Virginia Heffernan writes regularly about digital and pop culture for the Opinion pages of The New York Times. Previously she was “The Medium” columnist at The New York Times Magazine. In an interview with the OpEd Project’s Augusta Hagen-Dillon last week, Heffernan spoke about the changing face of media and what it means for young journalists who are looking to enter the field. As a journalist who has carved her own path and worked for a range of media publications, Heffernan offers critical insight and advice.
If you could tell me a little bit your career path: what led you to journalism? What sort of obstacles did you face and how did they influence the choices you made?
My parents are writers, and I grew up wanting to write. I hoped I’d write poetry. Then I found myself wanting to talk about poetry more than write it, and I realized that what I’d been doing—and wanting to do— was called criticism. I majored in English and Philosophy at the University of Virginia. Richard Rorty was my favorite professor. At the time, he was engineering a way out of philosophy for philosophers, which was his life’s work. His program was a kind of freedom ride—away from empiricism and into the intoxicating (French) fresh air of literary criticism. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
So I wanted to be a critic. By Non-Oedipal coincidence, my dad is a literary critic. I entered a Ph.D. program in English. It freaked me out, and I wanted to try other kinds of writing, so I briefly quit and moved to New York. I worked as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, and wrote for the Boston Phoenix and Salon and DEFUNCT Web 1.0 zines like Stim. I was a cultural critic before I had a beat, so it came naturally to me to believe that, like my heroes, I could and should write about anything—from O.J. Simpson to poetry to “Everybody Loves Raymond”—as long as my methodology was sound. I am in love with critical methodology, with the possibility of “soundness.” It’s a wonderfully elusive and tantalizing goal. I live in fear of having to reveal my methodology, and admire the way great critics incorporate their methodologies into their performances, the way a magician might seem to reveal a trick as part of the illusion. Maybe Thomas Friedman and David Brooks and Maureen Dowd feel this way about their ideologies.
My obstacles, looking back, are intellectual; they are my own shortcomings; they are all still before me.
How do you connect your academic interests with professional pursuits? What drew you to television/ pop culture criticism?
The connection seemed very easy. Academic literary studies have, for a long time, included cultural studies. The transition from the naturalist novels of my dissertation to the reality TV I used to regularly write about for Slate and the Times seemed very normal to me: two ways of representing experience that purport to seem real, or feel real, or BE real. Dreiser novels and “The Hills” have a lot in common.
I recently conducted a byline survey of major news publications to see how many women published opinion pieces, and found that The New York Times features the least female voices. In your personal experience, what would you say is the main cause for this? What do you think the best method for increasing the number of women writers is?
Women don’t frame cultural and political experience in us-and-them terms, which is required for op-ed. But THEY do. So WE should too. 😉
Over the course of your career you have worked for a variety of news outlets. How has your experience with each of these organizations shaped you as a journalist, and the kind of topics you choose to cover?
Editing the Virginia Literary Review in college, with Mike Albo taught me how to run things and collaborate. Writing for the Phoenix and Salon taught me how to work with editors, and be run, as a writer. Writing for Slate taught me to play and take chances, and taught me what an “apperçu” is, and how to notice when you have them. Michael “I Hate Reporting” Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg liked the spectacle of people staking impassioned or (better yet) cold-blooded claims. They cultivated that spectacle, and then the online reactions, and called it a magazine.
Talk was a startup; it taught me enterprise. Harper’s was a family-owned blue-chip nonprofit. It taught me about 403 (B) status.
The Times Arts section taught me consistency and rigor and accountability. Writing the Screens blog taught me CHUTZPAH; I was writing about a form that barely existed (online video) IN a form (a Times blog) that barely existed. The Magazine taught me to relax. I loved it there. Jamie Ryerson and Alex Star are very scholarly, so they didn’t mind an academic locution or two. Op-Ed is by far the most fascinating and challenging job I’ve had. I not only have to stake claims; I have to establish culture—and the much-derided digital and pop culture—as a legitimate subject for claim-staking. It took me awhile to realize that there are plenty of readers who wonder what I’m even doing bringing up “Extreme Couponing” or this or that app in the Pages of the New York Times.
I have to lay out the sides and take one. I love doing this, but it takes everything I’ve got. I feel a great sense of responsibility, especially because, though critics can’t work without a flexible mind, I also have to make my mind UP, in a way that readers can tell exactly what I think.
As a female journalist, did you find one medium of journalism to be more difficult than others?
I didn’t like the would-be edgy independent weeklies of the 1990s because they liked a manly, streetwise style that I could never approximate. I don’t really like the current incarnation of celebrity-elite magazines like Vanity Fair because they have an Asperger’s idea of “sexiness” that scares me. I’ve always liked the women’s magazines, from bottom to top, though I haven’t written for any of them.
Anything online is intrinsically good. All women who want to write should keep sites on Tumblr starting today.
You often write about the rise of the Internet and the changes it has wrought. How do you think the Internet has influenced the experience of female journalists?
The Internet has influenced our experience so much for the better that we can scarcely measure the improvements.
To take just one way: physical, person-to-person office culture worked for some women, but failed for most women. The advice about how to be this way and that in offices and at watercoolers and on breaks, how to be feminine and assertive and modest and not cry and not be bitchy, often came down to details of personal self-presentation. For all but the most adroit among us it was exhausting to pull all that off in person while trying to get a job done (to be exact: all that flirtation, and shutting down of flirtations, and making yourself open but not too open to flirtation).
(To refresh memory of predigital offices, you don’t need to go as far as Mad Men. Check out, for example, Anita Hill’s evocation of office life in the 1980s here.) All that face-to-face office culture could be fun, and it could be upsetting, but it was above all intensely demanding socially, and there’s no way it made better journalists. Writing is not a social activity. In my view, anything that lets writers, and especially female writers, work outside of those offices, including especially the rise of the Internet and mobile devices and telecommuting, is a boon to professional women. At the same time, the Internet, which rewards literacy and wit over personal charisma and physical power (expressed in predigital offices in suits, shoulder pads and red lipstick) is nothing short of a paradise for writers, who would rather write than dominate a meeting. Writers of both genders who claim to miss analog days surely can’t be missing the actual social pressures of a predigital office.
In a period of tremendous change in terms of how we share and process information, what advice do you have for young women starting out in the field of journalism who want to land jobs writing and editing?
Ask yourself, ladies, do you want to write to (a) “fix the world” (b) “improve systems” or (c) “tell great stories”? Fix-the-world people should go into public-private philanthropic projects and not journalism. They should also have family money (for “public”) and not be morally squeamish (for “private”). If you want to improve and investigate systems (that’s me)—if you’re drawn to games, coding, criticism, poetry, art, technology—please stick with journalism, and see yourself as part of making and understanding the new new media. You might enter a sound-seeming company like NBC News or The New Yorker at the level of digital innovation. I’d also look into the journalism underway at YouTube. You can help design systems.
Oh but if you are (c)! (C) is a very endangered and noble practice, the telling of stories for money, and the best bet for aspiring storytellers is to see themselves as involved in a slightly antiquarian pastime that requires ballast by preservationists, and the support of foundations and non-profits and universities. Find a dot-org or dot-edu that doesn’t seem too bad (Mother Jones, Harper’s, AARP), and write for them.
One other option for (c)s—if you’re a little more devil-may-care about who you work for, if you JUST want to tell stories for money, no matter what stories or whose money, consider going commercial, getting right on the old line that separates ad and editorial, and write for Gilt Groupe, Groupon, Walmart.com or Kraftfoods.com. Ecommerce businesses now employ hundreds of thousands of writers, and it’s not all ad and catalog copy.