A colleague once quipped that while we often refer to the newspaper as a window to the community it serves, the real window is the letters to the editor column.
And he had a point, but maybe only to a point.
From back to front, the daily newspaper is a reflection of all the interests of its readers. What's being done with tax money? What dangers should we be aware of and how can we avoid them? Who is making major accomplishments -- in school, in business, in politics, in helping others, in nearly any endeavor you can think of? What's happening with my favorite sports team? Musician? Writer? The range is truly as unlimited as the interests and events that combine to make up a society, a life.
But the agenda is determined entirely by someone else. Newspaper editors try to assess which aspects of life will appeal to some portion of their readers every day, and they lay out a well-ordered and comprehensive plan that highlights and organizes information according to their speculations.
Reasonable people, of course, may dispute whether the story given the biggest headline on the front page should instead have played in a small box inside the paper or whether a brief item carried among a list of digests should have been expanded into a major story, but by and large editors provide something for almost everybody every day.
But the telling phrase in that observation is this: Editors provide the stories, photos and commentaries. They lay the foundation for touching the chords of engagement with readers. Readers invariably have their own ideas about what interests and moves them. And that agenda plays out on the Opinion page in the letters columns.
To be sure, sometimes it follows the direction determined by -- well, let's call it -- the news cycle. As the world teetered on the brink of war with Syria, we invited readers to share their thoughts, and an abundant response filled up more than a full page and spilled out onto the Web. The crisis has mellowed, at least temporarily, in the past week, and still, letters flow in expressing readers' anxieties, hopes and ideas.
But this synchronizing of editors' speculation and readers' actual interests isn't always reflected in what inspires people to take pen (or laptop) in hand and dash off their anger, joy or inspiration for all the world to absorb and react to. In just the past week, letter writers have expounded on numerous topics that were far from major news and some that haven't been news at all. One letter urged a library to turn off its lights at night. Another called for closer scrutiny of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas exploration. Another reminded readers of the importance of commemorating Constitution Day.
Many, to be sure, had news stories or prominent issues like Obamacare, gay marriage or gun control at their foundation, but the expressions, the timing and the passions were those of citizens, not of politicians or editors.
I won't go so far as my colleague to suggest that the "real" window on the community is in the letters column. To some extent, the letters reflect the personalities and interests of those individuals who are moved to challenge and be challenged on the issues they care about. But I will say there is something especially refreshing in the diversity and strength of passions reflected in the letters column.
Take a look for yourself. It can give you an interesting perspective on your community -- and who knows, it may also inspire you to add your own individual passions to the conversation.
• Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.