Era ends for Pentagon’s ‘Early Bird’ news summary

By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service

The “Early Bird” is no more.

The Defense Department’s daily compilation of published defense-related news and commentary closed down Nov. 1, Army Col. Steve Warren, director of Pentagon press operations, said.

“The No. 1 driver behind this decision is change in the business model for news corporations,” Warren wrote in a memo explaining the decision. “Every news outlet is now online.”

Online-only publications and pay walls changed what it meant when the Early Bird republished an article, Warren said in an interview with American Forces Press Service.

Warren said he felt that his integrity was compromised by redistributing content the department hadn’t paid for. “By driving traffic away from websites, I felt like I was doing the wrong thing,” he said.

For nearly 50 years, the Early Bird and a cup of coffee marked the start to the defense community’s workday. It was officially created in 1965 by a Defense Department directive, but news clipping publications had existed in the military services since at least 1948.

In its early years, the volume of coverage on Vietnam and the Cold War meant the Early Bird was printed at least three times a day. A six-page morning edition was marked by a yellow cover page, and the longer midday edition had a blue cover, leading to the publication being nicknamed the “yellow bird” and “blue bird,” respectively. On Mondays, a fourth edition would cover weekend news, and topics of exceptional interest would periodically be covered in special editions.

“Early in our careers, there was no way to know what was being written in the major newspapers unless we had physical access to those publications. The Early Bird was our source of information,” Warren wrote. “Today, anyone can view anything written in real time from nearly any spot on Earth.”

The Early Bird was intended to deliver defense and defense-related news to the headquarters activities of the Defense Department, but circulation soon ballooned to include White House and National Security Council officials, members of Congress and other federal agencies. By 1980, 6,500 copies of the Early Bird were printed, on average, every weekday in an onsite print plant.

New technology fostered even more circulation growth, as the fax machine made it easy to quickly distribute the Early Bird, even far outside the Capital Beltway. It also made it impossible to track pass-along readership, and the Early Bird began to influence the department’s daily agenda.

“The thing became too powerful. … It was driving what people would do,” Warren said. Small stories would gain an audience that outweighed their importance, he explained, turning minor concerns into national situations.

“I thought the Early Bird stopped doing what it was supposed to do, which is give the secretary of defense and the senior leaders of the department the information that they need,” Warren said.

As technology changed the way news was gathered and delivered, the Early Bird changed as well. A PDF edition began appearing in 1993, and the last printed Early Bird was produced on Dec. 30, 1998. The continued development of the 24-hour news cycle led the Early Bird to begin publishing seven days a week in November 2004.

The Early Bird’s move to online publication came at a time when print media still derived much of its revenue from print advertising sales. Today, online publications dominate the marketplace, and revenues come through click counts. By pasting articles into the Early Bird, “we were preventing people from clicking on those websites,” Warren said.

“That made me feel like the guy who drops a quarter into the machine, opens the door and pulls out the whole stack. It’s stealing,” he added.

The decision to shutter the Early Bird wasn’t an easy one, said Warren, who noted his six-month review of the issue led him to conclude that the costs to the department’s integrity and organizational energy were just too high to continue publication.

Warren said he understands the end of the Early Bird “is going to be potentially a cause of friction and concern. … There are people who have spent years starting their day with the Early Bird. They’re going to have to readjust how they do business.”

But at the end of the day, Warren said, his job is to ensure that the defense secretary and the department’s senior leaders are informed of the day’s defense news.

“They will absolutely continue to receive the news information that they need,” he said. “They will not be uninformed.”

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