Conversation comes slowly to major media organizations, but even when it does, it can be difficult to follow. Consider the following sequence:

On August 7, the New York Times published a Floyd Norris column criticizing General Electric for financial shenanigans that Norris called Enron-like in some respects. The piece was another bit of the accumulating evidence that the tenure of former CEO Jack Welch had sufficiently sleazy elements to call into question, to put it mildly, Welch’s super-duper-elite reputation.

GE, like most other big companies, pays legions of people to make bad news go away or at least be less bad. In a letter to the editor published Sept. 9 (the one-month delay is curious), the company’s “Executive Director, Communications and Public Affairs” objected to Norris’ column.

The next afternoon, Norris responded in his blog in a posting entitled, “Was I Unfair to G.E.?” In the posting, which as you’d guess answers that question in the negative, Norris linked to some useful Securities and Exchange Commission documents. He also invited a further response from GE.

The GE reply arrived that evening as a comment under the posting, whichi Norris noted as an addendum at the bottom of the posting and then published as a “G.E. Responds” blog posting in its own right. Norris said discuss “parts of that response in a subsequent blog posting,” which as far as I can tell hasn’t appeared yet.

What’s good about this sequence is the conversation — the newspaper being willing to engage in a substantive back-and-forth about a story. Never mind that the odds are slim that Norris or other Times journalists would do this with most of the people they write about, at least the ones who aren’t representatives of the richest and most powerful companies and institutions, much less engage in true conversation with their audience. Let’s applaud the progress, because it is real in this case.

What’s not so good is the way the sequence appears. The original column has a tagline inviting people to visit Norris’ blog, but no hyperlink to the URL that was printed in the paper in the first place. There’s no link to the follow-up letter in the column, much less the conversation that’s now taking place in the blog.

Ideally, the place to let the conversation take place is where it started: below or next to the column, with links inside every element of the conversation back through its threads. This would give people a much better way to figure out what’s going on, and to make their own judgements about GE’s behavior. (For my part, it’s obvious that GE protests too much. If anything, I think Norris went too easy on the company.)

This isn’t just a problem at the Times. Following conversations that take place across sites and blogs can be difficult if not impossible. We need much better tools to track these things coherently in a general way.

But it wouldn’t have been difficult for the Times to do this with material appearing entirely within its own servers. So while kudos are definitely to Norris and his bosses for the engagement, we can wish they realized that they can do it even better.


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