Looking Sideways – Positive stories, goodwill highlight first year

By Mark Leutke

About a year ago I visited with Dottie Segur at Sylvania Area Family Services to do my first newspaper reporting in 50 years. I had just signed on to write a column in the AdVantage, and publisher Sharon Lange agreed that the pieces should only be about good things happening in our community. In the depths of COVID, it seemed like the SAFS program addressing food insecurity among some of our residents was the right place to start.

Since then, this space has given me 24 opportunities to showcase positive topics. I hope readers have found some to be at least entertaining, and perhaps occasionally informative or useful. For me, it has provided even more than that: discovering how open, helpful and interesting our Sylvania neighbors are.

The main thing that has become clear after a year at the AdVantage is how important a local newspaper is to a place like Sylvania. Certainly, some very useful grass-roots information is now immediately shared on social media sites like the “Sylvania Citizens and Taxpayers” and “Nextdoor.” But regular, unbiased, big picture coverage is a key element in shaping and sustaining a community like ours.

People occasionally ask where my topics come from. Often, I have heard from folks reaching out with column ideas or offering assistance with connecting me with people I should interview. Many of these involve the coverage of “good deeds” that always generate favorable feedback.

Just as frequently, something that I read elsewhere sparks a connection to an interesting local topic, such as last month’s story about what our kids will remember about COVID. And once in a while an idea will just pop into my head … like when a young woman pushing a chocked-full grocery cart recently let me and my five items go ahead of her in a grocery line. (Watch soon for the piece on “supermarket kindness;” wrote it in the parking lot before heading home from the store.)

Occasionally, readers will share personal thoughts (usually off the record) that help put a human face on a subject, such as the Grove Bel resident who described the feelings of “languish” she had after a year of isolation during the pandemic, or the Southview graduate describing the Thanksgiving-eve “reunion night” at various local drinking establishments that has become a local tradition among our college students visiting home for the holiday.

I learned early-on never to go into a particular subject with a predetermined idea of what a column would end up saying. Rather, I try to find a topic that seems interesting and ask bright people about it … then let the interviews take their course. This certainly was true reporting on the delightful people over 80 who still hold down regular jobs, participants at an improv class at Lourdes, and learning your “love language” for Valentine’s Day.

Do I have any favorite columns? I had great fun writing about the Silver Sneaker class dancing to “The Twist.” The profile of maestro Sam Szor was very rewarding. Our survey about homeowners’ “junk drawers” got a lot of attention, too.

Nowhere but the AdVantage can we get details about local decision-making that affects the schools and city and township services, volunteer opportunities, or new business activities. Also, it is a very affordable way for advertisers to target local consumers. Our region’s daily newspaper is excellent, but it can’t provide the up-close, comprehensive coverage Sylvania’s nearly 70-thousand residents deserve.

As I was getting a degree in journalism, my first jobs were for publishers of the old Sylvania Herald weekly and being on staff at the student newspaper at UT (covering a year of student activism, campus protests—and the start of Coach Lauterbur’s 35-game football win streak). After graduation, I drifted into a public relations career writing for clients … projects that included speeches for corporate CEOs and platforms of political campaigns. This last year has been more fun than any of that.

People ask why I do it. To kill time in retirement? Get my name in the paper? Make some bucks? No. It’s what I enjoy. I like meeting interesting people who are doing great things in my hometown and telling others about them. It makes me feel good.

I ran my own company for half a career, and often told people that “the only boss I ever liked was myself.” That’s not true anymore. Publishers Sharon Lange and Suzanne Crawford are more generous and insightful than I could possibly hope for. I understand that newspapers are an endangered species: more than a quarter of newsroom jobs have disappeared in the last decade. Perhaps with good fortune, when I look sideways this year … I’ll be looking your way.

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