Winter 2009 | Online Exclusives

A Laid-off Journalist Charts a New Course via Social Media

Traveling the country, she and her family were inspired by hearing people’s stories of resilience in hard times.

By Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren, husband Bill, and, from left, Olivia, Blake and Callaway pose for a family picture in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Three days after covering the Obama inauguration, I was part of an unexpected mass layoff at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.

I was among 26 journalists who lost their jobs that winter day. So I simply did what comes naturally in the 21st century. I updated my Facebook status.

“Andrea McCarren was just laid off,” I wrote, “and is enormously grateful for her 26-year run in television news.”

Like many random postings on the Internet, this one had unintended consequences. It was how my husband, Bill McCarren, learned of my job loss. A friend, who happens to be a newspaper reporter, phoned him and said, “What’s this news about Andrea?” To which Bill, replied, “Huh?” She said, “There was something on Facebook and it looks like she was laid off.” Bill fell silent.

“You’re telling me something I don’t know,” he said. “Let me find out and I’ll call you back.” As the general manager of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Bill had been in a series of meetings that morning and hadn’t even had the chance to check his e-mail or voice mail. I’d left messages on both.

Social media, I learned that day, was like a wildfire, spreading rapidly across the Internet, with little possibility of containment. My Facebook posting immediately led to a flood of phone calls, condolence e-mails, and job leads. A Facebook friend I’d met in person just one time introduced me to a high-profile CEO and entrepreneur who flew me to California for a job interview the next week. Former colleagues and even several interns I’d mentored in the past spoke to their bosses and paved my way into their news operations within days. No one was hiring but it boosted my spirits to make so many contacts.

I’d never lost a job before so this was all new territory for me. And I had no idea what it meant to be laid off in the public eye. Since my bio was immediately removed from my former television station’s Web site and I had to turn in the cell phone (and number) I’d had for more than a decade, loyal viewers and longtime sources looked for me online. A simple Google search turned up my Facebook page so hundreds of people friended me and wrote remarkably kind notes of support and encouragement.

Unbeknownst to me, colleagues, friends and viewers had also started tweeting the news of my layoff. My social media family grew exponentially, not just on Facebook and Twitter, but with a sea of new invitations to connect through LinkedIn.

And that was just the beginning. An editor at The Washington Post tracked me down through Facebook and asked me to write about what it was like to cover the tumultuous economy and then become part of the story. In addition, Howard Kurtz, the longtime media critic for the Post and the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” found me through Facebook and asked if I would be a guest on his upcoming show about the battered journalism industry.

My essay in that Sunday’s Outlook section of the Post and subsequent appearance on CNN prompted more than 2,000 e-mails and letters from around the world. The leading Dutch newspaper wrote a column about me in the context of the troubled American economy. A crew from Taiwan Television came to my home to shoot a similar piece. I had suddenly become a poster child for the financial crisis in the United States.

This turbine in Lamar, Colorado is part of the fifth largest wind farm in the world. Photo by Andrea McCarren.

On the Road With Social Media

My family and I were awed by the compassion and kindness of Americans who wrote to me, most of whom I’d never met. They shared their own heart-wrenching experiences with layoffs and other catastrophic events and, importantly, they offered advice on how they got back on their feet.

I felt empowered and grateful, and we all knew we had to do something with this valuable material. So in August, with an idea and a rented RV, my husband, three children, and I hit the road.

Our plan was to travel across the United States and learn how others faced economic hardship, often reinvented themselves, and bounced back. I did what I’d done my entire career—interviewed strangers, wrote about them, and took photographs—and posted our progress and location daily on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

By now, we knew the power of social media so I’d only set up a few stories in advance of our trip. We had a file full of leads and relied on Facebook and other social media for the rest.

Aside from food and clothing, we packed one computer, lots of road maps, still and video camera gear, and an abundance of faith that this would work.

It did. The stories we found stretch for miles and generations. We dubbed our journey “Project Bounce Back’’ and traveled through 21 states.

