'Storm Lake,' Nov. 15, PBS

NEW YORK (CNS) -- As many as 65 million Americans live in so-called news deserts, areas with only one newspaper or none at all.

The evocative and absorbing documentary "Storm Lake" describes the struggle of the biweekly Iowa-based periodical The Storm Lake Times to survive in such a challenging environment.

Part of PBS' "Independent Lens" series, the film premieres Monday, Nov. 15, 10--11:30 p.m. EST. Viewers should consult their local listings, though, since broadcast times may vary.

Hawkeye State native Jerry Risius, best known as director of photography for numerous programs, including "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," makes his debut at the movie's helm while also serving as its cinematographer. Veteran documentarian Beth Levison co-directed and produced "Storm Lake."

Topics such as racism and conflicts over immigration, together with occasional profane and vulgar language, make this an inappropriate show for kids. But many parents may consider it acceptable for older teens in light of its informative content and the significance of the subject it treats.

Risius uses a cinema verite approach to track the owners of the Times, the Irish Catholic Cullen family, over an 18-month period, beginning in March 2019. Though he oversees a paper with only 3,000 subscribers, the Times' editor, 63-year-old Art, enjoys a national platform: His pieces often appear in The Washington Post, among other publications with a nationwide reach.

Art's high visibility springs, in part, from the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing he received in 2017. The award specifically honored a series of columns he wrote highlighting the harmful impact of large-scale corporate agriculture on Buena Vista, the county of which Storm Lake is the seat.

Although raised in the community, Art moved away to seek professional advancement. But, later, "sick of working for corporate newspapers," he returned home in 1990 when his older brother, John, founded the Times.

More than three decades later, the newspaper continues to be very much a family affair. Subsisting on Social Security and donating his time, John -- now a genial 68-year-old -- remains its publisher. Its reporting staff includes both Art's wife, Dolores, who doubles as a photographer, and his 27-year-old son, Tom.

"If it didn't happen in Buena Vista County, it didn't happen" has always been the Cullens' motto. Thus, while the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses are only a year away as the documentary opens, and candidate appearances naturally occupy a fair amount of the paper's attention, the more important stories, in Art's view, are those concerning "who's married and buried."

Other local stories on which the Cullens focus, however, have much broader implications. These include the growing anger and resentment of family farmers, the impact of climate change on corn crops and the influence on life in the Storm Lake region of increasing numbers of immigrants without legal papers.

With regard to economics, the Times "has always operated at the break-even point," Art says. While others argue the digital revolution will necessarily entail the demise of print journalism, the Cullens don't see it that way.

The real problem, they believe, are decreased ad revenues. With competition from conglomerates squeezing them, mom-and-pop businesses don't have the money to spend on advertising. Still, the family remains confident that "honest reporting will attract a crowd."

Risius' color-burnished, quietly observant cinematography adds a lyrical quality to "Storm Lake." His unobtrusive visual style, moreover, nicely complements the documentary's impassioned commentary on the importance of journalism in our society.

That theme is poignantly summarized in the text with which the film concludes: an eloquent letter from Art to Tom. "A reporter," Art writes, is the cornerstone of "an informed electorate and a functioning democracy."

"You build your community," he goes on to advise, "by publicizing good deeds done" and "by urging yourself and those around you to do better." That's a goal with which viewers will undoubtedly want to align themselves after watching this insightful program.

- - -

Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.