A Reason to Not Be Too Competitive

I read a Wall Street Journal article a few weeks ago about how one very promising form of biofuel, palm oil, is in fact having deleterious effects on the environment. In Southeast Asia, farmers cleared huge swaths of rainforest in order to create palm plantations; they also drained and burned off peatland to create arable land, generating massive smoke pollution. It was a fascinating, informing, sobering article.

The other day, the N.Y. Times published an article by Elizabeth Rosenthal that covered pretty much the same exact ground. It was also very well done. Still, I was surprised to see it in the Times.

Why? Among newspapers and magazines that do this kind of enterprise reporting (and there aren’t many of them), a lot of importance is placed on being the first on a story, on not being redundant, and most of all, on not appearing as if you’re copying (or even following) the competition.

Let’s say I’m an editor at the N.Y. Times Magazine and I’ve commissioned a writer to do a profile of Isaias Afewerki, the president of Eritrea. Then, while my writer is out doing the reporting, the New Yorker or the Atlantic happens to run an Afewerki profile. In that case, you do two things:

1. Slap yourself on the forehead and say, What are the odds?

2. Phone up your writer and regretfully kill the story.

The case of the two palm oil articles in the Times and the Journal is obviously a bit different, since the subject of biofuels is far broader and more timely than an article about the president of Eritrea. Still, I bet that if the Times already had its palm oil article in the works when the Journal piece came out, some foreheads were slapped.

But I am really glad they didn’t kill the story. Why? Lots of people don’t read both the Times and the Journal. Because most journalists do, they forget this fact. In their desire and rush to be competitive, it’s sometimes easy for journalists to forget whom they’re ultimately serving: the reader. And in this case, people who read the N.Y. Times got to read a good article on an important topic, and so did people who read the Wall Street Journal, and no one is worse off for it.

I know that competitiveness generally breeds the sort of efficiency most people desire, but this is one instance where I am happy that competitive instincts were tamped down to serve a greater good.


I suppose with features that a pre-empted story might be killed, but with a story percieved as news, a scoop leads to echos in all the competition. Part of the reasoning at the NYTimes would depend on how much readership they share with the WSJ.


In this case, the NYT must have decided that it was in their best interest (and thus they're being competitive in the economic sense) to run that story. I take your point that being first is important when you're a news outlet, but surely is better to report on an interesting issue like this late than never. Especially if you know you don't have large readership overlap with the paper that beat you do it.

If they've sized up their market position right, it seems like when they made that decision, they were making the same rationalisation you just posted. In that case, they acted competitively, and also distributed information to more people, which is, as you say, for the greater good. But not due to lack of competitiveness on the NYT's part - rather the opposite.

That's my opinion, anyway. Can I get a real economist to tell me how wrong I am now?


Newspapers increase their sales based on fear. They did this to sell more newspapers. It also happens to serve the liberal agenda, which on a macro-economic scale is bad news. It is hardly in the public good to "fear" people into following agendas that may not be in their economic interests at all. It's a pretty big judgement call to try and sell this to your readers here as a good reason to not be too competitive. I think you are misinterpreting the newspaper's true intention.


Reminds me of the question about why anyone would write the gazillionth Harry Potter review on Amazon. The same reasons apply here. It may be the gazillionth review you see when you look at this particular page, but it might be the first review when seen from another angle (such as the list of books reviewed by this guy). It may also be the best perspective when seen from other angles (like the type of people who read NYT).


Wait a tic...Mr. Dubner...providing a Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaias_Afewerki) reference to Isaias Afewerki??? After this: http://www.freakonomics.com/blog/2006/08/03/more-welcome-ridicule-for-wikipedia/

The shame!!!

benjamin O. Aduba

On September 9 2010 Reuters News organization had this news item:
The International Finance Corp (IFC), the World Bank's private sector lender, said on Wednesday it had suspended investments in palm oil businesses until after a review of its practices in the sector.
With this announcement the World Bank (WB) IFC stopped the $132 million investment in palm oil development world wide. IFC was responding to the protests by environmental groups in South East Asia about some practices of "Big Oil" plantations. Consider the impact of both the economic and nutritional disinvestment in palm oil in the developing world (DW).
1. In West Africa palm trees are grown by village farmers in a non plantations setting as has been done for over 5,000 years. It was never an environmental problem nor is it now.
2. Growing, harvesting and processing of palm oil employs hundreds of thousands of people to stop investing in this agricultural field would throw thousands if not millions into unemployment in a region where unemployment is already close to 40%.
3. Nigeria still earns a small foreign exchange from this trade. To close this source of foreign exchange would deepen the reliance on petroleum products.
4. Palm juice is a great wine beloved by true Africans and used in many ceremonies. It is also the raw material for bootlegging of spirits. Like the nut and the oil it is a source of income for all who are in the business and by extension those who are involved in the after markets such as bars where gallons of palm wine are drunk.

As bad as the economic impact is the nutritional effects of stopping the investment in palm trees is much worse. For this section I turn to Tropical Traditions (http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/red_palm_oil.htm?gclid=COrhiKHF36QCFUhY2godrn7ftw) and USDA for input:
Palm Oil is palm oil that is traditionally made and maintains the natural nutrients of carotenes (precursors to Vitamin A) and the antioxidant tocotrienols (Vitamin E). Typical RBD (Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized) palm oil has these nutrients stripped from them resulting in a clear oil.
Palm oil is the most heavily consumed dietary oil in the world after soybean oil
Palm oil traditionally has been used for baking, shortenings, margarines and deep fat frying, as it is shelf stable with a high melting point and does NOT require hydrogenation. Therefore, it contains no trans fatty acids.
Palm Oil contains tocols (Vitamin E) which are powerful natural antioxidants. Therefore, it has exceptional resistance to rancidity.
Vitamin E is one of the most important phytonutrients in edible oils. It consists of eight naturally occurring isomers, a family of four tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta) and four tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta) homologues. While most Vitamin E supplements on the market today are composed of the more common tocopherols, tocotrienols are believed to be a much more potent antioxidant than tocopherols
Palm Oil is one of the richest natural plant sources of carotenoids with concentration of 500-700 ppm, 15 times more carotenoids than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes.
Vitamin A in its complete form is only available from fats in animal sources, like our cod liver oil. Carotenes are what our bodies use to convert to Vitamin A.

These are some of the factors the WB and IFC have not considered before suspending investment in palm oil development. Our Palm Oil is produced by small-scale family producers in Africa that are certified organic. When you purchase palm oil, you are supporting small scale family producers in Africa, and NOT large corporate plantations in South East Asia. WB should make this distinction.

Benjamin Obiajulu Aduba
Boston, Massachusetts
October 19, 2010