The Underground Press in America - 1955-1972

As the timeline above shows, the years from 1955 to 1972 (the Long Sixties) saw some of the most important and controversial events of the last 100 years. From political assassinations and a war in Vietnam to the Civil Rights Movement, the Sixties had a profound impact on the future of the United States. This digital research module covers one small but important element of that time period, the Underground Press. While at first glance the Underground Press may not seem like an extremely important element of the Sixties, the Press helped to spread the elements of the Counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement across the United States.

For the past forty years, historians have published several articles and monographs about the Underground Press of the 1960s and 1970s.  This vast historiography includes works on both individual underground publications and more synthetic works that focus on the entire Underground Press. In general, these works have defined the “Underground Press” as a product of the New Left and the Counterculture movement of the 1960s. While this definition is sufficient in describing the Press, one of the difficulties is the use of the term "underground" to describe these works. In 1971, historian Donna Ellis listed four types of underground publications which together make up the "Underground Press."  First, there were publications like the Los Angeles Free Press which closely followed “The Movement” (essentially the New Left and the Counterculture Movement) and were overtly political in content.  Second, there were publications, like The Oracle, which focused on the drug culture of the 1960s, Indian mysticism, and the teachings of men like Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsburg.  A third type of publication, like the Berkeley Barb, focused on “sex, dope, and revolution,” while the fourth group included pornographic and sex magazines like Screw.  (Ellis, 108) Collectively these publications became known as the Underground Press. with such a wide variety of subject matter, it is difficult to truly define the Underground Press as a unified entity.

After analyzing The Only Alternative and various other underground newspapers, I believe that the Underground Press can be defined by two essential elements.  First, the most important element of the Underground Press was the spirit behind the publications.  The founders and writers were dedicated to covering events and culture which they believed were ignored by the mainstream.  As James Lewes found in his study of the editorials and statements of purpose of the undergrounds, these writers believed that the mainstream press portrayed their news as objective but were actually influenced by powerful businesses and other other economic forces. The Underground Press writers sought to have a mutual interaction with their audience forming a mutual symbiosis as Lewes argues. As the Underground Press became bolder, so did its audience and vice versa. (Lewes, 380) The second essential element of the press was that those involved in the writing and production of underground publications did so out of a concern for their communities, political affiliations, or ideological convictions rather than out of an entrepreneurial spirit.  While some publications such as Rolling Stone went on to become profitable, most underground newspapers struggled to break even, continuing on because the members believed they were contributing to an important cause.

Even with the difficulties that faced the Underground Press financially and the amount of work that went into publishing a respectable paper, the number of newspapers increased drastically beginning in 1965. While it is difficult to trace the exact number of these publications, as many were indeed underground and not well-circulated and short-lived, Robert Glessing suggests that in 1970 there were at least 457 underground newspapers. This number does not include high school newspapers and other small-circulation newspapers, only those belonging to the Underground Press Syndicate and the Liberation News Service. (Glessing, 6) This large number of newspapers had an estimated circulation of 1.5 million with actual readership significantly more than that. (McMillian, 192)

This drastic increase in the use of certain terms illustrates this growth of the Underground Press in the popular lexicon can be seen in the following N-Gram:

This Google NGram illustrates two important points. First, by examining nearly 300 years of publications in English for the key phrases underground newspaper, underground press, and alternative press, this graph shows that not only was there a huge increase in the mentions of those phrases beginning in 1955, there was almost no mention of them before that year. The notable exception of course, is the late 1930s and early 1940s. While it is difficult to know why this spike in the 1940s occurred, it seems likely that it is related to the publication of socialist and communist newspapers at that time. Second, the increase in the phrase "alternative press" as the term "underground press" declines, seems to indicate that the Underground Press of the 1960s and 1970s gave birth to or at least influenced the Alternative Media of the 1980s to the present. This seems to confirm what several historians, including Everette Dennis, William Rivers, and David Armstrong have suggested in their studies on the subject. (see Suggested Reading)

Though the United States has a long history of radical and underground publications, large scale movement of the Underground Press of the 1960s and 1970s came about in part because of the invention of the carbon-ribbon typewriter, cheaper mimeograph machines, and offset printing.  These inventions made printing hundreds of copies of a newspaper much cheaper and allowed nearly anyone with a few hundred dollars to begin publishing a paper.  In fact, Robert Glessing's early work on the press suggests that most papers could operate on a total budget of $350-$500 per issue, significantly less than the cost of mainstream newspapers. (Glessing, 85)

While these papers each began as an individual effort, most historians of the subject point to New York’s The Village Voice (1955) and Berkeley, California’s Berkeley Barb (1965) as the originators of the style and spirit of the Underground Press.  After a few years of totally independent newspapers, two organizations were founded that helped to unify the ideas of the New Left in underground newspapers across the United States.  These were organizations were the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) and the Liberation News Service (LNS).  The idea for both organizations was to help local underground newspapers print news from across the nations, bringing national news to the local counterculture communities.  UPS did this by allowing members to freely reprint articles from other member publications.  LNS took a different approach.  LNS sent weekly news packets to member papers.  These packets included articles, cartoons, and pictures which could be reprinted freely with or without editorials from the local newspaper.  These packets allowed events from around the country to be published in local newspapers without the expense of sending reporters to the events. (Glessing, 73-76; Armstrong, 106-107)

The rise of the Underground Press is one of the most interesting and unique aspects of the Sixties. While heyday of the Press ended around 1972, the techniques and style of journalism which came out of the undergrounds influenced the more specialized movements of the 1970s including the Women's Liberation Movement and the Gay Rights Movement. While these groups were underrepresented in these earlier papers, the undergrounds paved the way for these groups in the 1970s. Though most of the newspapers only lasted a few years, they played a significant role in bringing the issues of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement to a much broader, national audience. By challenging the authority of the mainstream press, the Underground Press brought the viewpoints of the New Left and the different elements of the Counterculture to a new audience.