AFI Docs 2021 Review: Storm Lake

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde


Storm Lake directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison is more timely than ever. On the surface, it is a documentary about the struggling local news industry in the United States. But, in reality, it goes much deeper than that. While it explores the rising phenom of “news desserts”, as news shifts away from local newspapers to online coverage, it just as importantly explores the significance of community and family.  

In the doc, we are introduced to Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times. The Times, as it is affectionately called by the locals, was founded by Art’s brother John in 1990 by delivering an essential public service to the people of Storm Lake, Iowa, by covering news from a local perspective. As eloquently put by Art “without strong local journalism to tell a community story, the fabric of the place becomes frayed.” 

It seems that The Storm Lake Times is much more than a newspaper. It’s family! Art’s wife, Dolores, is a photographer; his son, Tom, is a reporter; his sister-in-law, Mary, is in charge of recipe features. Even their dog, Peach “the Newshound”, is part of the Storm Lake Times Team. Beyond this incredible family dynamic we get to learn more about the community which gives the documentary a very “lived in quality” although it really starts to drag at the end. 

Spanning a period of 4 years, from 2017 to 2021, this documentary unpacks how civic and democratic processes work in Iowa and Storm Lake, in particular, through a local lens. Throughout this experience the primacy of local journalism is emphasized as news shifts online and becomes increasingly polarized. Risius and Levison do an exquisite job of making you feel like you are living in Storm Lake and sometimes even a member of the Storm Lake Times. In the end, The Times is almost like a key into the soul of the city. I recommend this one for news junkies out there or anyone who just wants to get reacquainted with the power of local storytelling. 

Storm Lake Trailer


Storm Lake was screened as part of the AFI Docs 2021 Film Festival.

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