It’s 9:35 in the morning in Storm Lake, Iowa, and Art Cullen steps outside for a smoke. His reporters are doing that thing again. The not handing their copy in on time thing, the taking too long to polish sentences thing, and more or less failing to sufficiently grasp the kinds of existential realities that befall the editor of one of journalism’s last living dinosaurs. Which is another way of saying, Cullen’s is a family-run, twice-weekly print newspaper that’s somehow still hung around since the industry’s paleozoic era. A dinosaur that, so far, has defied the the asteroid of the Internet, notwithstanding the extinction-level danger it conveys.
The first sound you hear in Storm Lake — a new documentary about the The Storm Lake Times, a newspaper with a circulation of about 3,000 readers — is the clacking of computer keyboards. But on this particular morning, their musicality apparently belies an absence of appropriate speed. “I get real uptight about deadlines,” Cullen says, after stepping outside for a smoke break.
He takes a drag of his cigarette, with his back to the camera. Then turns back around.
“Every hour we’re late, it costs us 100 bucks.”
“You know …” and here, he flashes a beatific smile at the documentarian’s camera which has become a fixture in his newsroom. “Jesus, you’ve been doing this for 40 years, and people still don’t know what time it is.”
On one level, that was a quip leveled at nameless deadline-challenged reporters. But it also speaks to everything happening outside the paper-strewn, familial newsroom of The Storm Lake Times. What time is it, exactly, in journalism today, when the old rules that got us here can sometimes feel ill-equipped to keep the walls from closing in and putting a never ending procession of journalists out of work? “My brother founded the newspaper in 1990,” Cullen says at one point in this documentary, one of the best of 2021’s movies and TV shows about the profession. “With the belief that honest reporting would attract a crowd. It has.” But it won’t indefinitely.
At this point, we’re veering into what’s become a depressingly old story. And that story only ends in one of two ways. Either venerable news institutions keep dying. Or, like Blanche DuBois, they get to keep hanging on. By relying on the kindness of strangers.
Accordingly, 2021 has produced several TV shows and movies, like Storm Lake, that each in their own way make clear how necessary a robust journalistic enterprise is to the civic life of a place. Also, how vital the profession is around the world — and the price that journalists pay in pursuit of this work. These are some of my favorites from the past year, in no particular order:
Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump
This six-part HBO docuseries about a small-market TV news station, based about an hour outside Las Vegas, is sort of like The Office meets … well, a TV newsroom. One where the days are demarcated by regular news broadcasts, live news segments, and recording ads for clients to keep the ad dollars rolling in.
The people are the heart and soul of this story about a certain kind of journalism — local TV news that’s too easily overlooked when everything’s just one click away on a smartphone. There’s gregarious Vern Van Winkle, the station owner, along with his more even-keeled wife Ronda. “I always wanted people to have a visual concept of what was happening in their community,” Vern told me. “So they could see it and relate to it first-hand. Instead of a print version, of what somebody said happened.”
The heart of the station is Deanna, a sardonic jack-of-all-trades who pulls triple duty as an anchor, news director and on-the-scene reporter. Eunette, an anchor with a megawatt smile, radiates positivity. And then there’s another husband-and-wife team — Missey and John, transplants from Alaska. Missey helps out behind the anchor desk. And John steps in to be the weather guy, because … well, he can read a teleprompter, so why not? From start to finish, this series is as much a joy as it is a love letter to journalism.
Making this season of the show all the more interesting: It coincided with the 2020 presidential election, as well as the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
I don’t understand how Italian TV journalist Pino Maniaci is still alive. Come to think of it, the fact seems to befuddle him, as well. “Every time I start my car, I close my eyes,” Maniaci says in the trailer for the Netflix series Vendetta: Truth, Lies and the Mafia.
