Newspapers as Ants in a Circular Mill

I’m reading James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of the Crowds,” and this morning, I came across a passage that I think explains newspapers in 2009 pretty well.

Naturally, it’s a passage about ants1.:

In the early part of the twentieth century, the American naturalist William Beebe came upon a strange sight in the Guyana jungle. A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The circle was 1,200 feet in circumference, and it took each ant two and a half hours to complete the loop. The ants went around and around the circle for two days until most of them dropped dead.

What Beebe saw was what biologists call a “circular mill.” The mill is created when army ants find themselves separated from their colony. Once they’re lost, they obey a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants straggle off by chance and the others follow them away.

The simple tools that make ants so successful are also responsible for the demise of the ants who get trapped in the circular mill. Every move an ant makes depends on what its fellow ants do, and an ant cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death.

That anecdote — especially the parts about the ants getting lost and moving in circles — meshed nicely with today’s David Carr column, in which he reminds readers:

Magazine and newspaper editors have canceled their annual conferences (good idea: let’s not talk to one another). But perhaps someone can blow a secret whistle and the publishers and editors could all meet at an undisclosed location.

My fantasy meeting goes something like this: a rump caucus could form where the newspaper industry would decide to hold hands and jump off the following cliffs together….

Now, here’s where we are in 2009: newspapers have happily followed the model of “free” for the last decade or so. Readership is up. Profits are way down. So newspapers are being asked to innovate, though newspapers have never been particularly good at innovation. A few lonely papers — as Carr notes, The Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports and The Arkansas Gazette are three — are actually charging for content and making some money. The rest are hemorrhaging cash.

So, as Carr has suggested, newspapers must band together in order to break the cycle and survive. Which brings me back to Surowiecki’s last sentence about the ants, which I’ll reprint from above:

Every move an ant makes depends on what its fellow ants do, and an ant cannot act independently, which would help break the march to death.

So elegant. So fragile. The media goliath has become the ant. Welcome to newspapers in 2009.

1.I was planning on pulling this text off my Kindle and onto the web, but then I found the exact passage I was looking for on the web. For the record, I found it on a website deriding Republicans for following President Bush on Iraq. Now I’m wondering: who has a higher approval rating? Bush, or the mainstream media?

A Brief Commentary on the State of Presenter-Student Relations Today; or, Why a Lack of Twittering May Cause Paranoia

A very strange thing just happened to me:

I just finished giving a presentation to my Spanish class. It wasn’t anything fancy; five or seven minutes of blabbering in Spanish about Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo. That wasn’t the strange part.

No, the part that scared me — literally, to the point where I probably botched more multisyllabic Spanish words than usual — came halfway through my presentation, when I realized that everyone in the class was looking at me.

To another generation, this might not seems strange. I was standing up in front of a class of 15 or so in a small room, talking loudly. You’d probably expect that anyone who’d bother to show up for that kind of class would be paying attention.

But I wasn’t expecting that at all.

In fact, I’d completely forgotten that occasionally, speakers receive the attention of those they’re speaking to. See, most of my presentations have been to journalism classes. And journalism students aren’t like normal human beings. No, journalism students are preternaturally distractible, and even more so now that wireless internet is omnipresent on college campuses. We journalism students sit behind our laptops, Facebooking and Googling, occasionally about the topic at hand but usually not. Just this morning, I sat in the back of the room during a two hour lecture just to watch the rest of the class log onto Twitter and complain to other students about the lecture they weren’t listening to. (Naturally, I grew bored of watching other people complain, so logged on to Twitter and did the exact same thing.)

It’s been a while since I’d actually talked to a group of students who weren’t trying to decide what was more interesting: me, or TMZ. So when I realized in Spanish class that people were looking at me, I started to sweat. I thought that something was visibly wrong with me. Maybe my fly was unzipped. Maybe my hair had blown askew in the wind. Maybe I had blacked out and accidentally started speaking Cantonese.

I kept going, through the presentation, trying not to make any obvious motions toward the hair or groin. I knew something was wrong; I just didn’t know what.

Then I finished my bumbling explanation of Vallejo’s “El momento más grave de la vida.” And the class did what classes usually do at the end of a presentation: they clapped. But they did so in a way that showed this weird sense of appreciation for what I’d just told them, as though I’d presented ideas that might possibly be useful or thoughtful or even applicable to their own lives.

And that’s when I realized what had been weirding me out the whole time: they’d actually been listening.