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.