The “underground press” typically refers to those newspapers and magazines produced by the counterculture that emerged in the mid-1960s and continued until the early 1970s. The counterculture was concerned with establishing an alternative society in direct opposition to mainstream society. The underground press became a vehicle for the elaboration of this ideal, along with social issues such as women’s rights, ecology, and racial equality, and was politicized primarily by the US involvement in the Vietnam War. The aim of the underground press was to build a society where “culture and society were regarded as one” (Nelson 1989, 49), and to propose norms and values that broke with “straight” society absolutely. Interventions by the state were of particular concern, especially in areas of sexual freedom, drugs, and press censorship.
Precursors of the underground press include independent papers such as the New York-based Village Voice (founded in 1955) and Paul Krassner’s the Realist (1958). However, three other US titles – the Los Angeles Free Press (1964), the Berkeley Barb (1964), and the East Village Other (1965) – began the underground press of the 1960s. The first underground paper in the UK was International Times (founded in 1966 and known as IT after the threat of legal action by the London Times), followed by Oz in 1967. The underground press was typified by its metropolitan locations, which restricted its geographical range; none had regional correspondents; foreign correspondents were absent. Its writers came from the counterculture itself; they were resolutely anti-professional, autodidacts of journalism and of methods of production.
Examples also come from other countries. Western Europe boasted titles in such cities as Amsterdam (Real Free Press), Brussels (Amenophis), and Paris (Actuel). There was a thriving underground press in Canada and in parts of Latin America, such as Argentina (Contracultura), Cuba (Direct from Cuba), Mexico (Bohemia), and Uruguay (Huevas del Plata).
While the underground press prided itself on its independence and individualism, it equally valued solidarity and cooperation. In 1967 the Underground Press Syndicate was established in the US to promote the underground press; meetings and conferences were held to discuss strategy, fundraising, and distribution. The Liberation News Service was intended as an underground, international press agency, which at least enabled local papers to access content from other cities. The underground press was in general less interested in hard news; it preferred comment and opinion, theory and strategy, to objectivity and investigation. Its writers and readers treated it as a “fifth estate,” directly challenging the fourth estate of the mass media in its content, style, and organization.
The primary method of finance was through voluntary, “self-exploited” labor. This extended to technical skills such as typesetting and layout, and accounts in part for the visual experimentation found in many titles. Perhaps the most significant innovation in the underground press was the use of offset litho printing. A paper could be laid out and pasted up by amateurs; typesetting could be done on a typewriter. It would be many years before the mass newspaper industry moved from hot metal to offset; for the underground press, this new method gave it the freedom to experiment creatively and to be independent of at least one part of the printing industry.
The underground press had little or no presence in high-street shops; its appearance and content made it almost impossible to find commercial distribution. Though limited largely to independent retailers and university campuses, circulation for the more established titles was very healthy. There are no independent audits of circulation, but claims from the papers themselves suggest significant peaks among established titles in the US of up to 95,000. The Underground Press Syndicate estimated a peak total circulation in the US of 4.5 million copies across 500 titles (Peck 1985, 183). In the UK, Oz claimed a circulation of 40,000 in 1970.
The independence of the underground press manifested itself in experiments with internal organization. Richard Neville, founding editor of Oz, emphasized the individualism of its contributors: “each reporter is, in a sense, his own editorialist” (cited in Nelson 1989, 47). The absence of editorial direction led to democratic participation in the organization of the underground press: many established workers’ cooperatives; some experimented with collective organization and with anarchist decision-making.
By the early 1970s the counterculture was in disarray. In the US, an underground press conference in Colorado in 1973 formally declared the renaming of the Underground Press Syndicate as the Alternative Press Syndicate. The underground press was formally at an end. Its music writers were the source of “what became the dominant ideology of rock” (Frith 1983, 169) and became crucial in the development of rock journalism. The vision of a “fifth estate” has been developed through an international alternative media and in struggles for media democracy through grassroots publications.
- Fountain, N. (1988). Underground: The London alternative press, 1966–74. London: Comedia and Routledge.
- Frith, S. (1983). Sound effects: Youth, leisure, and the politics of rock ’n’ roll. London: Constable.
- Glessing, R. J. (1971). The underground press in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
- Green, J. (1998). Days in the life: Voices from the English underground, 1961–1971. London: Pimlico.
- Lewis, R. (1972). Outlaws of America: The underground press and its context – Notes on a cultural revolution. London: Chatto and Windus. (Reprint London: Pan, 1985).
- Nelson, E. (1989). The British counter-culture, 1966–73: A study of the underground press. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
- Peck, A. (1985). Uncovering the sixties: The life and times of the underground press. New York: Pantheon. (Reprint New York: Citadel Press and Carol Publishing, 1991).