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?