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