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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.