A Facebook friend suggested we visit Manistee, Michigan and look into the story of an auto parts plant that collapsed under the weight of the economy. Somehow the plant had reopened its doors to a new industry: building small wind turbines. The general manager, who had to lay off his entire staff, was thrilled to rehire and retrain many of those workers. We all donned safety glasses as he proudly showed us around his recrafted facility.

Social media contacts led us to towns that impressed us with their ability not just to survive hardship but to thrive. The residents of Greensburg, Kansas lost everything but their spirit in a deadly tornado. They vowed to rebuild better than before and emerged as a model of sustainable energy for the United States and the world.

Just down the road, we found ourselves standing in a field of the grain milo with the Jaeger brothers, Luke and Matthew. With their father, the Jaegers cooked up a batch of biodiesel in their kitchen and found a homemade solution to the skyrocketing cost of gas. That discovery also helped them save their family farm.

Facebook friends guided us across South Dakota to the tiny town of Lead. There, the economy had forced the closure of its major employer, a gold mine. Refusing to accept financial defeat, the resilient folks of Lead are now preparing to open the nation’s first underground science laboratory in the old mine, a move that is attracting worldwide attention.

That story allowed us to spend the night a few hours south in the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where we awoke at sunrise to the sounds of whinnying.

“You’re looking at the bare bones of an old cowboy’s dream,” the sanctuary’s 84-year-old founder, Dayton Hyde, told us. With 750 wild mustangs to feed and a dramatic drop in donations and grant money, the aging cowboy was a portrait of resilience, sheer grit, and determination. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” he said, “Buying 1,000 tons of hay for the winter. There’s no getting around it.”

Throughout our journey Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts, most of whom were strangers, offered us their homes, the use of their cars, and home-cooked meals.

Two weeks into the trip, my husband announced, “This is like going on vacation with 1,000 friends!” I’m sure he meant it in a good way.

Social media provided the majority of our story leads as well as suggestions for some wonderful side trips including Oxford, Mississippi and Sun Studios in Memphis. After posting an update noting that we were handed Pepcid tablets upon entering the Iowa State Fair, we received an urgent Facebook message sending us to a friend’s brother who was exhibiting Belgian horses there.

Along the way, our RV rolled past breathtaking and meaningful landscapes. In southwest Minnesota, we were awed by the sight of hundreds of wind turbines against a Maxfield Parrish sunset—a field of white pinwheels, each punctuated by a bright red light at its center. And we parked our RV and slept in countless Wal-Mart parking lots, chatting with greeters and shelf stockers on the overnight shift.

On the third week of our trip, my 12-year-old daughter announced that the RV smelled “like one giant sock.” Social media postings allowed us to keep it real, too.

On the back roads of America, we found inspiration and hope and changed our family forever. We now feel confident and optimistic about the future, but what will I do next? Just check my Facebook status.

Brothers Luke, left, and Matthew Jaeger helped save the family farm by cooking up their own biodiesel in the kitchen. Photo by Andrea McCarren.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs, South Dakota is home to 750 wild mustangs. Owner Dayton Hyde calls it “the bare bones of an old cowboy’s dream.” Photo by Callaway McCarren.

Andrea McCarren, a 2007 Nieman Fellow and veteran television reporter, most recently covered immigration issues and the economy. She and her family launched to document their travels and the stories of hope and resilience that emerged along the way. Andrea is on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

29 Comments on A Laid-off Journalist Charts a New Course via Social Media
Katie says:
November 15, 2010 at 10:43am
This is a wonderful article. I'm majoring in Journalism and have been in love with it ever since I can remember. I'm doing a report for my communications class about how journalism is turning into the social media network. This article helped so much. It was a beautiful article. Thanks!
Amber Baker says:
March 15, 2010 at 5:10pm
Inspirational. I admire your spirit and tenacity. Way to use the power you have to shed light and bring others' stories to life, especially in the midst of your own hardships.Those who bless others receive blessing in return! I was pleasantly surprised to see how so many reached out with such kindness and generosity through social media, so wonderful. Great story!
Katie O says:
March 15, 2010 at 5:04pm
You go girl! You have a fire that burns for journalism, faith, and your family. This is the key to every great journalist. This takes years to figure out, yet some don't figure it out at all. I am glad you struck the match the next week and were able to get an interview. You are an inspiration to all journalists.

