The Best Media Writer at the NYT

But can Virginia Heffernan keep her voice?

New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernan, by some chattering class estimates the best media writer at the paper, has a brain many brainy men have fallen in love with—sometimes to their peril. One of those men is socialite and investment banker Euan Rellie.

As Rellie tells it, he met Heffernan in the early ’90s in New York City, amid a cast of “young, upper-middle class, fairly academic, Harvard, Georgetown, media, literary types.” Both were in their 20s; Rellie was fresh from Britain; Heffernan had just earned a master’s from Harvard and was working as a fact-checker for The New Yorker while she took a year off before going back for her Ph.D.

“Virginia was perceived as being smart and bookish and quirky ambitious,” Rellie says. “I immediately had this crush on her and started to seek her out at cocktail parties.”

At one such party, the two got to talking: “She said, ‘Why don’t you come back to my apartment in Brooklyn, and you can look at the skyline of New York, and I can give you a drink.’”

They caught a cab. Once they were back at her apartment, as Rellie tells it, “She said, ‘Fix yourself a drink; I’m going to get into something more comfortable.’ Just like that. She left me with a decanter of scotch and reappeared wearing a see-through baby-doll thing with furry balls. It was amazing.”

Things progressed, then took a turn.

“She stops me and she says, ‘Before we go any further, I need to know something. I need to know if King Lear is a comedy or a tragedy.’”

Rellie protested: “‘You’re kidding.’”

“‘No, really, I need to know.’”

He paused, then ventured: “‘It’s obviously a tragicomedy.’”

“‘I’m going to need you to leave,’” Heffernan said, as Rellie recalls. “‘Please leave now. It’s not your fault. It’s my fault. You’re going to have to leave.’ I pulled my trousers up and walked out into the street.

“Many years later she came to my 35th birthday and gave me a present,” Rellie says. “I took it home and opened it. It was a paperback copy of King Lear. On the inside she had written, ‘Dear Euan, Happy Birthday. This is so you can find out the story for yourself.’

“I told the story to her husband,” Rellie says. “He said, ‘Oh, I completely believe it.’”

(Asked about Rellie’s story, Heffernan says, “By now, I pretty much only remember his version because I’ve heard it so many times.”)

BREAKING BLUE
Heffernan has been writing about the Internet for The New York Times—which can often seem highly ambivalent about the Internet—since 2006, when she started a blog called Screens. Screens begat The Medium, a weekly column in the Times Magazine about digital culture. It was a Sunday stroll through some clever observations on the Internet, geared toward those Times readers who were still a little uncomfortable with digital reality upending their lives (and paper).

Heffernan approached her subjects as both abstract theorist and inquisitive consumer, covering everything from YouTube sensations to an urban parenting blog to her trials with the iPhone.

The column was a surprising break from what Heffernan calls “the blue mood that haunts much of the writing about the Web”—particularly at the Times—including alarmist trend pieces and eulogies for an analog past. It was also one of the few commentaries in the Times that the digerati crowd did not find cringe worthy. “Virginia is not seeing this world as a threat; she’s seeing it as an opportunity,” says Jeff Jarvis, who has made much of his reputation as a blogger criticizing the mainstream media’s ineptitude when it comes to covering digital culture.

Or, as Slate Group editor Jacob Weisberg, who hired her in 2002, put it, Heffernan has been “an antidote to The New York Times’, fuddy-duddy, old-fart tone.”

But in January, the magazine’s new editor, Hugo Lindgren, decided to put an end to Heffernan’s column—it was part of a shake-up that also saw the departure of prominent contributors like Deborah Solomon and Randy Cohen, but, given Heffernan’s popularity, buzz, and quality prose, a more pointed statement that she was off message. Indeed, with Heffernan out, the magazine’s highest-profile—and most highly derided—commentary about the Internet has come from Times executive editor Bill Keller, who gives effective voice to the Times’ institutional resentment of its greatest challenge.

Heffernan was quickly brought on to the paper’s Opinion section. There, she continues to write about “digital culture,” and with greater freedom than she had at the magazine, but her column’s presence in the print edition is at best inconsistent.

THE PAJAMAS PEOPLE
In her apartment, a two-bedroom turned three-bedroom in Brooklyn Heights, Heffernan is sitting upright on the couch, talking excitedly about the “revolutionary” moment in which we are living, bouncing up only to search for a relevant book. Half of the many books on the shelves are hers; the others belong to her husband, David Samuels, who writes for various publications, including The Atlantic and The New Yorker. The apartment is relatively small. His closet is in their 5-year-old son’s room (a room otherwise notable for featuring both a picture of Babar and a signed picture of Colin Powell); Heffernan works from a writer’s room blocks away.

Virginia Heffernan, Photo by Michael Nagle

Virginia Heffernan | Photo by Michael Nagle.

The daughter of a Dartmouth professor, Heffernan—who first logged onto the Internet at age 9, when it was actually still ARPANET, a Defense Department experiment that linked college computer facilities—got a B.A. in literature and philosophy (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude) from the University of Virginia in 1991 and went straight to Harvard, where she continued, off and on, until she got her Ph.D in 2002. Her thesis was a look at the ways that American naturalist literature had influenced inflationist monetary policy. She still quotes Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in public, albeit self-consciously.

