At 55, she’s no ordinary intern
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.
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 globally not only about each topic but about every word she wrote in the URL, headline, subhead, tag and links in the story.
Everything had to be crafted to draw readers.
“It’s really a challenge to do all of that at once,” Draegin said.
Leaning back and crossing her arms thoughtfully during a break, she admitted that her mind sometimes wandered. “I find myself wanting to turn my head to what would be good for the website overall -- what kind of writers, kinds of new columns. That’s just what I’m used to.”
But a daunting task that lay ahead snapped her back to the keyboard: She had to transfer eight babies’ mug shots from an NBC video to her story. She still hadn’t successfully done a screen grab (saving a Web page as an image).
After several attempts, she splayed her fingers, the nails unpolished, flat on the keys in frustration: “Hey Randi, I have no idea how to get these pictures onto my story.” Draegin’s lean frame slumped back from the computer.
She and her younger mentor were a study in contrasts. Draegin, who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and summers in one of Long Island’s vacation colonies, was dressed simply, wearing no makeup, short brown hair, a lavender suede shirt and black pants. Bernfeld, who commutes to work from Long Island, where she grew up, wore thick black eyeliner, long blond hair with dark roots and a stylish short dress that looked like an oversized gray sweater.
Seconds after Draegin’s cry for help, Bernfeld’s fingers, the nails sparkling with polish, were flying across the intern’s laptop, and eight pinched little faces appeared on the page next to the story.
The 2007 University of Florida graduate also had to remind the 1975 Washington University graduate to scroll through Google Trends before she wrote the tag and headline.
“She took a whole course in this in college,” Draegin said with a deep sigh. “And to think, I took European intellectual history.”
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!”
Later, Evans boasted that Draegin was, not surprisingly, a fast learner.
“She was so excited that by her second day she wrote a news story that was a big hit,” said Evans, explaining that Draegin’s first story received 200 clicks by viewers, whereas her second drew 5,000.
As for what Draegin has done for the site beyond writing a few briefs every morning, well, perhaps that’s not as obvious. But there are moments. Like during a discussion of the Israeli elections, Draegin discreetly corrected the pronunciation of a younger staffer who referred to the current foreign minister as “Tipsy Livni.”
“Yeah, we really should do a story on Tzipi,” Draegin said pointedly. “She’s really a wowOwow woman!”
Draegin has definitely found her internship beneficial in ways she hadn’t expected. While she has long been proficient on Facebook and LinkedIn and has owned a Kindle for more than a year, working at WOW has revved up her interests in the online world. She now tags and pokes and occasionally writes on somebody’s wall. She is considering Twittering -- just for the fun of it.
Draegin also corresponds regularly on Facebook with her 20-year-old niece, who is still in college and preparing to launch her own career. 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.
Previous Column One articles are available online.