Inside the Newsroom

News, commentary, insight on local happenings and fun from the staff of The Saline Reporter and Milan News-Leader.

Friday, December 21, 2007

What Were the Top Stories of 2007?

The Saline Reporter and Milan News-Leader will publish on Jan. 3 the top five stories for each community in 2007. The editorial staff has come up with a list, but we want to hear from you. What were the biggest headlines or stories in your mind? They may be different from ours. Maybe you have something in mind that we didn't consider and, if you share it, we may change our minds.

Here's our list for Saline:

1. The controversy surrounding the eventual resignation of schools Superintendent Beverley Geltner.

2. Saline Township's settlement with developer Biltmore and what the future holds for that site.

3. The memorandum of understanding between Automotive Components Holdings and Johnson Controls for purchase of the ACH plant.

4. Saline's John Lockwood returns home from battle wounded and is embraced by the community.

5. City manager Larry Stoever resigns.

In addition, we're planning a list of "feel good" stories for Saline in 2007, including the opening of the Community Garden, launch of Bee Cool Saline, national honors for the city and hospital and creation of a new historic district.

Milan's top five stories also include a mix of challenging circumstances and positive highlights.

1. Underdog Kym Muckler, a first-time political candidate, wins the mayoral seat.

2. The local economy endures some tough times with the closing of AutoLign, Main Street IX and other businesses.

3. Milan Superintendent of Schools Dennis McComb announces his retirement.

4. The Greater Milan Area Community Foundation reaches $1 million mark to benefit Milan students.

5. City budget woes lead to closing of Milan Public Transit and a push toward privatization.

Fee-good stories for Milan include the success of local events, including the Milan fireworks display and annual fair, concerts in the park, Holiday Parade, Taste of Milan and Discover Milan Day.

So, what do you think? Are we missing something? Do you have any comments that you want to make about any of these stories? Please post a comment to this blog. We want to hear from you.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Milan mayor's final address

Monday night was Owen Diaz's final city council meeting as mayor. The two-term mayor read a three-page statement, at the end of which he struggled to hold back tears.

Owen Diaz's final mayoral address:

"So this is it, my fellow citizens and friends.

It has been an honor and privilege to serve as your mayor for two-terms, four years of working with out city council. Being the chief executive of our city government is not easy, but I made it manageable because of the following city officials: Dan Bishop, our city administrator ho shared his talent and experience in running the day-to-day operation of a municipal government, with the help of Dan’s management experience, we were able to achieve partial privatization of some services and adopted [a]synergistic relationship among our employees that had contributed to avoiding [a] tax increase and at the same time meeting our financial responsibilities.

Jeffrey Lewis, our chief of police, who [has] adopted prudence in managing expenditures of our department of public safety, through grants and other ways to save over $120,000 for the city.

Sherry Steinwedel, our clerk-treasurer, who’s job is vital in revenue collection, record keeping and governmental operations, and making it sure to pay our bills.

Also, Chris Slay, Information Director, who made sure that our electronic communication, city website and television coverage is working so people who cannot attend our meetings can watch the meeting replays.

Robert Grostick, our building and zoning official. Bob, ha[d] spent many hours in working with the planning commission and the management of CVS Pharmacy and IHA officials in bringing them to our city.

Of course, Benjamin Swayze, our parks and recreation director. As most of you may notice, we have very good programs for the young and not so young members of our community. Because of them my duties and responsibilities were easily performed. In addition, I believe that our community ha[d] been enhanced due to a few private programs of yours truly. I have worked with community volunteers in having special day for our physically challenged members of our community, and also annual seniors day where we offered sumptuous meals and life enhancing messages. Another community event that community volunteers and I sponsor is the annual community Christmas party. The event last week was well attended. My special thanks to Carol Armstrong of the Milan Baptist Church, Beverly of the Free Methodist Church, Jackie James of the Peoples Presbyterian Church. Also, to David Johnson, Robert Armstrong, and Daniel Fromm for their help.

In the last four years, we have made our city government people friendly. We have also made the office of the mayor easily accessible particularly in the morning of Tuesdays and Thursdays, no appointments necessary.

My major goals in becoming mayor were to control taxes which together with the city council, worked hard to find ways in controlling it. In fact, we manage[d] to reduce it by a quarter of a mil. Yes, it is a meager reduction, but it should have been a step in the right direction and [I] was hoping to do further reduction, were it not for the downturn of our state economy, particularly the housing industry. Another major goal was to improve downtown and increase businesses and industry. For a while, we did have a very good number of businesses downtown, but again, the state economy that we have right now made some businesses close shop. I would like to thank the partners of Main Street IX restaurant, who put so much efforts and financial resources in making our city a dining destination for a while. I am sure our city residents join me in saluting them of their endeavor.

