Monday, September 24, 2018

Julian Emerson

Small-town newspaper editor inspiring

  • Cullen-Art-030918

    Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his series of editorials taking on secrecy and big agriculture.

    Contributed photo

I first met Brad Henderson back in the late 1990s while writing stories for the Leader-Telegram about an upcoming Eau Claire school district referendum.

Henderson was a parent of a daughter who attended Boyd School in Eau Claire’s East Side Hill neighborhood and was highly involved in promoting the need to replace that school and other upgrades included in the referendum.

Given that our initial interactions involved journalism, maybe it’s not surprising that many discussions between us as we became friends in ensuing years involved newspaper-related topics.

That was the case again a few days ago when I received a text from Henderson. He was in Kansas City, Mo., where he was attending the National Farmers Union Convention. Henderson and his wife Julie moved from Eau Claire a few years ago to manage Kamp Kenwood, a location along the shores of Lake Wissota in rural Chippewa Falls that is owned by Wisconsin Farmers Union and hosts camps and weddings.

On Monday morning I received a text from Henderson stating “Just met a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at the NFU convention! Art Cullen from Storm Lake, Iowa.”

Cullen was one of the keynote speakers at the NFU convention.

I knew right away who Henderson was talking about. Cullen’s name stuck in my mind because his winning a Pulitzer last year seemed so unlikely — a feel-good story among that year’s award winners.

The 60-year-old editor of the twice-weekly Storm Lake Times in Storm Lake, Iowa, a city of 10,600 in the northwestern part of the state, garnered a coveted Pulitzer for writing a series of 10 editorials that challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa. Small newspapers like the Storm Lake Times typically aren’t anywhere near Pulitzer level.

Cullen’s editorials tackled a lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works against drainage districts in Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties in northwestern Iowa. The lawsuit accused the districts of funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River. Cullen’s work took on a fund organized by the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, which was being used for the three counties’ legal defense. Donors’ names were being kept secret.

Cullen opposed that secrecy, arguing it was in the public’s best interest for citizens to know who was behind the effort presumably polluting the river. His insistence on transparency prompted action. The fund was later disbanded, and the lawsuit was dismissed in March.

Henderson said he was inspired after hearing Cullen address those attending the NFU convention. The editor talked mostly about his concerns about the practices of big agriculture and how they are adversely impacting the environment.

“As someone involved with Wisconsin Farmers Union, it was affirming to see (Cullen’s) strong ties to rural land,” Henderson said. “To see the recognition he received for bucking the system, for taking on big agriculture because of his concern for small farmers and the land ... it inspires you to think maybe you can make a difference of some sort too.”


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