Tiny, family-run Iowa newspaper wins Pulitzer for taking on agriculture companies

Tiny, family-run Iowa newspaper wins Pulitzer for taking on agriculture companies

A small-town Iowa newspaper with a staff of 10 people – most of whom are related to each other – has won a Pulitzer Prize for taking on powerful agricultural companies over farm pollution.

Art Cullen, who owns the Storm Lake Times with his brother John, acknowledged it wasn’t easy taking on agriculture in a state like Iowa where you see hundreds of miles of farm fields in every direction. The Cullens lost a few friends and a few advertisers, but never doubted they were doing the right thing.

“We’re here to challenge people’s assumptions and I think that’s what every good newspaper should do,” he said.

Among the other staff members at the Storm Lake Times is John Cullen’s wife Mary, Art’s wife Dolores and their son, Tom. The family’s dog, Mabel also hangs out at the newspaper offices most of the time, Poynter reports.

Cullen’s writing was lauded by the Pulitzer committee for “editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa”.

As well as hard-hitting news and editorials, the paper also includes local stories. On Monday, a front-page story told of how a second-grader found a four-leaf clover in the field behind her school.

Cullen told the Washington Post that he knows what readers like. “We strive to have a baby, a dog, a fire and a crash on every front page, so, yes, we do pander,” he said.

But it was the paper’s dogged coverage of farming issues affecting the state that won them the coveted journalism prize.

Buena Vista county, where the 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly newspaper is based in north-west Iowa, was one of three counties sued by Des Moines Water Works for allowing too much nitrogen to be released through farm drainage systems into rivers from which the utility draws its drinking water. The counties fought the federal lawsuit using money provided by undisclosed sources.

The newspaper worked with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council to force the release of documents showing funding came 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,” Cullen wrote in a 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.”

Cullen, 59, says he feels vindicated that the information was released.

A judge, however, dismissed the water utility’s lawsuit last month, giving the farm groups and counties a clear victory.

Cullen is proud that the Pulitzer committee recognised his small newspaper’s efforts alongside those of larger papers. The two other finalists in the editorial writing category were from the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Post.

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

Associated Press contributed to this report

Teacher who asked students to predict their futures delivers their letters – 24 years later: Student wanted to be mother and teacher…she did it!

Teacher who asked students to predict their futures delivers their letters – 24 years later: Student wanted to be mother and teacher…she did it!

EAST MARLBOROUGH When Fred Stauffer was an environmental teacher at Unionville High School back in the 1990s, he came up with an original idea to give his students an assignment to write a letter to themselves, and predict what their future would be like.

That future, 24 years later, is here.

Last month, Stauffer, with the help of Megan Plunkett-Cromer, delivered letters from students in Stauffer’s 1993 and 1994 classes. Stauffer didn’t read them all, but some of the ones he did read were doom and gloom, others eerily prophetic.

“Some of the stories were interesting,” Stauffer said. “They were supposed to be kids writing letters to themselves. Some were doomsdayers, others were pretty positive. It was a lot of fun.”

who turned 40 in April and was a student in Stauffer’s class, was surprised when Stauffer showed up at her house unannounced. Stauffer found her home when he went to her parents’ house first, and they directed him to her house right down the street.

“He gave my letter to me,” she said. “I wrote about wanting four kids, about wanting a teaching job, and other family and personal things. It was cool.”

Plunkett-Cromer has four children now, and had taught in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District before retiring to take care of her children, but she remains a PTO president.

Stauffer then asked Plunkett-Cromer to help deliver the more than 70 letters, because it had become hard to track down students who no longer lived with their parents.

Dan Fogel said he doesn’t remember writing his letter in Stauffer’s environmental science class in 1994, but he was glad to see his letter when it got delivered.

“I said world hunger will be a worse problem and more people will be cold and sick and endangered species will be an issue, and there will be disease and war,” Fogel said. “But I also said I will be married with children and have a decent living and a nice job. That part came true.”

Stauffer said he remembers reading a letter from one female student who said she wanted to be an elementary school teacher in Unionville, wanted three children and wanted to name them Mark, Heather and John. She had four children, and never used the names she predicted, but ended up becoming a teacher at Chadds-Ford Elementary School.

Stuaffer said he quit the experiment after two years when he realized he could have a problem delivering so many letters years later. He said he enjoys retirement.

“One of the most rewarding things I have seen in retirement is to see (past students) doing great things with their lives, and what they have achieved,” Stauffer said. “Teachers influence lives.”

Many of the letters are delivered, though some are not.