Early this year, a multi-used development was expected to break ground in the property that we have [a] 425 agreement with Milan Township, but again, because of the state of the economy, the expected breaking of ground was postponed indefinitely. Thanks to IHA, the Integrated Health Associates, a commercial building expected to break ground in the spring will add tax revenue to the city. I hope that my dream of developing Ford Lake will be realized someday by our future city officials and/or private developers.

In this year’s budget, our city faced what most people said was financial crises. I called it financial challenges instead of crises. Crises bring fear, and fear is crippling. Whereas, challenges motivate us to rise up to the occasion and brings out the best in us. Yes, our projected budget deficit was enormous in relation to the dollar amount of our budget. There were some who suggested the usual way of addressing budget deficits, which is to raise taxes. Unfortunately, I for one believe that our citizens are already burdened by paying so much taxes to the Federal, State, County and Municipality. Raising taxes is an “insult to injury.” Because, there are some members of our society that have to decide whether to spend their limited financial resources in putting food on the table, pay for the high price of energy, or pay for their prescription drugs. In preparing the budget that I had submitted to our city council, our city administrator and chief of police have help[ed] me make the appropriate cost cutting measures which avoided raising taxes while meeting our essential city services and financial obligations. I believe we had made the appropriate decision with regards to the budget, we did it, because it is the right thing to do. Making the right decision is not easy. We did not only avoid raising taxes, but we also have added some money to our savings. I believe that our state government could have also avoided raising taxes, if only . . . I will let you fill in the blanks.

Before closing, I would like to thank Candy Hines, our assistant clerk who just left us early this month. Candy made the office of the mayor function smoother. Todd Knepper, our previous Public Works Director, who worked with us up to the middle of this year, Michael Stuck and Michael Czymbor, our previous chief of police and city administrator respectively, for their services to our city. Of course, to all our city employees who help us, city officials, perform our duties and responsibilities to the people. Lastly, I would also like to thank my wife Ruth, for her support in my political and community endeavors.

With that, I would like to ask for a motion to adjourn this meeting.

With that I would like to say, good night, merry Christmas, and goodbye."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

McComb to retire -- wow. (and his letter to the board)

You knew it was going to happen someday. Dennis McComb was going to step down as superintendent of Milan Area Schools. I just didn't think it would be last night. I will say that when I attended a Milan Rotary Club lunch Tuesday afternoon and saw McComb put a "happy dollar" in the basket because he got to spend Saturday watching his grandkids, something struck me. I don't know if it was a certain tone in his voice or the way he smiled, but I did think, "I wonder what will happen when Dennis retires?"

Now we'll find out.

Here's the letter McComb read to the Milan school board Wednesday night:

Dear Board Members:

After careful thought and consideration I have decided to announce my retirement as superintendent of schools effective June 30, 2008. This has been a very difficult decision to make.

It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as superintendent for the past 12 years. I have been blessed with a board of education that has made decisions based on what is right for children, with an administrative team that has been very supportive of me and has worked hard for the betterment of the district, with an awesome Central Office staff who has kept me organized and the school district operating efficiently, with a very dedicated and unselfish teaching staff that has worked diligently to provide the best educational opportunities for our students, with a secretarial staff that keeps all of the buildings running smoothly, with a transportation department that gets our students to and from school safely, with a custodial/maintenance department that keeps our buildings in good shape and ready for all of the activities, with a cafeteria staff that keeps our students well nourished, and with a wonderful group of paraprofessionals and preschool employees that truly care for all of the students they help everyday. In addition, we have all been fortunate to be in a community that is very trusting of its school officials, leaders, and staff and has allowed all of us to build a great educational environment.

However, after 36 years in education and 18 years as a superintendent, it is time for me to pursue other adventures in life. I feel that the district is in a great position and the next leader can help move it forward to even bigger and better accomplishments. I will truly miss all of the people in the school district and community I have gotten to know over the years. I know that my last day will be a very sad one, but I will leave knowing that I did the best job I was capable of doing.