Keep the fire burning.
Taelor says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:52pm
What a way to turn the hardship of a lost job into a wonderful journalistic opportunity! What a wonderful story! It is exciting to hear how social media is changing our world.
Matthew Downing says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:52pm
Wow! This really is an inspiring story. There are so many different kinds of online media now that can help us get/stay in touch with people now. Though I've never been in your situation in the past, your story has really encouraged me. I'm really not so scared of losing a job. Not that I intend to treat my career cavalier or insignificant in any respect, but, rather, when the tragedy does indeed hit me, I won't worry as much. I feel more reassured now. Thank you for sharing!


-Matt Downing
Jean Schintee says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:50pm
Wow! What a truly remarkable and inspiring story.
I have always had the desire to travel across the U.S through different states and meet people from all walks of life.
I was so moved by your post and how you did not give up even when it seemed as though nothing was in your favor.
You captured the beauty and strength of the American people very well and hopefully one day I will be able to do that too! :)
Katherine says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:50pm
Reading this story gave me goosebumps! It's so amazing to see how powerful social networks are and how much it can influence our daily lives! Not only did it make some changes in your life, but it also lead you to a memorable journey! I am so happy for you and I hope you can continue to make use of all this social media to help and encourage others!
Amy Ortega says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:49pm
This article makes me look at social media differently. I would have never thought that technology would advance so much to this point. Great testimony, incredibly encouraging especially at a time like this to many people.
Heidi says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:48pm
Wow, this is truly an amazing story. I can't help but think about what you would have been missing out on if you were not laid off in the first place. It's always hard to find the good in things and focus on the blessings on life after a troubled time. Your experience is so awesome and you were such a blessing to people all over the country. I can't wait to see what else you do!
Courtney Wallis says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:48pm
I am truly in awe of your resilient attitude towards the hardships that daily life throws at us. You took a bad situation and made it into an amazing opportunity filled with so many memories you will take with you forever. This was truly inspiring, and I such an amazing example of how social networking can be extremely helpful in today's society. Your families optimism through a tough situation forces me to evaluate my own life, and places perspective on each of my problems. I wish you and your family the best of luck, and i look forward to your next Facebook status update.
Elissa says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:47pm
It is awesome to see the positive effects of social media. Through my convergence class I am learning how to use Facebook and Twitter not only for social matters but to use it in a journalistic way. Facebook was such a great channel for your case, I am very glad and encouraged by your story.
Joshua Watson says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:47pm
The internet is great for connections and getting the word out fast. It seems like you got leads for stories from the internet but you still had to go and see it for yourself. The internet is great but it rarely is good for a good interview. There is something about going yourself and meeting the people in their shops that is irreplaceable.
Ashley says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:46pm
I am awed by your courage and strength to set out on a new leaf on life and experience the world around you. It feels like so many others would become depressed and suddenly feel as if their is nothing left to do but just "move on". You are an inspiration and I hope one day I can take the same type of journey as you.
Dahye Song says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:45pm
It's so crazy how everyone is connected through online social networking sources. I'm glad to know that you were able to meet thousands of nice people who were able to welcome you into their homes and new experiences. This made me realize that past all of our fast paced lives, there are things out of our loop, like going to a wild horse cemetery, that teach us valuable things.
Stephanie says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:44pm
It's crazy to think that just by a mouse click of your thoughts that it was able to impact a lot of people. I am glad to hear that the sadness of the job loss came to be great news for you in the end of your blog... this led to people contacting you for you new job opportunities! Good Luck with all your endeavors!
Melissa Soto says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:44pm
It is so crazy to see how social networking has really changed the lives of people all over the world. It is the primary source where people get all of their news.

That is so awesome that all your friends helped you meet all those new contacts! I'm sure that really lifted your spirits in such a hard time!
Carizza says:
March 15, 2010 at 4:43pm
Your story makes my heart smile for so many reasons. Not only did you find numerous blessings in such a trying time, but you recognized this, and in turn, you will touch many lives.

