Alternative and Underground Newspapers

Victoria Goff. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, underground periodicals critiqued the government and mainstream society and celebrated alternative lifestyles. Some underground writers and editors thought they were inventing America’s first alternative press, but in many ways, the nation’s first newspaper—Publick Occurrences, Both Forreign and Domestick—of 1690 took the honor when it was suspended because it had been printed without government authority.

Origins: Labor and Abolition

After the American Revolution, most commercial newspapers continued to represent white, middle-to upper-class male readers. Most ignored the plight of laborers, slaves, other people of color, immigrants, and women. In reaction, alternative newspapers appeared during the first half of the nineteenth century. Most used journalism as an agent for social change.

The country’s first successful labor newspaper, the Mechanic’s Free Press, was launched in 1827 in Philadelphia by shoemaker William Heighton. Between then and 1832, 50 to 60 labor weeklies were published around the country. The commercial press overreacted to the new labor press, and the two groups soon traded insults in print. Labor newspapers promoted eliminating child labor, subsidizing education for poor children, closing debtors’ prisons, and instituting a 10-hour workday. Their most important goal was to transform the working class into a political force and elect labor candidates to public office. By the 1830s, there were early successes. Most early union members were skilled artisans. Later in the century factory workers, including so-called factory girls, began unionizing and publishing their own newspapers.

During the early nineteenth century, abolitionists, both black and white, founded antislavery newspapers. The first abolitionist newspaper, Charles Osborn’s The Philanthropist, was printed in Ohio in 1817, and fellow Quaker Elihu Embree began printing Manumission Intelligencer (later renamed the Emancipator) in Tennessee in 1819. Some publishers advocated gradual emancipation; others argued for the immediate abolition of slavery. Some wanted slaves to be assimilated; others, such as Benjamin Lundy of the Genius of Universal Emancipation (1821), advocated colonizing slaves in Africa. The first black newspaper, Samuel Cornish and John Russworm’s Freedom’s Journal, was founded in New York City in 1827. With a readership of 1,000, the anticolonization paper focused on improving the lot of free blacks, emancipating slaves, and eliminating lynching. The same year in Philadelphia, The African Observer began publishing articles about the evils of slavery.

In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, who had worked with Genius editor Lundy, began printing the Liberator from Boston. Garrison had ceased supporting Lundy’s gradual approach to ending slavery. His newspaper, printed for 35 years, was the longest-lived abolitionist newspaper.

The abolitionist movement reached its peak between 1830 and 1860. Cornish edited The Colored American (1837), which ran articles about freed slaves’ achievements and their involvement in the abolitionist movement. In 1840, Lydia Maria Child and David Lee Child established the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the official weekly of the American Anti-Slavery Society. In early 1847, Willis Hodges founded The Ram’s Horn in New York. John Brown (later of Harper’s Ferry fame) and Frederick Douglass, a former slave and a celebrated antislavery speaker and writer, were two of Hodges’s contributors. Douglass started his own paper, the North Star, in Rochester, New York, in December 1847. It reached more than 4,000 readers, including many whites, in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. The North Star merged with the Emancipator in 1851, and continued as Frederick Douglass’ Paper until he began Douglass’ Monthly, an abolitionist magazine in 1860. The pages of Douglass’s publications served as forums for women and other marginalized people. The North Star‘s motto was “Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”

Women’s Voices

Women’s newspapers did not appear until mid-century, but within a few decades, there were approximately 30 woman’s rights periodicals. Many grew out of the abolitionist and temperance movements. For example, Amelia Bloomer had been involved in the temperance movement in Seneca Falls, New York, for years before she began editing The Lily (1849), a newspaper for the local women’s temperance society. The next year Elizabeth Cady Stanton, using the pseudonym Sunflower, helped Bloomer edit the paper. Through Stanton’s influence, The Lilys witched its focus to woman’s rights.

Social reformer Paulina Wright Davis, who was president of what early feminists considered the first convention for women’s rights in 1850, started The Una in 1853 in Providence, Rhode Island. Una (Latin for “one”) is considered the first newspaper devoted solely to woman’s rights.

The next woman’s rights newspaper was Lydia Sayer Hasbrouck’s The Sibyl: A Review of Tastes, Errors and Fashions of Society (1856). Published for nine years, the biweekly Sibyl covered woman’s rights, suffrage, and abolition, but its focus was dress reform. In her paper, she argued that women’s equality and health were connected and depended on doing away with corsets and stays that confined and deformed women’s bodies and heavy hoops that hampered their mobility.

