With demise of Pentagon’s ‘Early Bird,’ military readers hunt bootleg copies of ‘Morning News’

The Defense Department has terminated its daily compilation of military-related news reports and opinion articles — called the Early Bird — in favor of a more restrictive press-clipping service for only the top brass.

The demise of the million-circulation “must read” for bureaucrats, politicians, industrialists and journalists has sparked complaints.

Hundreds of thousands of loyal readers have lost a concise morning view of what is happening in national security. They can’t subscribe to its successor, Morning News, which is provided only to the 300 most powerful leaders inside the Pentagon.

“People come up and say, ‘I’m not getting the Morning News. Can I?’” said Army Col. Steven Warren, director of Pentagon press operations. “And I make a determination. Essentially, the cut line is, ‘Are you a senior leader?’”

Col. Warren, who made the decision, recites a list of reasons for why the Early Bird lost its edge in the Internet age.

Service members and civilian workers can find online everything that was in the Early Bird, whether sitting in the Pentagon or in a forward operating base in Afghanistan.

Four-star combatant commanders outside the Pentagon, such as U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., and U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, have staff to clip news stories, he said.

Some publications complained that the EB, as some call it, was depriving them of millions of online page views — the news business’ gold standard — because it ran copies of stories and columns, not links to drive readers to the content provider.

“During the last month I have discovered that the Early Bird reaches every corner of the military industrial complex,” Col. Warren said in a letter to fellow public affairs specialists explaining his decision. “It goes to industry, academia, and think tanks. It is republished on classified networks, forwarded to government agencies and it is even repackaged and sold by private media outlets. I am comfortable estimating that somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people view the Early Bird every month.”

Another factor: Col. Warren said the Early Bird was sapping energy out of a defense establishment busy with war and budgets. It was taking more and more man-hours and brainpower to digest and summarize the EB and then map strategies for how to react to every bit of news.

“I felt like the cost of the Early Bird had become too high, and by cost I meant not the cost in dollars, but rather the cost in organizational energy that was devoted,” he said. “There was an odd dynamic in the Early Bird. The Early Bird had this ability to sometimes take a very localized, small news item and by putting it in the Early Bird caused it to become a national thing.”

In his letter, he wrote: “I believe that over the last several years the Early Bird has lost its way. In my view, it has become too much of a driver of day to day activities in the Pentagon and often in the field as well. How many of us have spent sleepless nights dreading tomorrow’s Early Bird?”

Some rank-and-file Pentagon readers, after reviewing bootlegged copies in a growing Morning News black market, said the publication favors big mainstream media outlets at the expense of newer and conservative media. They said the smaller commentary section taps into the editorial pages of big liberal newspapers.

“It was incredibly disappointing when the plug was pulled,” said a Pentagon worker who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. “Limiting the audience who have access to the new Early Bird hurts the intellectual maturation of the defense force.

“This is a problem if those news summaries purposely exclude articles on controversial issues or others with a view contrary to that expressed by the Obama administration. After all, military leaders are expected to be apolitical, but if they are fed only the administration’s view, then this smacks of psychological manipulation.”

Col. Warren rejected this criticism, saying the same two employees who put together the Early Bird are selecting content for the Morning News.

For years, the Early Bird was a much-demanded and, some would say, populist morning publication that presented a wide array of journalism, favorable and critical, of the Pentagon and decision-makers.

As defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld wanted it on the back seat of his limo at sunrise.

Subscriptions for the EB came relatively easy. The hard-copy version, available in Pentagon corridors, gave way to a digital attachment that showed up in email baskets in Washington and around the world.

The EB went away Nov. 1, with some secrecy. Representatives at first told reporters it was suspended during the partial federal government shutdown. When it did not reappear, the Pentagon fessed up to its demise.

Col. Warren said some reporters have thanked him.

“My editor used to read the Early Bird and would force me to chase stories that I wasn’t interested in chasing,” he quotes reporters as saying. “Without the Early Bird, I have a little bit more freedom now to do what I want to do.

“I thought that was just absolutely fascinating,” he said.

Gannett’s Army Times has moved to fill the void by sending the Early Bird Brief to subscribers.

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