I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish as a district during my time as superintendent. The changes we have made in our curriculum, the new instructional strategies we have incorporated, the technology we have made available to our teachers, and the restructuring of the middle school and high school day are some of the examples. Obviously, I am very proud of the opportunity the community provided us to build the high school facility that has become the pride of the community. But the most rewarding experience has been the opportunity to work with so many fine individuals. As I have told many people over and over, the success of this district lies in the people that work here. They are the best.

Thanks to all of you for letting me serve you for so many years. This experience has been the highlight of my career and I will always treasure the memories I will take with me.


Dennis M. McComb

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Readers Say...

The Saline Reporter and The Milan News Leader have held a series of focus groups in both communities over the last two weeks to find out what readers like about the papers, what they don’t like and their ideas for improving the papers.

Two focus groups were held in Saline and one in Milan, generating lots of great feedback. Video of the Milan focus group can be viewed at

Readers who didn’t have an opportunity to participate may be asked to in the future. We’re considering holding these focus groups quarterly or twice a year. E-mail me at if you would like to participate in the future.

In addition, we distributed surveys asking focus group participants and key communicators in both communities to answer questions such as whether they watch local video on our Web site, whether they’re satisfied with news, feature and sports content, and we asked them to rank their favorite sections of the newspaper, among other things.

Readers interested in giving us feedback may visit the posting on this blog to download a survey or e-mail me and I’ll send a copy.

The unscientific survey will help us remain focused on what readers want to see in their community newspapers and help guide us as we decide what types of changes we may want to make to improve the newspapers.

So far, I’ve tallied the results of 39 surveys and found some interesting information.

Of the 39, 28 are “usually” satisfied with the news coverage, three are “totally” satisfied and three were “seldom” satisfied. No one selected “never,” which makes sense as those people aren’t likely reading the paper anymore if they did and weren’t happy.

Now it’s our job to work on turning those “usually” satisfied readers into totally satisfied and at least bringing up those seldom satisfied to usually, and keep working from there.

Our sports coverage got a greater mix of reviews, with 12 totally satisfied, 16 usually, 11 seldom and one never. I suspect those who are seldom and never satisfied either don’t like sports or are parents of players who are in club sports or non-varsity and want more coverage of those teams.

Since our sports department is a one-man show, covering both Saline and Milan, we encourage coaches and parents to turn in game results, articles and photographs to help us provide more comprehensive coverage. Those items may be submitted to Jerry Hinnen at

The message that the newspaper is a collaboration between the news department and community was the theme of our focus groups as we asked participants to help us get the word out that we welcome submissions from readers.

In fact, we have information on how to write a news release, how to submit news tips and how to submit photographs on this blog.

What’s encouraging is that of the 39 surveys I’ve reviewed so far, 35 welcome articles written by readers. Only two said they wouldn’t. Most added that those submissions should be edited. I want to assure readers that everything is edited before it’s published. We only have one editor for two newspapers –– no copyeditor’s desk or multiple copyeditors like at the dailies –– so we don’t always catch every mistake, but we certainly try.

More interesting tidbits I’ve learned from the surveys include:
Twenty-one out of 39 surveyed were subscribers and 12 weren’t.
Twenty-three were women and 16 men.
Nineteen were aware we produce local videos of community events, sports and news coverage and 19 weren’t.
Eleven watch our local videos, while 24 don’t.
Seventeen would watch videos now knowing they’re available, seven would not, three might and one probably wouldn’t.
Fifteen were aware we produce a blog called “Inside the Newsroom,” while 22 weren’t aware.
Sixteen were interested in joining an online conversation by posting to our blog, while two might and 15 weren’t.

I find these responses particularly interesting as we strive to enhance our Web sites with video, more news and commentary. I don’t understand why people don’t want to watch videos of local events. Just this week alone, I posted video of children from Saline and Milan sitting on Santa’s lap sharing their Christmas wish lists, including a message from Santa; video of Treasure Trail to Santa in Saline, where local children visited shops as they made their way to Santa; and video of our focus group in Milan, where local officials and readers share their thoughts on the newspaper and how we can do a better job.

Other videos, which are still posted online, include athletic event coverage, interviews with coaches and athletes; Saline’s Harvest of the Arts, Summerfest, Celtic Festival and Business Enterprise Awards; high school graduation; and video of outgoing-Superintendent Beverley Geltner as she spoke to the board before placed on administrative leave.

And from Milan, we’ve had video of the recent Milan Shopping Extravaganza at the American Legion Hall, holiday parade and Milan Area Chamber of Commerce membership social and awards, as well as fireworks display, community fair, high school graduation and athletic games.

