DES MOINES, Iowa – The owner of a small-town Iowa newspaper who took on powerful agricultural groups for allowing nitrogen runoff to pollute lakes and streams and wrote that the state “has the dirtiest surface water in America,” won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on Monday.
Art Cullen, who owns the Storm Lake Times with his brother John, acknowledged it wasn’t easy taking on agriculture in a state that is the nation’s top producer of corn and No. 2 in soybeans and where farm fields stretch for hundreds of miles 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.
Cullen’s writing was lauded by the Pulitzer committee for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
Northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County, where the 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly newspaper is based, was one of three counties sued by Des Moines Water Works for allowing too much nitrogen to be released through farm drainage systems into Iowa 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 dismissed the water utility’s lawsuit last month, giving the farm groups and counties a clear victory.
Cullen is proud that the Pulitzer committee recognized 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.”