March 13, 2009
Career transitions in a tough job market call for ingenuity and flexibility
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK — Sitting in a bare cubicle the other morning with reading glasses perched halfway down her nose and typing on a laptop she had 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, an interactive Web site with columns and stories that target accomplished women older than 40.
"The Women on the Web," or WOW, as the site is known, needed Draegin's magazine-world wisdom, and she needed their guidance through a maze of technology that was as baffling to her as hieroglyphics.
It wasn't until she was teamed with Randi Bernfeld at WOW that she understood the obsession with such terms as search-engine optimization (a method to increase traffic to a site) or used Google Trends to pick story topics and write a uniform-resource locater (an address on the Web).
"She's my mentor," Draegin said of 24-year-old Bernfeld.
"No, she's my mentor," Bernfeld replied.
Joni Evans, a former Simon & Schuster president who is chief executive of WOW, has recruited several other laid-off publishing workers 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," said Evans, who founded the site with 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 résumé while waiting out a collision of bad events stalling her career. Other laid-off workers are attempting to be inventive by using such newer social-networking techniques as LinkedIn and Twitter to find jobs.
Still others are delaying what could be a futile job search by trying to learn something new. A group that focuses on sabbaticals reported that an out-of-work consultant who recognized 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 résumé.
After Draegin started at WOW's 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 offered her the 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. Arriving before 8 a.m. one day, her immediate task had been to look for story ideas and mash together information from other Web sites into a brief news item for the "Wow Watch" column. Finding topics was easy enough — Draegin fits Wow's demographic and understands its readers' interests.
But she repeatedly had to check her gut instincts against that all-important tool Google Trends to make sure her ideas would attract readers.
In the past, she hadn't bothered to learn such skills as writing tags and URLs because she was paid to think globally about the direction of her magazine. Now she had to think not only about each topic but about every word she wrote in an URL, headline, subhead, tag and links.
"It's really a challenge to do all of that at once," Draegin said.
Leaning back and crossing her arms during a break, she admitted her mind sometimes wandered. "I find myself wanting to turn my head to what would be good for the Web site overall — what kind of writers, kinds of new columns. That's just what I'm used to."
At one point Evans stopped by Draegin's desk and asked: "How's our intern?"
Draegin plucked off her glasses and said with a smile, "Surviving!"
She has found her internship beneficial in ways she hadn't expected. Working at WOW has revved her interests in the online world: She now tags and pokes and occasionally writes on somebody's wall. And she is considering Twittering — just for the fun of it.
Draegin also corresponds regularly on Facebook with her 20-year-old niece, who is in college. Shortly after Draegin landed the WOW gig she used Facebook to tell her the good news. Her niece responded with a message that made her overqualified aunt giggle:
Now they both had internships.
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