After attending most of these events and uploading videos, I usually post to the staff blog, adding photos and my comments from each of these events. In addition, my reporters have posted comments about local issues, observations from around town and athletic feats.

So, I ask myself, how do we spread the word about this unique, local content online, and how do we get more people interested? Why did seven people say they’re not interested in viewing these local videos? Is it time constraints or maybe they don’t have the technology? I don’t understand.

I am also surprised that 15 out of 39 people aren’t interested in posting their comments on our blog. Well, I guess if people are reading it, that’s a step in the right direction. Maybe we need to write on different topics that might inspire someone to post a comment or is it that people are just shy and don’t want to say how they feel for the entire world to see?

I was pleased to see that 30 out of the 39 said they look at the Neighbors pages with all the photographs. Only five said they don’t. These pages are created around a theme and photos are usually provided by freelance photographer Gaines Collins. This week, she has photos on Saline’s Christkindlmarket and the Paddock Elementary School Gift Shop in Milan.

In fact, the Neighbors pages and hometown heroes spread are the most popular special sections of the newspaper, next to election profiles, The Ones to Watch on young professionals, recipes and travel.

When asked if they could receive more information in the newspaper about specific subjects or issues, what would it be, most responded hometown heroes returning from military service. This was followed by features on local children, school happenings, township board meetings and city council news. I was surprised that government corruption only garnered four votes and government worker salaries only grabbed one.

I was also surprised that when asked how they determine which story to read first in the newspaper, placement ranked third, behind local significance and whether the readers are already familiar with the topic. That goes to show, every story doesn’t have to be on the front page to get read first.

Another surprise for me was that most readers surveyed think it’s “important” (16) or “very important” (14) that a person being profiled in a feature story be from the community. I was under the mistaken impression that as long as it was an interesting story –– whether it’s on a cancer survivor, someone who accomplished an amazing feat or some unusual invention that can help people –– it didn’t matter where the person was from because the story and what can be learned from sharing the information was what’s important.

I also found it curious that 18 out of 39 readers said they like to read news from surrounding communities in their newspaper. Fourteen said they don’t. I find this interesting because I get a lot of feedback from readers that they don’t want Saline news in their Milan paper and Milan news in their Saline paper.

I think some may be thinking of Pittsfield, York, Lodi, London and Saline and Milan townships as “surrounding communities.” Others, however, I know welcome news from both communities in their newspapers because they said so in focus groups, but not many.

When asked to rank the areas they prefer to read about in order of importance, Saline garnered 29 votes, surrounding townships had 29, Milan had 19, Washtenaw County grabbed 13, Ann Arbor had 10 and outlying cities such as Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester and Ypsilanti had four votes.

I still have about a dozen or so surveys to tally and more come in every day. I will take a look at these and try to interpret the data before we move forward with any changes. In the meantime, please feel free to download the survey from our blog and e-mail me your feedback.

I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to attend our focus groups and fill out the surveys. We value your feedback as we strive to continue to produce the best newspaper we can in collaboration with the community.

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Picking All-Heritage team is tough work

I think it's three years now that we've been sitting down to select an All-Heritage football team. It's been tough every year. It seems there are always more deserving players than there are positions. It further complicates matters that I'm not objective enough when it comes to the sports teams I cover to base my choices solely on stats or size. I can't hide that there are some players I want on the team simply because I like their attitude on the field, I like the way they hit, or I like they way they lead on the sidelines. Maybe I just like that one tme they caught a third-and-long pass and put out the extra effort to get some YACs and the first down. It may be the only catch the kid had all year, but when I sit down to consider who warrants a spot on the All-Heritage team, I remember that play and think, "That was a pretty sweet catch, man. That dude deserves to be on the AH team!" It's an emotional reaction for me.

After all, these are my guys. I've been covering them all season long. And I want my guys on the AH squad. If it were solely up to me, there would be a preponderance of my guys on that team. Just the way I try to stack the All-Star ballot with Tigers.

Fortunately, I guess, there are my fellow sportswriters with whom I must consult and they temper my inclination to favor my guys. They're a difficult bunch of fellows to persuade that a kid should make the AH list simply because I say, "You should have seen this one catch!" They like to factor in stats and size as well. They're reasonable.

"They can't all be your guys," they say.

And that is true. So we settle in and do the best we can to distribute the honors and pick the best players for each position without coming to blows (which we never have). This year there was a cornucopia of outstanding area linebackers. We could have easily named seven to the AH team, but you can't have seven linebackers, can you? So a couple of my guys didn't make it, which bums me out.

