By Victoria Holmes



Editor and Publisher


A new report out of the Medill School, authored by visiting professor Penny Abernathy, addresses the decline in U.S. news outlets Newspapers were once at the heart of local communities — a vital way Americans found out about their neighbors and shared information. But now, as newspapers shut down across the country, the malignant spread of misinformation and disinformation take their place. A report from Medill called “The State of Local News 2022” finds that a fifth of the population lives in a news desert or a community at risk of becoming one. “We can define news deserts as a place where residents in a community have very limited access to the sort of news and information that helps them make good everyday decisions, as well as good decisions that will affect the long-term quality of life of future generations,” said Penny Abernathy, the primary author of the report. Without access to credible information on issues such as education, health, the economy, and the environment, people cannot determine what choices will positively impact them. “I believe this is the most crucial issue facing the news industry and one of the most crucial issues facing our democracy, right now, is the availability of local news and information,” said the Senior Associate Dean of the Medill School, Tim Franklin, who oversaw the research report. Franklin is also the John M. Mutz Chair in Local News and director of the Local News Initiative at the school. This report provides research that local newsgroups cannot conduct themselves. It also creates new tools, like the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, which local news organizations can access for free. The tool tracks the behavior of local news readers and benchmarks how they are doing against their peers. The report also highlights how weeklies can be profitable. “Where the news organization is located is very critical. If it is in an affluent or growing community, you’re going to have people who can pay for the news, or you’re going to have advertisers who want to reach those affluent people,” said Abernathy. She highlights two things to compensate for this situation — an entrepreneurial owner who can strategize the market correctly and enough support from the community to support for-profit or non-profit organizations. Although, the data shows more philanthropic money located in the communities of affluent people. Investment entities have also flown into the market over the last decade and a half, which helped some dailies survive. “While they had traditionally purchased stock, they decided they were going to run newspapers. And the problem with having institutional investors or investment entities run a newspaper is they have one purpose in life, and that is a return on shareholder, which is very, very different than the traditional newspaper chains we’ve had,” said Abernathy. The level of commitment to civic journalism differs between traditional outlets and investors. This is illustrated in the data showing that roughly onethird of the newspapers were closed by the top ten chains. The loss of reporters has been disproportionately carried out in newsrooms from the top ten chains. Franklin said these cuts are shortsighted, especially in a world with increased emphasis on reader revenue. “You have to provide a product people are willing to pay for. You have to provide a product where people will turn over their credit cards to a news organization because there’s value there…if you’re not doing that — if you’re just a ghost newspaper that doesn’t have original, local reporting, pretty soon, people are going to stop giving their credit card information,” said Franklin. He suggests that this issue is as old as capitalism, producing a product people are willing to pay for. Abernathy highlights a point about offering the reader a product that people cannot get anywhere else or a product that affects the quality of life for that reader. “If you’re always chasing clicks, you’re always chasing trying to get something out there fast, we’re not stopping to think what value we are actually providing the reader,” said Abernathy. According to the Medill Subscriber Engagement Index, original, unique/ enterprise reporting is what people are waiting to pay for. The report ends with a call to action called Saving Local News, highlighting ongoing efforts to save local journalism. On the national level, legislation called The Local Journalism Sustainability Act would provide tax credit to hire journalists. Additionally, the bipartisan Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), introduced last year, would exempt local news outlets from some antitrust laws so they could collectively bargain with technology companies for digital ad revenue. Abernathy said she hopes the study is ongoing. “We’re at a state in the industry where the change is happening so fast that we really need to periodically step in and say ‘What’s working, where is it working, and where are there still gaps,’” said Abernathy. “Advanced Persistent Threat Actors,” or “APTS,” are targeting journalists in other ways, too. “Journalists and media organizations are well sought-after targets with Proofpoint researchers observing APT actors, specifically those that are state-sponsored or state-aligned, routinely masquerading as or targeting journalists and media organizations because of the unique access and information they can provide,” Proofpoint authors explained in the July 14, 2022 publication, “Above the Fold and in Your Inbox: Tracing State Aligned Activity Targeting Journalists, Media.” The report was authored by Proofpoint’s Threat Research Team and Crista Giering, Joshua Miller and Michael Raggi. They compiled and analyzed data from 2021 and 2022, noting several ways state-sponsored APTS are targeting U.S. media members: phishing and credentials harvesting, malware, and good oldfashioned subterfuge — posing as fellow journalists in foreign countries. In the first two months of 2021, for example, Proofpoint tracked five incidents in which a China-based ABT targeted journalists working on politics or national security beats, the report explained. The bad actors simply used email, with timely, relevant messages about current affairs and events — other news stories, seemingly — to inspire the recipients to open them, thereby opening a digital door for the hackers. In April 2022, another Chinese APT group targeted media companies with emails containing a Royal RTF attachment. When opened, it would install and execute “Chinoxy malware,” the authors explained. Another strategy is targeting journalists’ social media accounts, which can have some real-world repercussions. “For example,” the authors explain, “in 2013, a threat actor took over the official Associated Press Twitter account and posted a tweet claiming that President Barack Obama had been injured in an attack on the White House. The stock market dropped more than 100 points in roughly two minutes following the tweet. Two years later, in 2015, a threat actor compromised about 130 Twitter accounts of influential individuals and tricked some of their followers into transferring more than $100,000 in Bit co into attacker controlled accounts .” China isn’t the only nation allegedly deploying hackers targeting journalists. Proofpoint says it has evidence, too, of APTS coming out of North Korea, Iran and Turkey. “Since early 2022, Proofpoint researchers have observed a prolific threat actor, (Turkey) tracked as TA482, regularly engaging in credential harvesting campaigns that target the social media accounts of mostly U.s.-based journalists and media organizations. … Ongoing campaigns have narrowed in on the Twitter credentials of any individuals that write for media publications. This includes journalists from well-known news outlets to those writing for an academic institution and everything in between. The malicious emails are typically Twitter security themed and attempt to grab a recipient’s attention with subjects alerting the user to a suspicious or new login location.” Russia-backed APTS were missing from the report, but that doesn’t mean they’re not players. But Russia was focused on other matters, after all. “In recent months covering the publication period, Proofpoint observed a lower level of Russian journalist-targeting abroad. … This is consistent with publicized accounts of Russian authorities focusing on controlling the domestic media narrative, compared to the narrative abroad, specifically regarding the outbreak of the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” Proofpoint’s Vice President, Threat Research and Detection Sherrod Degrippo suggested to E&P by way of an email. The best defense against APTS is information — preparing journalists and other members of the news organization to recognize and report potential phishing, harvesting or other possibly nefarious digital communications. Asked about the threat level ransomware presents to media companies, Degripp remarked, “Proofpoint routinely blocks millions of malicious emails containing malware, credential phish and malicious URLS, including those that may result in ransomware incidents. At this time, we have not looked at journalists and ransomware specifically.” “Targeting journalists and media organizations is not novel. … From intentions to gather sensitive information to attempts to manipulate public perceptions, the knowledge and access that a journalist or news outlet can provide is unique in the public space,” the Proofpoint authors concluded.