’s upbringing and his profession intersect. “I don’t think I can separate Catholic social justice from journalism,” he said.

Art understands the message behind his win: “It just shows that you don’t have to work for The New York Times to be a good writer.” His paper may lack the resources to win Pulitzers for international reporting or feature writing, but he can write editorials that make a difference in his community; that’s what the Pulitzer jury saw, he said.

Watergate inspired Art to pursue journalism at its noblest, but there was a time in his career when he felt disenchanted. “You get into rural Iowa and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not changing the world here.’ You flounder around and think, ‘I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve got something to say and nobody’s hearing it.’ And then you realize that actually this is where you’re supposed to be.”
 

(Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of SisterStory.org.)

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