Notes from the Underground

How the underground press of the 1960s revolutionized the American media

By 1962, Georgia State University historian John McMillian writes in his new book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, corporate consolidation was already in full effect. Twelve companies “controlled one-third of the circulation of the newspapers in the United States.” Cities that once boasted multiple competing titles were down to just one or two. Professionalism, objectivity, and the other values these papers aspired to made for a bland and cautious product that a new generation of readers found wanting. In 1964, an Esquire contributor named Art Kunkin, who dreamed of starting a West Coast, more anti-Establishment version of the Village Voice, started publishing the Los Angeles Free Press. It was, McMillian writes, “widely considered to be the youth movement’s first underground newspaper.”

Less than five years later, hundreds of similar publications blanketed America, with a collective readership that “stretched into the millions.” McMillian doesn’t spin it as such, but their emergence and florescence, as brief as it was, was an early and influential victory for consumer choice. In mid-century America, news was being corporatized, consolidated, and commoditized to the point where a large number of young people felt it didn’t speak to them. In response, they demanded a more personalized product that both inspired and reflected their tastes, sensibilities, aesthetics, and interests better than established news outlets did. Before we had microbrews, indie rock, stores devoted exclusively to baseball caps, and 27 different brands of goat cheese at Safeway, we had the East Village Other, the Rag, the Berkeley Barb, the Chicago Seed—all of which promised their readers a more local, artisanal, authentic, and personally relevant take on a cultural staple—the news—than the disconnected, overly institutional major dailies could deliver.

If these new publications looked hand-made compared to traditional newspapers, technology nonetheless played a key role in their emergence. Thanks to photo-offset printing, newspaper production was liberated from the costs and complexities of hot metal typesetting and the limitations of mimeographs, and other small-scale copying machines. If you had access to a typewriter, a pair of scissors, and rubber cement, you could paste up pages that could then be photographed and quickly reproduced in substantial quantities. “For just a couple hundred dollars, one could produce several thousand copies of an eight- or sixteen-page tabloid,” McMillian writes.

Along with new technologies, underground newspapers drew upon new ideals as well. Daily newspapers that aspire to cover large metropolitan areas in a comprehensive, consistent, and timely manner inevitably end up becoming highly industrialized, factories for the production of news, with all the rigidity, hierarchy, and standardization that implies. The new underground papers favored a more personal, improvisational, egalitarian approach.

According to Village Voice founding editor Dan Wolf, the Voice was “originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism.” The youth movement tabloids that followed in its wake embraced this power-to-the-people ethos like a stoned hippie at a Haight-Ashbury love-in. Kunkin described the Los Angeles Free Press as a “reader-written paper.” “A democratic publication sacrifices professionalism so that all voices, even the halting and poorly expressed, can be heard,” wrote Jeff Shero, editor of the SDS Bulletin. “Editors rarely exercised the discretion that their title implied, for fear of being labeled ‘elitist’ or ‘professional,’” McMillian concludes.

Naturally, this had ramifications on efficiency and consistency. At an Atlanta, Georgia paper called The Great Speckled Bird, the entire staff would sometimes convene for “long and tedious meetings” whose sole purpose was to decide whether or not to cut a single paragraph from a piece.

Not that such careful deliberation had much impact on the final product. Indeed, even McMillian suggests that the nuts and bolts of traditional mainstream journalism—fact-gathering, say, or rewriting—weren’t necessarily the underground’s forte. See, for example, his take on how The New York Times and the Liberation News Service (LNS) differed in their coverage of a student uprising at Columbia University: “Although LNS’s coverage was not nearly as detailed or as well written as that of the New York Times, by articulating the frustrations of protesting students, and by presenting an unvarnished account of the vicious police assault of April 30, LNS could plausibly argue that its own cub reporters had bested the Brahmins of American journalism.”

Anyone passing out Pulitzers might plausibly disagree, but even so, McMillian’s characterization of the LNS’s virtues suggests why the underground press’ legacy is so profound. In favoring authenticity over objectivity, immediacy of feeling over mere chronicling of fact, the underground press paved the way for Phil Donahue, Oprah Winfrey, and their brand of current affairs—news as confessional talkfest, news as highly emotional national pulse-taking. In championing the idea of the newspaper as an open forum and medium for dialogue, where non-professionals had as much right to speak as formally trained journalists, they paved the way for Rush Limbaugh and talk-radio, Internet message-boards, Facebook, and Twitter.

In a Wall Street Journal review of Smoking Typewriters, New York Press founder Russ Smith notes that “a historian intent on discovering the era's ‘zeitgeist’ would learn far more from studying the Voice than by combing through tattered copies of 50 other underground papers.” But if it’s true the Voice’s archives present a far more comprehensive and illuminating fossil record of the Sixties, it’s also true that a 1966 issue of the Rag looks and sounds far more contemporary in the informal, highly personalized land of the Web than a page from the Voice circa 1966 would. “We’ve educated a generation that no longer buys or needs daily papers,” Liberation News Service co-founder Raymond Mungo told a Times reporter in 1968. The sentiment was premature, of course—in 1981, the LNS would fold while the Times was exerting more influence than ever thanks to its recently rolled out national edition—but it looks more prescient with each passing year.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @GregBeato.