In the late ’90s, on a four-year break from Harvard, Heffernan drifted through various writing and research assistant positions before getting a job as an editor at Tina Brown’s Talk magazine. She also contributed the occasional piece to websites like Salon and Slate. Then, in 2002, Weisberg and Jodi Kantor, who was running Slate’s cultural coverage, took Heffernan out for lunch to pitch her on the idea of writing TV criticism.

“Virginia showed up with a manifesto that she’d written about what was wrong with all TV coverage and how it should be done differently,” Weisberg says. “We hired her on the spot.”

The thesis of Heffernan’s manifesto, according to Weisberg, “was that critics reviewed TV in a way that’s totally different from the way people watch TV.” Instead, Heffernan came at television as a sincere audience member, applying highbrow observations only after yielding emotional sensitivity to her middlebrow subjects. “Her taste is very mainstream, but the way she thinks about it is extremely sophisticated,” Weisberg says. “Meanwhile, she has this wonderful compassion and sensitivity. She doesn’t write as an outsider peering in.”

Heffernan spent two years at Slate, moonlighting as a senior editor at Harper’s for part of the time. In 2003, Frank Rich and Adam Moss, who were then at work revamping the Times’ culture department, took notice of her work and offered her a job.

Part of Heffernan’s appeal to the two (now-former) Timesmen was that Heffernan was very much not a Timesman.

“There was some idea that we weren’t really newspaper people, like we didn’t have newsprint on our faces,” Heffernan says of the crew that came to the Arts & Leisure section from Slate around that time. “I remember feeling a little self-conscious about that, that there were these paragon people who were so different from someone you would’ve gone to graduate school with, or all the pajamas people at Slate.”

A CONSUMMATE TIMESMAN
In April, Lindgren announced that long-standing Timesman Rob Walker would be writing “a series of features for the magazine about new media and how it affects our lives.” His first was a celebration of a radio program that, Walker wrote with more than just a hint of contempt for the digital world, “expects you to stop checking your inbox, updating your status, or playing Angry Birds and spend a solid hour listening.” This followed the issues in which Times editor Bill Keller and weekly interviewer Andrew Goldman had gone to great lengths to demonize Arianna Huffington’s online news source as the antithesis of true journalism.

Perhaps the most consummate Timesman pitching the preservationist line is, oddly enough, David Carr. Despite his seemingly constant use of social media, Carr often takes the Luddite’s view. “[E]ven in 2010, when a print product is viewed as a quaint artifact of a bygone age, there is something about that process, about all those many hands, about the permanence of print, that makes a story resonate in a way that can’t be measured in digital metrics,” he wrote late last year. This April, following a panel appearance in which he argued that the Internet distracts us from productivity, he wrote, “Add one more achievement to the digital revolution: It has made it fashionable to be rude.”

Enter Heffernan. “The problem with the attention-span discourse is that it’s founded on the phantom idea of an attention span,” she wrote last November. It was like a blast of fresh air. You could feel dust rising off the rest of the paper. This April, in her first print column for the Opinion pages, she reminded readers—and perhaps fellow Times writers—that novels, film, and television had all withstood similar apocalyptic concerns about their cultural toxicity. “So why are authors and educators hellbent on using this shopworn rhetoric when it comes to Internet use?” she asked.

At the Times there are inside writers and outside writers. The former reflect the ethos and sensibility—and, often, the politics—of the Times; the latter are either useful or nettlesome because they don’t. Indeed, the Times can often hire someone precisely because they are an outsider, and then, consciously or not, remake them as insiders. Carr, hired in part for his digital cred, has prospered by representing—in fact, being one of the paper’s key spokespeople for—its digital ambivalence.

Curiously, Heffernan—a happy explorer of the new world, as opposed to apparatchik defender of the old—also clearly longs to be an insider. She says she’s a company girl and strongly identifies with the paper. “I’m a bit of a stability junkie,” she says. “I’d rather be buried in Times infrastructure than I would be naked and scared . . . I just want to be very cautiously within the Times rules.”

And, in fact, many have sensed a turn in her views. In October, she wrote a column lamenting the loss of the analog phone. Then, in her second-to-last Medium column, called “Magic and Loss,” she spoke of “an unavoidable experience of profound loss” thanks to the digital world and wrote, “The magic of the Internet—the recession of the material world in favor of a world of ideas—is not working for everyone. In essence, we are missing something very worthwhile and identity forming from our predigital lives.”

Her forthcoming book, once titled The Pleasures of the Internet, will now be called Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet, and Heffernan admits to a growing desire to retreat from the chaotic Web in favor of a more private, suburban experience made possible by iPad applications.

But then there is the Euan Rellie moment, when a stubborn and irascible intellect wins out, no matter how seductive the situation might be, and Virginia Heffernan kicks you out of bed.

“The world is hugely changing,” Heffernan says. “This is not a time to lose our balance or become sentimental.”