Early Bird Withdrawal Syndrome

by Jim Lobe

For those who don’t know me, I am terribly old-fashioned technologically speaking. I only agreed to get a cell phone about five years ago, and I just got my first smart phone last month but haven’t yet used it for email or Internet. I subscribe to three newspapers — the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal — all of which are physically delivered to my house in the morning. At home I physically cut out clippings from those papers (with a 34-year-old metal “RCA” ruler that was originally designed to cut teletype copy) and then read them on my way to work, making me unique among my fellow-commuters — fewer and fewer of whom are reading newsprint in any form. Upon arrival at my office, I pick up complimentary copies of the Financial Times and the Washington Times and one or two of the Capitol Hill newspapers that are available in the National Press Club’s library, and then clip them with another 34-year-old metal ruler that I keep on my desk in the office.

This process — and the accumulation and eventual filing of about half of these clips in folders and then drawers in some six file cabinets that line the office — is naturally the cause of some considerable amusement on the part of my office-mates, particularly the students or recently graduated interns who, given the office hierarchy, try hard to suppress their laughter at what must seem to them something out of Dickens. (Of course, the more tactful or diplomatic among them always express — or feign — wonder and gratitude whenever I find old or not-so-old clippings that provide them with relevant background for stories they’re working on that they might not be able to pinpoint very quickly through Google). Some of my files go back to the Ford administration, although most clippings older than a mere decade have been purged. (I’m NOT a hoarder.)

This eccentricity (some would say insanity) doesn’t have so much to do with my distrust or dislike of the Internet and its various searching tools as it does with how I learn about things and fix them in my (continuously failing) memory. At almost 65, I simply don’t absorb what I see on a two-dimensional computer screen. I can read it, but I can’t remember it; it just doesn’t make much of an impression. To me, despite the differences in typeface, ads, colors, etc., each of the articles looks the same. To absorb the contents of an article, I need to engage more senses; certainly my tactile sense of being able to hold and interact with the article, first by clipping it, then by holding it and by underlining or bracketing key excerpts with a pen. I believe there are some recent studies that have found the more senses are engaged in an activity — like reading — the more areas of the brain are activated, thus not only making a deeper impression, but also creating associations within the brain that would otherwise go unconnected. (An aside: I almost never watch television news or YouTube videos about the news, simply because I think my brain reacts far more emotionally — and subconsciously — to visual stimuli in ways that overwhelm the verbal narration, with the result that my ability to intellectually analyze what I’m watching becomes severely impaired.)

So, I rely heavily on my newspaper clippings. I also get a lot of email that link to articles appearing on the Internet, which I can then examine. If I find them interesting and detailed enough, however, I am compelled to print them out so that I can fully interact with them as described above. (Given my love for trees and nature, especially when hiking in my native Washington state, I deeply regret this dependence on hard copy, and the only way I can think of atoning for it is by obsessively recycling every scrap of paper I can find, especially abandoned newspapers within a couple of seats of my own on the Metro.)

For the last 25 years that I’ve been working in DC, another key source of news for me has been the Pentagon-produced “Current News,” especially the “Early Bird” edition hard copies of which have been made available each weekday by the staff of the State Department’s Foreign Press Center (FPC), which is located on the Press Building’s 8th floor. The Early Bird is (or now was) a compendium of usually 40 or more articles and op-eds — almost, but not all, from U.S. newspapers and the major wire services, and, more recently, Internet publications — which were considered by the editorial staff important enough to be distributed across the entire national-security bureaucracy. Moreover, the FPC was always careful to use both sides of the paper on which the Early Bird was printed for distribution to interested reporters, thus saving tens of thousands of trees over the past decade.