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  • Bob||

    The 60s are over, man. Nobody cares.

  • Old Mexican||

    Contributing Editor Greg Beato writes from San Francisco.


    That should explain it, Bob.

  • ||

    And it's 1-2-3 what are we fightin' for?
    Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
    Next stop is Vietnam Libya

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Smith's WSJ review is classic WSJ, pretty much pissing all over McMillian while struggling to deal with the fact that a lot of what he says is, you know, accurate.

    Among other things, Smith notes that 'FBI Director Hoover issued a memo to the bureau's offices instructing them to "compile information concerning each paper's staff, printer, and advertisers."' Definitely a sensible, not to mention totally constitutional, use of public funds! Just ask Barack Obama!

  • ||

    PJ ORourke has some great stories about his days with the "underground press", the standoff with the Balto Cong (Yes, that was there real name) Marxists, the undercover cop who infiltrated them, etc.

    Great stuff

  • alan||

    In mid-century America, writes Greg Beato, news was being corporatized, consolidated, and commoditized to the point where a large number of young people felt it didn’t speak to them.

    Two words. Walter Cronkite. How the fuck did any one relate to that stodgy priss pants bum?

  • sevo||

    "Two words. Walter Cronkite. How the fuck did any one relate to that stodgy priss pants bum?"

    Answer: 'Avuncular'. But they ignored 'Liar'.

  • alan||

    My uncles, a list of both late and living, include an ex New Orleans cop, a marine drill sergeant, an Air Force pilot who crashed more planes than John McCain though over a much longer span of time, a Pinkerton, a union thug, a river boat pilot, Wernher Von Braun's personal body guard, a Mexican oil oligarch by marriage, and those are just the one's I'm not too embarrassed to mention, so the 'kindly uncle' thing is not something I can relate to. I think I would be creeped out by him if he ever showed up at the door.

  • DADIODADDY||

    and douche, they completely ignored the douche part as well.

  • GSL||

    Indie papers were a definite precursor to Internet journalism, but it seems like they're going the way of the mainstream paper rags in spite of that.

    As an example, it wasn't long ago that the OC Weekly was a good paper, even after the Voice bought them. They were a bit too whiny-liberal in most of their columns, but they were the only paper south of Long Beach that brutally criticized the Iraq invasion (at a time when Orange County was largely Bush's pep squad), and they did great reporting on political corruption cases that the Register wouldn't touch. Now they're deader than Dennis Hopper.

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  • ManikMonkee||

    Just started ready "The Pirates Dilema" a book about what the author calls Punk Capitalism
    I'm about halfway through it so I don't know if it mentions the underground press. Its basically about how new technology is often used illegally or for anti-establisment purposes then becomes so popular it becomes the mainstream and increases economic growth. Its essential reading for anti-IP popculture obsessed libertarian capitalists

    and you can download it for free!
    Sound like spam but I am really digging the book so far

    cool for Robert Anton Wilson type libertarians but not the Ann Rand type (who claim to hate libertarians anyway)

  •  ||

    Good luck with your psychosis.

  • ||

    Don't forget the great Underground Comix from the '60s - like the Furry Freak Brothers.

  • ||

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  • ||

    The '60's,...What a shrill and pointless decade!

  • ||

    Long Live the '60s. That decade was a hell of a lot better than what followed. Especially the godawful '80s!

  • ||

    The "underground press" of which you speak was merely a watered down extension of the mainstream press of that time. The real underground press involved numerous small lit magazines, or "'zines" that arose during the sixties and some have survived unto this day. The more accurate term for the paper that came to be during that period is "alternative press." Nothing underground about most of that BS.

  • ||

    "Two words. Walter Cronkite. How the fuck did any one relate to that stodgy priss pants bum?"

    Two words: maturity, dignity. (Sigh) I miss the days when adults were proud to be adults.

  • ||

    'According to Village Voice founding editor Dan Wolf, the Voice was “originally conceived as a living, breathing attempt to demolish the notion that one needs to be a professional to accomplish something in a field as purportedly technical as journalism.” '

    Sounds a lot like blogging or "citizen journalism"! The 60s are back with a vengeance!

  • ||

    Andreas Petofi said: "Don't forget the great Underground Comix from the '60s - like the Furry Freak Brothers."

    That's the *Fabulous* Furry Freak Brothers! And you're right, all I really need to know I learned from Fat Freddy's Cat.

  • M. Simon||

    Contact Todd Gitlin. An old lefty who used to write for "The Good Times".

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