After the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution granted the right to vote to all men, but still withheld it from women, the woman’s movement broke into two camps. In 1868, the more radical faction began a newspaper, The Revolution. Susan B. Anthony published it, Stanton and Parker Pillsbury wrote for and edited it, and George Francis Train helped fund it. Its motto read, “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” The reforms the Revolution championed included property rights, divorce and custody law, birth control, and education, among others.

In 1870, Lucy Stone and her husband Harry P. Blackwell began publishing The Woman’s Journal in Boston. The newspaper, which featured authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Julia Ward Howe, appealed to more conservative readers than Revolution‘s. It survived until 1917, when it was merged with other suffrage periodicals and became The Woman Citizen.

Besides promoting suffrage, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly (1870) advocated free love and licensed prostitution, raising some Victorian eyebrows. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President, established the newspaper with her younger sister Tennessee Claflin. Despite the sisters’ affinity for edgy topics, they never covered birth control; not until almost 50 years later, when Margaret Sanger wrote The Woman Rebel, No Gods No Masters (1914), would the subject be addressed extensively. Sanger, a nurse and major figure in the American birth control movement, advocated sex education and birth control as alternatives to abortion. In her short-lived paper, Sanger wrote “a woman’s body belongs to herself alone.” The Post Office eventually suppressed it under the nineteenth century Comstock laws, which prohibited using the U.S. mails for distributing information about contraception.

Historians have paid more attention to abolitionist and feminist newspapers than to the periodicals of immigrants and people of color. Immigrant papers, which had been published in the colonies, increased during the new century, as did ethnic newspapers, such as Georgia’s Cherokee Phoenix (1828). Approximately 1,300 nineteenth-century foreign-language newspapers provided immigrants with news from home as well as local, national, and world news. Not all editors thought retaining their readers’ mother tongue important. Most editors, however, emphasized retention of both language and culture.

Political Papers

Race, ethnicity, language, and gender weren’t the only things separating people in the nineteenth century. Commercial newspapers, which were frequently affiliated with one national political party or another, did not cover other political parties. Therefore, advocates of liberalism, populism, anarchism, progressivism, socialism, and communism had their own newspapers.

The Nation, the oldest continuously published weekly magazine, by the early twenty-first century described itself as the flagship of the left. When abolitionists founded it in 1865 at the start of Reconstruction, it was socially liberal but politically conservative. The magazine, edited by E. L. Godkin, covered politics, the sciences, literature, and art for an intelligent, engaged audience. Newspaper magnate Henry Villard bought the Nation in 1881, and for almost four decades, it was a weekly literary supplement for his newspaper, the New York Evening Post. In 1918, Villard’s son, Oswald Garrison Villard, took over as editor. Under him, the magazine became a liberal current-affairs magazine. The Nation has continued to represent the liberal left to the present.

The Madison-based Progressive (1909) is still published a century later. Founded by Progressive Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, the magazine had contributors such as Jane Addams, Helen Keller, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens. Many issues covered in its early years remain timely, such as U.S. interventionism, corporate power, civil rights, environmental policies, and women’s rights. A third liberal magazine, the New Republic (1914), also continued into the twenty-first century. Originally edited by Herbert Croly, it promoted Theodore Roosevelt’s reform philosophy.

Like liberals and progressives, populists had their publications. The populist movement of the 1890s appealed to discontented farmers and small businesspeople, who feared Eastern industrialists and bankers. They wanted banks, railroads, and communication regulated, so government would be put back in the hands of common people. During the populist era, about 900 newspapers backed the movement.

Radical Dissent

Several alternative periodicals focused on groups that were more radical than the liberal, progressive, and populist movements. One of the most successful, the Kansas-based Appeal to Reason, was founded in 1895. By 1912, the socialist weekly had 760,000 paid subscribers, more than any American radical publication before or since. Appeal editor, A. J. Wayland, supported organized labor, attacked capitalism, and promoted the American socialist movement. His contributors included Jack London, Helen Keller, and Upton Sinclair, whose muckraking article on the Chicago meatpacking industry was serialized in the Appeal before it became the celebrated 1906 book, The Jungle. Other prominent socialist newspapers included the New York Evening Call (1908) and the Milwaukee Leader (1911).

The Masses (1911), another socialist magazine, was a mix of antiestablishment politics, fiction, poetry, art, and culture. Well-known contributors included Carl Sandburg, Walter Lippman, Sherwood Anderson, John Read, and Max Eastman, who became its editor in 1913. Many other writers and artists of this cooperative magazine lived in Greenwich Village. Because of the paper’s pacifism, several staff members were tried unsuccessfully under the Espionage Act in 1917, the same year the magazine, weakened by the turmoil, ceased publication.