But selecting the All-Heritage team is supposed to be tough. In fact, the tougher it is, the better year it was for all the teams, and that's a good thing.

Still, I look at the team and can't help thinking for some of the positions, "That should have been one of my guys."

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Q&A on the streets of Milan and Saline

Finally, after more than five years here at the papers, I did my first Street Talk over the weekend. Street Talk is that regular feature on the Commentary page where random residents respond to usually innocuous questions such as "What is your favorite pie?" and we run their picture above their answer (e.g., "Pumpkin."). The reporter usually nabs people at the grocery store or at a coffee shop. I have the feeling that most everybody reads Street Talk -- it's quick, it's fun, and you never know if you might see the face of someone you know. I think readers enjoy Street Talk.

But here's a secret: a lot of the reporters seem to hate it. People, they complain, don't want to answer the question or don't want their photo taken. The reporters get tired trying to come up with interesting questions week after week.

Here's another secret: to enjoy doing Street Talk it appears you have to do it only once every five years. Because I got a kick out of it.

I enjoyed coming up with the question and I enjoyed approaching people to ask them. Only one said he didn't want to to do it. And while most complained about getting their picture taken, they all agreed in the end.

Here was my question: You're familiar with the song "The 12 Days of Christmas." If there were a 13th day of Christmas, what would you want your true love to bring to you?

Now, I thought that was a pretty fun question, but people had a more difficult time answering it than I thought they would. I thought people might say, "13 gargling gargoyles" or "13 playful puppies." I was surprised to find some took the question literally, which is fine, I just wasn't expecting that (after all, who really wants 13 of anything). I imagine being stopped on the street and asked a question out of the blue doesn't necessarily catch people in their most imaginative moment.

I get to do Street Talk again for the Dec. 27 editions, and I can't wait. Be looking for me. I'm trying to come up with my question now -- something tricky, but not too tricky; something clever, but not too clever; something provoking, but not too provoking. That is the challenge!

I'm open to suggestions, by the way. Let me know if you've got a good idea for a Street Talk question.

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Reporter "building" in Saline Holiday Parade

The fabulous Girl Scouts from Troop 1017 in Saline (gosh, that's my daughter in the doorway!) honored Saline's greatest assets in this year's holiday parade on Saturday. They decided (on their own, honest!) that Saline is great because of the offerings of the downtown ("the city") and the cool stuff in the countryside. They painted one side of the cityscape to honor the Saline Reporter (again, their idea, honest!) and the other side to represent Emmett's, the great hot dog/ice cream/coffee shop downtown. It was mighty chilly as the sun set and the snow fell Saturday. But, that was all a part of the magic. Right?? I adore you, girls of Troop 1017!!


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Holiday Activities Abound

Saline and Milan attracted area residents and visitors Saturday as both communities hosted holiday activities. Saline's Christkindlmarket opened early Saturday, bringing in shoppers and the curious, while the Milan Shopping Extravaganza boasted a good turnout for its first year.

While I was at the Christkindlmarket, traffic was a little light around 3 p.m., but it was quite cold and I am sure attendance probably increased near the time of the parade and after. While reporter Sue G. Collins and photographers Hiroshi Onuma and Gaines Collins covered events in Saline, I headed over to Milan after shooting some video of the Christkindlmarket and St. Nicholas, which can be viewed on our Web site. Bob Gorse made a great St. Nicolas and did an excellent job of sharing the history on our video.

In Milan, I interviewed several
local business people involved in the Shopping Extravaganza and then returned for the parade to shoot more video.

The Brownies were adorable dressed in antlers and blinking red noses.

In addition, the Living Nativity scene was a big draw.

I wish we had two video cameras to capture activities at both events, but I chose to cover Milan on video because I knew Hiroshi would get some awesome photos of Saline's parade. It's kind of a trade off, as the camera I had in Milan wasn't capable of taking nighttime photos. Hopefully, both communities will feel they got equal coverage.

I enjoyed myself, but while the snow was a nice touch for the parade, it wasn't good for me as I returned home in my convertible that's not meant for winter driving. I fish-tailed all the way home at 25 mph along Carpenter Road just hoping I would make it unscathed. Luckily, I did, but I learned my lesson. That car is put away for the rest of the winter.

Did you attend these local events? What did you think? What were your experiences? Post your comments.

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