Straight talk from Storm Lake wins Pulitzer Prize

By Joe Sheller / Guest Column

In a quick check of the Pulitzer Prize website,, I found four prizes in journalism that have been awarded to Iowa news organizations.

In 1936, the Cedar Rapids Gazette won the Public Service category. In 1956, Lauren K. Soth of the Des Moines Register and Tribune won for editorial writing. In 1997, Michael Gartner of The Ames Tribune won for editorials.

And this April, Art Cullen of The Storm Lake Times won for editorials published in 2016 about the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against drainage districts in three Iowa counties.

There may be others I overlooked. Certainly, there are more Pulitzer Prizes, particularly for literature, with Iowa roots – the University of Iowa Alumni Association lists these on its website:

But it’s heartening to an Iowa journalism professor to see a Pulitzer for journalism come to the land of corn and soybeans. In news reports about the prize, Mr. Cullen has spoken about how even small towns deserve the same quality of editorial writing that any big city can boast.

Mr. Cullen is the editor and co-owner of a newspaper that comes out twice a week in Storm Lake, population 11,000, and the county seat of Buena Vista County. That county’s conservation drainage district was one of three sued in 2016 by the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution. The lawsuit was dismissed in court, but in the meantime, in the 10 editorials published in 2016 that won the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Cullen provided plenty of provocative straight talk on the issue.

“Anybody with eyes and nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America,” he wrote on March 3, 2016.

If you’re curious, you can read Mr. Cullen’s editorials at The Pulitzer organization also reproduced the editorials at

Mr. Cullen’s prize, according to the Pulitzer organization, was for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

The editorials do have plenty of edge. Mr. Cullen does not mince words. But he is a business owner himself, and farmers drink Iowa’s polluted water, too. I don’t think Mr. Cullen would see his editorials as anti-business, and certainly not anti-farmer, although he would be proud to be seen as taking on powerful corporate interests.

Still, he is also willing to wave a red flag in front of the most sacred of Iowa cows: farmers.

“The truth is we can’t dump a barrel of ink down the drain without impunity,” Mr. Cullen’s editorial from Aug. 30, 2016 states. “Why should a farmer be allowed to dump a couple tons of phosphorous-laden soil into the Raccoon?”

In his editorials, Mr. Cullen states several times that he sees the restoration of conservation practices as the practical and relatively inexpensive solution to Iowa’s water quality issues. I don’t have the expertise to judge whether he is right. He makes a compelling case, however. And that’s what editorials should do – make compelling cases that advance public discourse.

The Pulitzer prizes are a legacy of Joseph Pulitzer, the 19th century newspaper titan who founded the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and then went on to dominate the crowded newspaper market in New York City with his immigrant-friendly newspaper, The New York World.

The World broke new ground in many ways by using colorful, visual layouts and dramatic storytelling.

It was also sometimes sensational. But Mr. Pulitzer was adamant that his journalists not only get to the bottom of a story, but also that they be faithful to the facts. His credo for his journalists is a motto for the profession: the goal for the reporter, he enjoined, was “Accuracy! Accuracy!! Accuracy!!!”

In his will, Joseph Pulitzer left an endowment for the establishment of prizes that recognize the best in American literary works and journalism. And, 100 years after the prizes began to be awarded, a tiny Iowa newspaper and its editor has won the nation’s most prestigious journalism award.

#Iowaproud. Now, if we can just clean up the water.

Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at