Anarchists were also active in publishing early in the twentieth century. In 1904, Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón escaped Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz and moved to the American Southwest, where he reestablished Regeneración, his anti-Díaz newspaper. American authorities, in tandem with the Díaz regime, persecuted him. He was imprisoned several times in the United States and died in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1922. During his stay in the United States, Flores Magón had become friends with many radical American intellectuals.

Among them was Emma Goldman, who in 1906 founded an anarchist magazine, Mother Earth, A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Social Science and Literature. Besides Flores Magón, her contributors included famous radical and anarchist thinkers—historian Will Durant, playwright Eugene O’Neill, novelists Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky, screenwriter/director Ben Hecht, and anarchist theorist Prince Peter Kropotkin. Famous artists, including Man Ray, did cover art. In addition to anarchism, Goldman covered the labor movement, education, literature and the arts, woman’s rights, sexual freedom, and birth control. On September 11, 1917, Mother Earth was excluded from the mails under the Espionage Act, and in December 1919, Goldman was deported to the newly established Soviet Union.

The Communist Party published several periodicals, such as the Midwest Daily Record, People’s World, New Masses, and many foreign-language newspapers. In 1924, the American Communist Party started the Daily Worker. From the Depression through the cold war it grappled with red baiting, McCarthyism, and changing party lines. With a few name changes and a merger, it survived until 1991. The Militant (1928), another communist newspaper, was Trotskyist and promoted the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). A weekly, it also published books by SWP leaders and revolutionaries, such as Lenin, Trotsky, Malcolm X, and “Che” Guevara.

Underground Forebears

While the country’s long tradition of dissident and/or alternative periodicals paved the way for the underground press, some other more contemporary predecessors did as well. The Catholic Worker (1933), edited by Dorothy Day, provided an example of a pacifist publication that some antiwar periodicals would follow. I. F. Stone’s Weekly (1953) with its iconoclastic reporting, pro–civil rights and anti-Vietnam stands, and hard-hitting investigative journalism inspired many underground reporters. The Nation, under the editorship of Carey McWilliam, also strongly opposed U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and turned out first-rate investigative pieces.

Earlier investigative journalists—the muckrakers—also inspired many underground writers. Their detailed investigative pieces about society’s ills exposed the downside of capitalism in the age of the robber barons and often resulted in significant changes in society. S. S. McClure founded McClure’s (1893), which became the best-known muckraking publication. In 1902, Ida Tarbell began a series on John D. Rockefeller’s business practices and the Standard Oil Company that lasted until 1904 and later became a book. Lincoln Steffens wrote a series on corruption in major cities across the country, and Ray Stannard Baker wrote about labor problems.

The Guardian (1948), The Realist (1958), and the Village Voice (1955) were further role models for underground journalists. The Village Voice‘s irreverent motto, “Some people swear by us … other people swear AT us,” speaks volumes about the future of the underground press.

Counterculture Pacifism

To fully understand America’s alternative press in the mid-1960s and 1970s, it’s necessary to know something about the era’s mainstream media—publications that represented the interests of the established social, economic, and political order. Because commercial newspapers were in business to make money, they catered to and protected the establishment, who often were the papers’ advertisers. In addition, they tried to reach a large and universal audience to sell more papers. This focus resulted in marginal social groups—the poor, workers, immigrants, minorities, women, and political dissidents—being stereotyped, misrepresented, undercovered, and/or not covered.

An estimated 500 underground papers gave these groups and others a voice. By the end of the 1960s, most major cities had at least one underground publication. Some advocated social and political action while others created their own news to promote their causes. Many just wanted to celebrate the music and art counterculture.

What made the underground press possible? Many factors went into its creation: millions of baby boomers, a widely perceived generation gap between parents and children, distrust of authority, changing lifestyles, a sexual revolution, a drug culture, ethnic and racial pride, the draft and the unpopular Vietnam War, and the failure of mainstream media to recognize that times were changing. The editorial mix of underground publications typically focused on leftist politics, antiwar sentiments, the counterculture, and anything that contradicted the mainstream. Some newspapers that focused exclusively on culture began covering politics as the war escalated. Later they reverted to covering lifestyle issues. Some publications combined politics and culture.

Art Kunkin’s Los Angeles Free Press is considered by many to be the earliest—as well as the most successful—underground newspaper. First published in 1964 as a broadsheet for the Southern California Renaissance Faire, the Faire Free Press became the Los Angeles Free Press, or Freep, and changed to a tabloid format in 1965. Controversial stories, such as a 1969 article listing the names, addresses, and phone numbers of eighty narcotics agents in Los Angeles, got the paper in trouble with local police and state authorities. During its heyday, more than 100,000 copies of Freep were printed every week. According to some sources, the paper was responsible for spearheading the counterculture movement.