Upon first glance, Maniaci — who runs a TV station in Sicily called Telejato — looks like what you might get if the animators at Pixar produced a sketch of a journalist. He’s not physically imposing, but everything else about him is, from the almost comically outsized mustache to the brash personality he brings to his anti-Mafia coverage. The series eventually coalesces around the way he locks horns with a prosecutor. She accuses Maniaci of being in league with the mafia. He accuses her just as forcefully — no, you’re the corrupt one. It’s you who’s on the take.
In an email, filmmakers Davide Gambino and Ruggero DiMaggio told me the genesis of this project stretches back 15 years ago — when Ruggero was watching one of Maniaci’s TV broadcasts during which he called mafia bosses “pieces of (expletive)” on air. Needless to say, “this was a unique and dangerous way to address them.” They continued in their note to me:
“For us as Sicilians and Italians, Pino is one of the most interesting characters ever. He has inside himself truth and lies, lights and shadows. More than in saint or heroes, we are interested in three-dimensional characters who stimulate a compelling (narrative).”
Succession (Season 3)
Ah, media Twitter’s favorite HBO series. The one about a News Corp.-like media conglomerate, run by a snarling, vituperative, Murdoch-like founder and CEO. And which has, with the arrival of the long-awaited third season in mid-October, given us once again a deliciously ugly snapshot of how the whims and bizarre predilections of a filthy rich family can determine the fate of a major media company. Yes, it’s fiction, but here’s where it’s probably worth inserting something about art imitating life.
Sometimes, it’s industry trends that run roughshod over otherwise valiant journalism enterprises. Other times? It’s the rapacious businessmen more comfortable in boardrooms than newsrooms — and who, like Kendall Roy, say things like: “On a dumb level, I’d like my Twitter to be off the hook” — who bear some responsibility for what ails this industry.
One thing worth reiterating about Storm Lake is that it’s streaming through mid-December at pbs.org. After that, the film will become available via VOD platforms like Amazon and iTunes.
Journalists from across the spectrum are raving about this documentary, which is reminiscent of 2011’s Page One: Inside The New York Times. And where late NYT media columnist David Carr was the most memorable figure in that previous doc, Cullen is the Carr-like figure at the center of this new one. Local journalism is often talked about in grim, apocalyptic tones — so much so, that it’s easy to forget there are still newspapers like this one, staffed by people without TV contracts and big, fancy newsrooms. Who still make the calls, knock on the doors, cover the meetings, and tell the story of a place — one byline at a time.
USA Today columnist Jill Lawrence took to Twitter with her verdict about the movie: “You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll remember the debacle of the 2020 Iowa caucuses and the stealth spread of COVID in rural meat plants before it exploded into view. And you’ll pray for local journalism.”
The French Dispatch
Director Wes Anderson’s newest film is a precociously affectionate valentine to journalism, in the same way that something like HBO’s Small Town News is — while also, of course, offering the viewing a completely difference finished product.
I’m adding this one to the list because — while, yes, it’s fiction, there’s also something timeless, substantive and incredibly meaningful to be found here. The gist of the story is that Bill Murray is/was the editor of an American magazine in the most picturesque, made-for-Instagram French town you could ever lay eyes on. His staff comes together to prepare one final issue of the magazine, which is supposed to cease publication upon his death. Indeed, Murray’s avuncular editor stipulates that fact in his will.
The magazine’s lovably oddball journalists prepare a few feature stories, plus a travel column as well as an obituary for the final issue. It’s all so whimsical, weird, and compelling, watching these writers’ stories unfold — the real thing is much more prosaic and unromantic — and it’s easy to leave a movie like this and feel like we don’t pursue enough beauty for its own sake in journalism. The French Dispatch, and more or less all the movies and shows listed herein, might even make you come to appreciate, if you don’t already, the men and women who capture narrative Polaroids of their little corners of the world.
There are worse ways to make a living. After all, it’s like Jeffrey Wright’s character — a food writer named Roebuck Wright — rhapsodizes towards the end of The French Dispatch:
“Maybe with good luck we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.”