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It's Web 101 for this experienced intern

Lois Draegin, 55, lost a six-figure editing job. She now works unpaid for a start-up website, trading her knowledge for new online skills.

March 06, 2009|Geraldine Baum

NEW YORK — Sitting in a bare cubicle, with her reading glasses perched halfway down her nose and typing away on a laptop she'd brought from home, Lois Draegin looked a bit like the extra adult wedged in at the kids' table at Thanksgiving.

This accomplished magazine editor lost her six-figure job at TV Guide last spring and is now, at 55, an unpaid intern at wowOwow.com, a fledgling website with columns and stories that target accomplished women older than 40.

"The Women on the Web," or WOW, needed Draegin's magazine-world wisdom, and she needed their guidance through a maze of technology that was as baffling to her as hieroglyphics. In a search for a new job in the media, she had suddenly found herself techno-challenged. She didn't know a URL from SEO.

It wasn't until she was teamed up with Randi Bernfeld at WOW that she understood the obsession with terms such as search engine optimization (a method to increase traffic to a website) or used Google Trends to pick story topics and write a uniform resource locater (Web address).

"She's my mentor," Draegin said of 24-year-old Bernfeld.

"No, she's my mentor," Bernfeld replied.

They were working at adjacent desks, and most often it was Draegin who was asking Bernfeld questions across the barrier.

Joni Evans, former president of Simon & Schuster and chief executive of WOW, has recruited several other victims of the downsizing in publishing as interns -- her site's way of doing good in a bad economy.

"I think of this as a very WOW model -- women helping women, bringing us all back to our true ethic of empowering each other," Evans said. She is one of five founders of the site; the others are columnist Peggy Noonan, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl, advertising executive Mary Wells and gossip columnist Liz Smith.

Draegin took the internship at WOW as a creative way to fill out her resume while waiting out a collision of bad events that has stalled her career: She is in a media industry that was in a free-fall even before the recession took hold.

Other laid-off workers are attempting to be inventive by using newer social networking tools like LinkedIn and Twitter to find jobs. Some are even employing what Betsy Werley of the Transition Network calls the "extreme consulting model."

"These are people who have defined a great set of skills and said, 'Since everybody is stretched and needs some of what I can provide, I'm going to work as many different jobs as I can.' Employers are more flexible about how they think of workers, and employees are more accepting of what's acceptable to me."

Werley cited the example of a lawyer who is training as a mediator while getting paid to be a career coach, a public school advocate and a lawyer.

"She's using every skill she has," Werley said.

Still others are more like Draegin, delaying what could be a futile job search by trying to learn something new.

A group that focuses on sabbaticals, yoursabbatical.com, reported that an out-of-work consultant who recognized early on that it was a terrible time to job-hunt decided to do a Spanish immersion in Peru for three months, giving the economy a little time to strengthen, and allowing him to return with "fluent in Spanish" on his resume.

After Draegin started at WOW's unglamorous offices in Midtown Manhattan, no one knew quite how to describe her position.

Was she a "senior" intern, an "executive" intern, a "midcareer" intern -- or, as she prefers, an apprentice?

"We're just glad to have her," said Deborah Barrow, WOW's editor in chief, who knew Draegin from the magazine network and dreamed up this scheme to give her a two-month, three-mornings-a-week internship.

Draegin has been getting a lot out of the experience because this has not been a business-as-usual internship. As in: Get me my coffee, pick up my dry cleaning, and if you're lucky, by the end of the summer we'll let you write a caption.

Draegin has been learning by doing and watching and asking for help.

Arriving before 8 one day, her immediate task was to look for story ideas and mash together information from other websites into a brief news item for the "Wow Watch" column. Finding topics was easy enough -- Draegin fits WOW's demographic and instinctively understands the interests of its savvy readers.

But she repeatedly had to check her gut instincts against that all-important tool -- Google Trends -- to make sure her ideas would attract readers to the website. That morning, she chose to put yet another angle on a story about the California mother of octuplets who has been omnipresent on the Web.

Draegin quickly cranked out four paragraphs emphasizing that the "octomom" had decided to give all eight babies the same middle name -- Angel.

But everything else Draegin did that morning was more complicated.

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