Others consider The Berkeley Barb the most influential underground paper in the country. In 1965, Max Scherr sold his Berkeley bar, the Steppenwolf, for $10,000 (about $65,000 today) and started The Berkeley Barb. Scherr advocated a menu of political, social, and sexual change and used his newspaper to criticize the establishment. At its peak in 1968, the Barb had a weekly circulation of about 90,000. Many of those copies were sold by flower children on street corners. In 1970, Scherr sold the newspaper to a Berkeley anthropology professor and it ceased publication a decade later.

Other influential underground newspapers of similar ilk from the era included the San Francisco Oracle, San Francisco Express-Times, Berkeley Tribe, and The Helix (Seattle) on the West Coast; the Fifth Estate (Detroit), the Seed (Chicago), Kaleidoscope (Milwaukee), and The Spectator (Bloomington, Indiana) in the Midwest; The Kudzu(Jackson, Mississippi), The Great Speckled Bird (Atlanta), and The Inquisition (Charlotte, North Carolina) in the South; The Rag (Austin) and Space City! (Houston) in Texas, and the Rat Subterranean News (New York; later called Women’s LibeRATion), the East Village Other (New York), Distant Drummer (Philadelphia), Avatar (Boston), Old Mole (Cambridge, Massachusetts), and off our backs and the Washington Free Press (Washington, D.C.) on the East Coast.

Many college towns supported underground papers, some independent and others funded by universities. Most were antiwar and anti-university administration. Some examples include Columbia Free Press (University of Missouri), Connections (University of Wisconsin), and Mother of Voices (Amherst). According to some sources, the FBI operated several fake underground papers in college towns. There were approximately 3,000 underground high school papers, most of them short-lived and of limited circulation. There were also military underground newspapers as well as papers published by liberation movements—women, gays, blacks, and Native Americans. Two Hispanic publications included El Malcriado (1964), a paper started by the United Farm Workers (UFW) leaders Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez in Delano, California, and Los Angeles’s La Raza (1967), a bilingual newspaper and later magazine that filled a definite need for Chicanos in the L.A. barrio.

While few alternative publications were moneymakers, some counterculture newspapers were prosperous. Advertisers discovered that they were good vehicles for reaching college-age readers, an attractive demographic. Because the mainstream media ignored changing formats of popular music, underground press coverage of the music scene increased circulation and thus attracted advertising from Columbia and other record labels.

Rolling Stone (1967) was the most financially successful underground publication. Its coverage of the Doors, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and other musicians ensured a circulation that could command ad revenue unlike any other underground publication.

Another thing that attracted Rolling Stone readers was its look. The cover art and the cartoons and drawings inside most counterculture newspapers were imaginative and iconoclastic and as revolutionary as the ideas discussed in most papers’ pages. Psychedelic colors drew readers in as much as content. The split-fountain technique of inking colors allowed colors to bleed into one another and created unique softly colored effects. On the technical side, two inventions—offset printing and cold-type composition—made starting underground publications financially feasible. Offset printing was a quick, inexpensive way to create innovative publications with colorful, groundbreaking design concepts.

Underground publications naturally did not exist in a vacuum. Some 60 underground and radical papers, including The Black Panther, Guardian, East Village Other, San Francisco Oracle, Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Barb, and The Paper, formed the Underground Press Syndicate in 1967 in Washington, D.C. The UPS was a wire service for members, who were free to reprint shared information, articles, and breaking news reports. They also sold communal advertising. Police harassment was something else many publications shared in common at both a local and national level. The FBI allegedly conducted surveillance and disrupted the underground press.

Some underground publications, such as Rolling Stone and Ramparts, endure. Most, however, were gone by the end of the 1970s or early 1980s. Many staff members never wrote again; some joined established or newer alternative periodicals while other reporters, cartoonists, and artists worked in corporate media or in academe. For instance, Abe Peck, editor of the Chicago Seed, went on to work at Rolling Stone, Associated Press, and the Chicago Sun Times before he became a journalism professor at Northwestern University.

The idea of an alternative and dissident press thrives again in the age of the World Wide Web. Periodicals geared toward activists of all stripes—animal rights, AIDS, human rights, the environment—abound. Then there are small, self-published zines, which are usually outside the mainstream, that reach a small community of loyal readers. At the same time, many long-standing publications are abandoning their print products for a strictly Web presence, and some zines are evolving into E-zines. And with the savings in paper, printing, and postage, new alternative media are mushrooming all the time on the Internet.