I love how social media has its positive aspects. Though it can be used for trivial things, it can also be used productively.

Good luck and bountiful blessings on all your future endeavors!
Harmony Wheeler says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:51am
What an amazing opportunity! It makes me so jealous! But what a great example of how opportunity can come out of hope and how hope can come out of hardship. I am going through a hard time currently because both of my parents are without jobs and just had to move out of the house we've lived in since I was 1 year old. I don't know what will come out of this, but I'm looking at it as an adventure. And just look at the adventure you got to take! Your story is also a wonderful example of the advantages of social media. It proves the usefulness of social media in journalism, and the crucial place it has in journalism. It's also interesting that we don't have to network in person, we can do it online. And it's a lot easier to keep in touch with contacts online, as well.
Caitlin Joy Ryan says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:50am
Your vulnerability and strength is truly inspirational. We all too often hear about all the bad that comes from social media. This story shows what a wonderful thing it can be, letting the kindness of our people shine bright.
Thank you for sharing.
Elizabeth Sallie says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:50am
I really enjoyed this article. It's amazing to see the power of social networking in use. Not to mention, what a great experience for your family!

I like that you noted the one drawback to social networking -- other people finding out before your nearest and dearest do. The fact that it "spreads like wildfire" is definitely one of its biggest benefits too. I think a big part of social networking is understanding both sides of it and how to use that to your advantage best. It seems like this balance was really achieved and used to its best advantage during your trip. Great job with using what you had available!
Johannah S. says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:50am
This is a great article that inspires and brings much hope. I am a journalist student and being able to see how someone took a misfortune and turned it around is amazing. There was so much love and support that was behind this journalist, which helped her succeed even after the loss of her job. I think that it is very remarkable to see how she took losing her job as an opportunity to travel the country and tell the stories of others like her who were affected by the economic crisis. As things slowly start to turn around, this story is one that definitely inspires me and many others I'm sure.
Brian Moseley says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:49am
About how many stories did you eventually come up with? It sounds like an incredibly powerful trip, for you and the people you met. I've always planned to go on a similar trip after college just to go so it's also cool to hear positive things about your trip; it makes me more exited to go on my own.
Heather says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:49am
I believe this would be such a interesting and wonderful trip for anyone to take. Your story alone is inspiring, yet taking it to the top by seeing how others manage through hardship is amazing. the adventures and stories you gained will surely last a lifetime. Not only was it a learning experience for you, but also for your kids. You did not take the usual Disneyland vacation but took them on a trip that was educational and rewarding. I found the hospitality and the willingness of strangers that took the time to contact you and help you on your journey to be astonishing. Such an inspiring story!
Allie says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:48am
Wow. Here is Andrea doing her best to capture the resiliency of the American people in economic hard times, and she is just as resilient! She is not letting her job loss get to her, and she is making the most of her former career abilities by traveling around, reporting gin her own way with LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. What an inspiration to keep trying!
Vinnie Fayard says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:48am
This is a wonderful and inspirational story. Thank you for giving the ones who have lost their jobs due to America's fallen economy hope. It is so good to see people work together in order to keep their dreams moving along.
Chantelle says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:47am
There was not one point in this article where I became apathetic to your detailed narrative. It's such a powerful example of the how promising social networking has become for our generation in today's society. I'm encouraged that what you and your family were able to do speaks volumes about the optimism and hope that comes with these troubled times. I would hope that the trip not only brought a realization of the unity that truly exists in this world but will provide you with the satisfaction of knowing that God is good and that He will provide and that you are never alone. Best of luck to you in the future and I can't wait to see the next Facebook status update.
karissa says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:47am
It's amazing how small the world has become-and this is only the beginning! I cannot imagine the way technology will advance in the near future!
Alisha says:
March 15, 2010 at 11:42am
That's interesting that you were able to take your bad news and turn it into a good thing, it turns out the road trip was exactly what was supposed to happen.
luiz a. castro-santos says:
February 11, 2010 at 7:06am
wonderful. maravilhoso. maravilloso. beautiful.
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