The last day of 2021 is a good time to dig into my ideas file and pull out a couple of Cliffs Notes versions.


One story I’ve wanted to write for some time is about Storm Lake’s Art Cullen, who looks and sometimes acts a lot like Mark Twain. Cullen won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for editorials in his family’s Storm Lake Times newspaper for challenging corporate agriculture’s poisoning of local waterways.


The Pulitzer led to a book in which Cullen broadened his commentary to include the changing culture of his northwest Iowa community and the struggle his family and others are having producing quality journalism on shoestring budgets.


I first met Art more than 30 years ago when he applied for a rural affairs reporting position at the Des Moines Register. We share what he calls an “ancestral haunt” in Kossuth County. Both our families settled there in the late 19th century, and while my immediate family left long ago, both of us still have kin in and around Algona. By now, I’m pretty sure we share some cousins.


Fortunately for Storm Lake, Art didn’t get the job in Des Moines. He went in another direction, which ultimately proved much more beneficial to his community and the entire state.


Here are a few of my favorite lines from his 2018 book, “Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland.”


“The Clintons never much liked Iowa because Tom Harkin upstaged Bill Clinton as the favorite son in 1992. … In the 2008 caucus, Iowa snatched away Hillary’s Beltway pre-ordained victory and handed it to Barack Obama. She never overcame her disaffection from the state.” 


“Iowa’s reputation of being squeaky clean (in politics) has a big stain on it from the mud of dirty money” that Republicans spent in 2011 to rig a pre-caucus straw poll.  


“The greatest threat to Iowa – and, ultimately, a stable food supply in the United States – is its continued loss of soil. … Iowa and Illinois prime cropland is floating downriver. … Extreme weather events wrought by global warming make the task of keeping Iowa soil in place even harder.”


Cullen paints a picture of Storm Lake as a community that has been through tough times but is on the mend, largely because of its openness to immigrants from all over the world who come to Iowa to achieve the same things our great-grandfathers did when they left Ireland and Germany more than 130 years ago.


Another story I’ve wanted to tell is the struggle Iowa’s local newspapers face.


I don’t have the energy or space to tell the whole story today, but I do want to commend Gannett Co. and Lee Enterprises for fighting off attempted takeovers by Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that acquired, and slashed the news budgets of, the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post and several other notable newspapers.


Gannett, which owns the Des Moines Register, rebuffed a hostile takeover by Alden three years ago, as did Lee in early December. Lee owns 77 dailies nationwide, including newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Mason City and Sioux City.


Lee’s share price jumped from $19 to $24 when Alden made its bid in November, and it has continued to climb into the mid-$30s range since Lee’s board turned down the bid, leading many to believe that Alden or someone else will make a run at Lee in 2022.


Iowa lost a lot of business talent this year, including John Ruan III, David Fisher and Jim Erickson. Also leaving in 2021 were Neal Smith, Neil Harl and John Karras, as well as my friend, photographer and golfing partner Warren Taylor and my Ames High classmate Mark Ritland, who was a quarterback, musician and all-around good guy.


Finally, my favorite holiday letter this year came from an 80-year-old distant relative who lives alone. “My one challenge,” she wrote, “is getting my underwear on without falling over.”


I know the feeling.


Here’s hoping we don’t trip in 2022.