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Why you can find the very soul of a newspaper in its letters page

Like most readers, I reserve a special place for the letters page. Editors and marketers may sculpt and focus group-test a newspaper to within an inch of its life, but it's the letters page that really sums up the readership.

In an unscientific and anecdotal way, I suppose, but taken across a number of months, I think you can find the soul of a newspaper there.

Holding reporters to account, chiding editors for their obsessions, lambasting sub-editors for letting sloppy grammar through - you'll find them all there.

I've seen editors blasted as blockheads, reporters derided as barely literate and headline writers dismissed as sensation-seeking desk jockeys.

Sometimes the criticism is true, and sometimes it's wide of the mark. But it's always interesting, worth the read and a way to take the temperature of the readership.

It's not just the hacks who get a roasting. MPs, MLAs, political parties, judges, planners, lobbyists and others are all fair game.

Leafing through recent letters shows that, despite the way Northern Ireland is sometimes portrayed in the outside world, debate here is as vigorous as in any region.

The secret to editing the letters page is in the choice of material and in ensuring a mix of styles and subjects.

Recent days have seen some elegantly penned missives and a compelling blend of views and well-written letters.

Maurice Fitzgerald, for example, wrote in recently to ask some pertinent questions about the interview with Michaella McCollum- she of Peru drug mule fame - accusing her of trying to give a "whitewashed view of her character".

Closer to home, the planners were getting it in the neck in the same edition. Stanley Lynn complained about a "monstrous" wind farm at Black Mountain, writing: "It can be seen over the whole of Belfast and has destroyed the once-beautiful backdrop to the city below."

Readers may not always appreciate it, but there is a great skill in editing a readers' letters page; the requirement to balance logic and emotion, wit and wisdom, criticism and praise.

Sometimes the skill is editing letters to remove libellous attacks on third parties while preserving the sense of the letter in the first place.

But primarily, for me, the skill lies in identifying what makes a great letter - and the answer is the enduring warmth of the human spirit.

This was on display for me this week in a letter from Tim and Sarah Southwell, of Hamilton, Montana, USA. During a trip to the Titanic complex their seven-year-old son went missing, sparking dread and terror.

"Within 15 minutes of last seeing him, my wife spoke with Constable Jim Millar over his lunch break at the Dock Cafe," wrote Tim.

"Without giving it a second thought, Constable Millar was up and engaged in priority one: finding our boy.

"Forty-five minutes later, I am happy to report that Constable Millar and his fellow officers in uniform found our son a mile away... scared and shaken, but in good health, we were reunited as a family.

"It is the hidden gems that make a place worth visiting. Belfast has such a thing in its police force... We are forever grateful for their service and we will look forward to another visit to this wonderful city in the years to come."

Among all the brickbats, it's often the praise that stands out.

Belfast Telegraph