FORTUNE — It is immutably true that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. To me these days, every conversation devolves into a lesson about the power of media.
Much ink has been spilled — and yes, I mean for you to ponder my metaphor for at least a moment — about my interview last week with Tom Perkins, the 82-year venture capitalist now being vilified for his various right-wing or libertarian views, depending on the charity of the name-caller. The video went viral, and all manner of publications from
New York Times
weighed in on some of the things Perkins said.
For now, though, I’m not interested in what Perkins said about gun laws, voting rights, equating wealth with creativity, or the failures of the War on Poverty. What really interests me for the moment is what Perkins told me in the green room about his newspaper reading habits. In fact, they are the same as mine: He reads three papers a day: The San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The first he reads because he lives in San Francisco and feels the need to know what’s going on locally. The second he reads because it is the U.S. paper of record for news around the world — though he abhors the paper’s politics, which he sees reflected in the news pages, an opinion I don’t share. The third he reads because if you’re in business you must read the Wall Street Journal every day, and I quite agree.
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This must all seem old fashioned to many people reading this online. And yet, I came to realize last week that the entire hullabaloo Perkins has caused is a direct result of his newspaper-reading habits. The local paper, the Chronicle, annoyed Perkins by writing what he perceived to be unfair comments about his former wife and current friend, the bestselling author Danielle Steel. (The Chronicle’s Chuck Nevius nicely summarizes his paper’s role in antagonizing Perkins.) Perkins responded by penning his now famous letter to the Journal. (He is revising the history a bit, by the way: He said in his letter he was responding to an editorial in the Journal.) Shortly after his letter appeared, Bloomberg TV invited him on air to discuss it, and his comments about the price of his wristwatch and other things caused an uproar. Then the Commonwealth Club of California extended another invitation and asked me to interview him.
My point is that none of this would have happened — the public discussion, the fracas over one man’s comments, the sheer entertainment value — if not for the role of the news media. Specifically, the local newspaper, warts and all, was critical to prodding Perkins’s thinking. Its architecture critic and city columnist got Perkins thinking. As a prominent citizen, he took his gripe to the national media, and then allowed a local public-affairs forum — another form of local media — to air out his views further.
Whether or not I agree with Perkins — I mostly don’t — I commend his news reading habits and his instincts for controversy and public discourse. I can’t for the life of me figure out how other intelligent people in my city, young and old, get by without reading a paper. And I meet people every day who don’t. Criticize the Chronicle all you like, and it’s not the country’s best paper, but every day it’s writing about San Francisco. Just today I read over my morning coffee in the print edition a wonderfully contrarian article about a working-class neighborhood in San Francisco, the Excelsior, whose merchants want rich techies to move in and boost economic activity and property values. My daughter played soccer in a field near the Excelsior, and at a season-ending celebration at a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint there recently I wondered to myself if this neighborhood was next to gentrify. This article got me thinking more about my city, and that’s what a paper should do.
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(By the way, I never would have seen it if weren’t splashed on the front page, a decision made by an editor. Because I didn’t know I was particularly interested in the Excelsior, it wouldn’t have surfaced on an RSS feed or Flipboard or even necessarily via the now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t function of the Chronicle’s homepage.)
Some will say I’m grumpy about the fate of “old” media. Or that only old guys like me and even older guys like Tom Perkins read newspapers anymore.
I’m not grumpy at all. I’m excited. I see the opportunities here because I know that the media still provides a role in keeping our society vibrant. We’ll figure it out. In the meantime, how crazy is it to suggest that voting rights be awarded proportionally with income-tax payments?