November 10, 2021

One day, when they knew they’d be filming late, Beth Levison and Jerry Risius told their film crew to hang around the hotel for the morning while the two directors headed into the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times. They figured not much would be happening.

Instead, the two scrambled to capture a busy news day at a small, family-owned newspaper, while the staff of the Storm Lake Times covered a serious traffic accident, an invasion of zebra mussels and the story of a local resident who was a big hit on a Spanish language television show.

“And that was just one morning,” said Risius.

Before spending nearly two years with the staff of the local paper that serves an Iowa town of about 10,000, Levison figured it was slow, sleepy work.

“I had no idea how busy and industrious and robust a local newsroom could be,” Levison said.

Another realization: “I don’t think I ever made the connection between local news and a functioning democracy.”

That connection is clear, and its state fragile, in their documentary, Storm Lake, which premiers on PBS’ “Independent Lens” at 10 p.m. Monday, Nov. 15.

Risius grew up in a small farm town of about 1,000 people, about an hour and a half away from Storm Lake. He paid attention when the paper, founded in 1990, won a Pulitzer for editorial writing in 2017. And soon, he reached out to the man who won that prize, Art Cullen.

Risius spent an afternoon with the editor and saw what he and his family were doing in covering their community. He went back and filmed a character reel, then started trying to find someone who could see what he saw in Storm Lake.

“The reel suggested something,” Levison said. “But I couldn’t see it entirely.”

In 2018, when Cullen wrote an editorial in The New York Times, “In my Iowa town, we need immigrants,” Risius shared it with her.

“It really blew me away,” Levison said. “Art’s voice was just so clear and sensible and unique.”

In March 2019, they started filming. They returned in different seasons, through the election, and watched up close how the pandemic hit local news. The Storm Lake Times lost more than 50% of its advertising revenue in the first week of the pandemic, Risius said, and its owners considered closing it.

“But they were thrown a lifeline through the PPP program and were able to limp through the pandemic,” he said. “Given Storm Lake is a meat-packing town, their reporting was tantamount to keeping the community informed about the spread of the virus, about the local hospital news and medical advice to keep the community healthy and safe. It was their lowest moment financially, but simultaneously, perhaps the most important reporting of their newspaper’s life.  For us, it showed the importance of a local news source –  that they persisted in reporting, not knowing how they were going to fare throughout the pandemic: even physically alive, or financially solvent.”

“Storm Lake” has premiered at 40 film festivals and in theatrical runs in 15 cities. In cities where the film has been screened, filmmakers partnered with local journalists to moderate community conversations.

“Storm Lake” shows one family, one newspaper and one town, but the filmmakers hope viewers will think about their own communities, local news and how they could support newsrooms that are critical, and in many cases, in critical condition.

“Storm Lake” premieres on “Independent Lens” on PBS at 10 p.m. Eastern, Nov. 15.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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