Becky Maxwell, publisher at the Journal Express in Knoxville, Iowa, received an email on Dec. 13, 2018, claiming that a bomb had been placed in newspaper’s building that would detonate if she failed to send a ransom in bitcoin by the end of business. The Express was one of 12 newspapers owned by the media company CNHI to receive such a threat that day.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has documented that at least 27 U.S. media outlets were targeted with the hoax bomb threats, alongside hundreds of schools, businesses and public buildings across the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to the CNHI (formerly Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.) papers, eight stations owned by Gray TV and two newspapers owned by McClatchy received the email threats. More may have received the email hoax and not publicized it.
“When I first received [the email],” Maxwell told the Tracker, “I read it a couple of times and I thought, ‘Oh, this is just a scam.’” But, because of previous incidents over the past 15 years, she said, they now take any kind of threat seriously.
After consulting with the chief of police, the Express did not evacuate. Neither did the staff at the Joplin Globe in Joplin, Missouri. When reporters Debby Woodin and Emily Younker each received the threatening email, they brought it to Globe Editor Carol Stark and the publisher, who immediately called the police. While the Globe has policies in place for tornadoes and fires, Stark told the Tracker, on the day they received the threat they lacked a clear procedure to follow.
“We did not evacuate because the police really thought it was a bogus call, but in hindsight now we should have,” she said.
Events over the past year have spurred many newsrooms across the country to reevaluate their security infrastructure and procedures, editors and publishers told the Tracker, and none more so than the June shooting at a newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. On June 28, Jarrod Ramos entered the Capital Gazette offices and shot to death five people, including four journalists and a sales associate.
Andy Bernhard, publisher for The Park Record in Park City, Utah, said that when his newsroom received the bomb threat they were already in the process of following through with recommendations from the county sheriff for improvements to the office’s physical security.
“It was actually the Annapolis Capital incident that got us moving on evolving our security procedures,” he said. “We’re actively receiving quotes for specifically that: shatterproof glass, keycard entry and new security cameras.”
Media companies, including CNHI and Swift Communications, have also initiated security reviews and updates in the wake of the Annapolis shooting, including conducting active shooter training with the full staff at each of their outlets.
On July 10, McClatchy sent an internal email, shared with the Tracker, informing its newsrooms that all locations would have hostile intruder trainings and that it was evaluating and updating the emergency plans and physical security of all locations. The email stated: “These upgrades may include installing panic buttons, remote entry maglocks, video cameras in entryways, shatter-resistant film coating to windows and additional on-site security guards.”
Jeanne Segal, McClatchy communications director, told the Tracker that all trainings and physical upgrades have been completed.
Al Lancaster, VP general manager at WSAW-TV in Wausau, Wisconsin, was glad that the threat came in in the middle of the day, when four department heads were in the newsroom and able to clear the building in fewer than 10 minutes. Lancaster told the Tracker, “It was pretty clear that we should evacuate whether we thought the threat was legitimate or not.”
Lancaster said that the bomb hoax checked their preparedness for such an event.
“We did just pull our disaster plan which had not been updated for a while,” Lancaster said, “And because of that bomb scare actually we’re looking at it with our department heads and revising and tweaking some things.”
In a year that saw an increase of violence and threats against journalists, this single-day email bomb hoax tested security procedures and trainings that newsrooms across the country have undertaken.
The Tracker has been able to verify the following media outlets were recipients of the hoax bomb threat:
- The Chicago Tribune, Tribune, Chicago, IL
- Clinton Herald, CNHI, Clinton, IA
- Enid News & Eagle, CNHI, Enid, OK
- Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, CNHI, Johnstown, PA
- Joplin Globe, CNHI, Joplin, MO
- Journal Express, CNHI, Knoxville, IA
- Kansas City Star, McClatchy, Knoxville, IA
- KCRG-TV, GrayTV, Cedar Rapids, IA
- KMVT-TV, GrayTV, Twin Falls, ID
- KTUU-TV, GrayTV, Anchorage, AK
- Muskogee Phoenix, CNHI, Muskogee, OK
- The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC
- News & Tribune, CNHI, Jeffersonville, IN
- Ottumwa Daily Courier, CNHI, Ottumwa, IA
- The Park Record, Swift Communications, Park City, UT
- Parkersburg News & Sentinel, Ogden, Parkersburg, WV
- Pauls Valley Democrat, CNHI, Pauls Valley, OK
- Suwanee Democrat, CNHI, Live Oak, FL
- Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI, Valdosta, GA
- Washington Examiner, Clarity Media Group, Washington, DC
- WBKO-TV, GrayTV, Bowling Green, KY
- WBOC-TV, Draper Holdings, Salisbury, MD
- WCAX-TV, GrayTV, Burlington, VT
- Weatherford Daily Times, CNHI, Weatherford, TX
- WNDU-TV, GrayTV, South Bend, IN
- WSAW-TV, GrayTV, Wausau, WI
- WTVY-TV, GrayTV, Dothan, AL