Intersector Briefing: Quality coverage of cross-sector collaboration

BlogImage_QualityCoverageIn fall 2017, The Intersector Project released a report detailing how journalists are covering cross-sector collaboration and the difficulties they face in doing it well. We reviewed a full year of articles about collaboration among the government, business, and non-profit sectors — totaling 249 articles from 10 newspapers across the country.

From this review, we gained a detailed understanding of what quality coverage looks like. So we developed a set of six quality criteria, ranging from the “who” and the “what” of cross-sector collaboration (elements that are typically easier for journalists to include) to more complicated aspects that are not only more difficult to understand and convey, but also key to shaping the public’s understanding of cross-sector collaboration. The quality criteria are as follows.

Does the news item:

  • name partners or types of partners?
  • describe the outcomes of collaboration?
  • describe the problem that cross-sector collaboration seeks to address?
  • describe the contributions of partners to the collaboration?
  • discuss any challenge, limitation, risk, or downside to collaboration?
  • state that a collaboration accomplished what single-sector efforts could not?

We looked at a few examples of quality coverage in the report, but we’re constantly finding new examples — ones that include many of these quality criteria listed above and present the information using engaging journalistic techniques. We’ve gathered a few here, along with some commentary, to discuss what quality stories of cross-sector collaboration look like and highlight why this type of coverage is important.

Internal documents reveal early challenges for Rochester anti-poverty initiative,” Democrat and Chronicle, Patti Singer

This article provides a detailed look at the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative (RMAPI), which has struggled to launch in the three years since its initial formation. While this piece touches on several of the quality criteria — naming types of partners, describing potential outcomes of the collaboration, and describing what the collaboration might accomplish that single-sector efforts could not — it excels at discussing the challenges and potential downsides to collaboration. Patti Singer delves into documents that highlight these challenges, presenting them in an easy-to-understand format for the reader, with several illuminating quotes. For example: “‘Our community is amidst a transition and changing of the guards,’ [RMAPI director Leonard] Brock wrote about challenges in June. ‘Many embrace collective impact — some of the older, more seasoned leaders don’t understand collective impact and believe RMAPI should be governed similarly to traditional organizations. They may perceive collective impact as a lack of ‘accountability’ when it’s actually shared responsibility.’”

Big changes planned for economic development efforts in Delaware” and “Carney’s economic development strategy raises transparency questions,” The News Journal, Scott Goss

These two articles, written by the same journalist for the same newspaper four days apart, illustrate a key aspect of stories about cross-sector collaboration. Coverage of an initiative often starts out in a “press release” style, discussing the who and the what, before moving on to more nuanced and detailed coverage. These articles discuss a new Delaware public-private partnership for economic development, first in a more positive light (“The shift has been promoted as a way to capitalize on local business leaders’ expertise in identifying future high growth employment opportunities.”) and then shifting to a more critical look (“Some legislators, watchdog groups and national experts say that lack of transparency could invite abuse from business leaders willing to use their newfound influence over who gets taxpayer grants and loans — either scaring away competition from businesses they operate or rewarding companies that benefit their own private interests.”) As demonstrated here, quality coverage can unfold over time, particularly when journalists have the time and resources to write follow-up stories, which is not always the case.

Why Washington, D.C. is leading the way on partnering with the private sector,” CityLab, Kriston Capps

CityLab is a publication that often excels at writing about cross-sector collaboration, and this piece serves as one example. First, in its discussion of one particular public-private partnership in Virginia, the article presents the specifics related to one of our quality criteria — whether the collaboration accomplished what single-sector efforts could not. The author quotes the P3/Joint-Ventures Policy Coordinator in Fairfax as saying, “If the county had done it on our own or in a more traditional fashion, we may have built an above-ground parking garage, like we have at the Herndon Station. Which would have created a barrier between the development near the Metro and [the Metro station].” While it’s not always possible to present this detailed an account of what would’ve happened without a cross-sector approach, it does provide the reader with a concrete example of the benefits of partnership. This article also stands out for another reason: The other articles presented here have more of a negative tone about particular collaborations, while this one discusses a trend of partnership and does so in a positive light, highlighting how not all quality coverage must have a critical stance. And while the tone is positive, Kriston Capps still includes a discussion of risks. “Public–private partnerships are pricey,” he writes. “That’s the first and last point that D.C.’s OP3 underlines when explaining the process to city agencies. Another one is that it’s difficult for the public sector to protect itself against market changes.”

Other recent examples:

Moving on to a bigger question: Why does quality coverage of cross-sector collaboration matter? First, journalists have an important role to play in covering these partnerships thoroughly to fulfill the Fourth Estate’s mission of holding public officials and agencies accountable for their work in these collaborations. They can also educate the public about cross-sector collaboration as a potential model for addressing their community’s problems — both its benefits and limitations.