Of course, much of the Early Bird consisted of articles and op-eds I had already clipped that morning, as the NY Times, the Post, and the Journal pretty much set the news agenda of the day for official Washington. (Under Donald Rumsfeld, the “Early Bird” also seemed to give certain right-wing publications, like the Washington Times, the Murdoch press, including the Weekly Standard — but not, interestingly, the National Review — and Israeli newspapers, especially the Jerusalem Post, a lot of attention). But it also included important regional newspapers whose daily print editions used to appear in Washington (like the LA Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and a couple of Knight-Ridder/now McClatchy newspapers, such as the Miami Herald) whose value lay not only in the substance of the reporting, but also in the fact that they were not “court newspapers” in the way the aforementioned “Big Three” have been. That is, they don’t feel as compelled to ingratiate themselves with their high-level sources as much and thus have been more inclined to go down roads or entertain alternative explanations of events that the more prestigious newspapers have avoided. (Think, for example, of Knight-Ridder’s scooping of the Iran-Contra affair and the skepticism its reporters and editors constantly displayed in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion. Moreover, there have been important stories that, if first exposed by some of these regional papers or chains, the big national papers have either ignored or downplayed — apparently out of embarrassment.) In any event, the inclusion of articles from publications like these in the Early Bird, particularly after the LA Times, the Miami Herald and the Monitor began disappearing from news stands in Washington, made my work a lot easier. I didn’t have to search each publication on the Internet and then print out a copy of the article; it was all compiled for me right in one package. (The Early Bird actually printed a few of my own articles, usually reprinted from the Asia Times, which subscribes to IPS. One, in particular, dealt with the incredibly destructive role played by Doug Feith’s office in the Pentagon during Bush’s first term. I’ve long suspected that the article — and its appearance in the Early Bird — was behind Feith’s decision to abruptly inform his aide-de-camp that he had to go home to help put his kids to bed just as I extended my hand and introduced myself to him after a presentation he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations one evening about nine years ago.)

Naturally, it was very disappointing when, on Oct. 1, no Early Bird appeared in the FPC as usual. The Center’s staffers and I initially attributed it, of course, to the government shutdown that resulted in the furloughing of “non-essential” workers, which apparently included Early Bird editorial staff despite them being “essential” to my work. But then, after the shutdown ended, it failed to reappear. The FPC staff thought it was just a communication problem, and things would rapidly return to normal. But then I read the Nov. 1 New York Times story, which reported that the Early Bird — a fixture of the national security establishment since the Cold War, not to mention my daily information-gathering routine for the last almost quarter century — had been thrown, unceremoniously no less, into the dustbin of history. And one full year before my hoped-for retirement.

So what am I to do? Does this mean I have to broaden my daily Internet searches to include some of the publications — including some foreign sites, like the Australian Age or Singapore’s New Straits Times, or some of the Japanese newspapers that provide invaluable reporting on Asia (from non-U.S. perspectives) that is crowded out by the U.S. media’s overwhelming focus on the Greater Middle East, active wars, and natural disasters — that used to appear in the Early Bird but are now available only online? Frankly, as of now, I lack the time, which means I’ll fall behind on key geo-strategic issues like the progress of Washington’s “pivot” to the Asia/Pacific. Does this mean I will now become even more reliant on the three big national dailies delivered to my door whose news reporting has become increasingly indistinguishable (budget cuts at the Post have translated into a foreign news section that has become a mere shadow of its former self)? And does this all mean that I’m going to have a print out a lot more paper and destroy a lot more trees in order to absorb what’s happening in the world? For me (and the trees), the Early Bird’s demise is nothing but bad news.

Photo: Jim Lobe and some of his file folders filled with decades’ worth of his newspaper clippings.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Your last paragraph: “what am I to do”? At this point in the game. Besides, think of those future souls who will come upon your treasure troves of printed words. My goodness gracious sakes alive, there aren’t many of you around today, so I say “Keep On Truckin”.

  2. You think losing the Early Bird is bad? Try remembering when the cut the Early Bird Supplement, a compilation of periodical and journal literature, which ended in 2004. That was a real LOSS.

  3. I’ve been reading you for years, Jim. This is one of the best pieces you’ve written. I think you’re going to like retirement! As they always say to veterans: “thank you for your service to the country”.

  4. Jim how are going know what they are following if you don’t know what there reading but on the other hand you will not be reading a lot of disinformation, but then again disinformation can give a lot of clues to what there really up to. It looks to me one more way to keep the public in dark.
    Please don’t retirer your doing one hell of job!

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