At Journalism That Matters “The New Pamphleteers,” held earlier this week in Minneapolis, every session meant horizontal communication: no one on a stage, a circle of chairs with the facilitator at the same level as anyone else.

John Nichols is most certainly one of my favorite organizers of the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), going on now in Minneapolis. He visited the earlier, far smaller New Pamphleteers and represented what is wrong with the NCMR model of conference.

He dropped in without having attended the rest of the New Pamphleteers, without having had the experiences all the rest of us had.

Nichols told us that a circular arrangement of chairs just didn’t work. To be fair, he did this to draw a parallel with what we are doing on the Internet, where every experiment doesn’t work- but that out of all the failures, someone will figure out how to do it right. Nichols went on to give a fantastic speech, and we the participants of this gathering overrode the facilitator to have Nichols finish.

But it was a speech, not a talk. Nichols felt the need to teach us to applaud when, for example, he thanked Bill Densmore (the driving force behind gathering) and credited Densmore as the reason he was there. Nichols didn’t understand that when you’re in a conversation with more than one hundred people, you naturally dial down the applause response to keep the flow going.

At NCMR, Bill Moyers is speaking now- scheduled to begin at 8 a.m., in a brilliant move of putting the headliner at a time at which no one would come out for anyone else. The National Conference for Media Reform also puts people with genuine radical perspectives— I don’t wake up with my mind set on reform, I wake up with my mind set on freedom, Addrienne Maree Brown said yesterday at NCMR’s opening plenary.

The problem, though, is with the structure of the conference. Many of the wonderful speakers are not there learning and growing with us in the smaller breakout sessions. At past conferences this can be jarring— you feel like in the past few days you have progressed in your understanding and readiness to build a media that will make real democracy possible, and you get a speech written a month earlier.

One of the problems with the media reflects this structural flaw. Society can’t help but go through a learning curve when lied to repeatedly and blatantly about war, the world, the economy, and the environment. But the establishment media is there as if to hit a giant reset button, with – as Bill Moyers is saying – the same people on television and in opinion columns who got everything wrong on the U.S. invasion of Iraq retain their near complete monopoly of the microphone.

Janis Lane-Ewart, also part of yesterday’s rousing opening of NCMR, said media reform means universal access to communication.

When there’s a stage and there’s simply no way for most people to get on it and be something more than audience, that is not universal access.

This is not an insurmountable problem of scale. At Journalism That Matters “The New Pamphleteers,” many participants indulged me in discussing one route to this seeming impossibility of giving everyone – potentially everyone on the planet – an equal chance to communicate.

At the New Pamphleteers, Tom Atlee explained that the concept of pulling a small group of regular people together to make decisions – with more time and opportunity to learn about an issue at hand – has been seriously considered as a form of democracy or a supplement to other forms of democratic decision-making.

For all the advantages this approach may have for making policy decisions, it makes perfect sense for making decisions about the distribution of news. Is this information important enough to take the limited time of this community of 30 thousand or 30 million people? Asking everyone defeats the purpose. Asking a random draw of people called to serve jury duty to curate the knowledge democracy needs to survive— that just might work.

This is of course more of a digital solution, but applicable to all forms of digital communication which now covers television to newspapers, than something that would also work in the physical space of the Minneapolis conference center with 3,000 people interested in media reform and/or revolution.

Jen, sitting next to me, said the Allied Media Conference manages to have both scale and better face-to-face, collaborative interaction. That’s coming up in Detroit on June 20-22. I’m conferenced out and too far behind on work to go, but on the other hand I’m ready to go anywhere for a chance to learn about, talk about, or build structures that get us closer toward universal access to communication. That’s one nice thing about media conferences though, they always have really good coverage, so I bet bet there will be reports online that are the next best thing to attending.

It’s making coverage that’s also a conversation that’s the trick…