Some people remember exactly what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed or their whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember reading my first alternative newspaper.
It was 1985, and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define Houston’s pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high-school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition, and inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy and an aesthetic avant-garde.
Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes. We tried to sneak in without IDs, but it didn’t work. At least we knew what we were missing. The point being that the alternative press—the idea of an alternative press—was definitively mind-opening for a suburban American kid long after the Eisenhower era that spawned it.
The alternative press hasn’t always been an easy sell to advertisers, subscribers, college journalism departments or the parents of alternative journalists. So John McMillian’s scholarly attention is gratifying. McMillian is an assistant professor of history and too-young-to-have-been-there ’60s specialist at Georgia State University. McMillian positions underground newspapers at the nexus of intentional community and participatory democracy, tracking them back to Students for a Democratic Society. SDS cultivated an organizational style heavy on committee-written correspondence—an expression, McMillian writes, of the group’s “egalitarian social theories.” House organs SDS Bulletin and, later, New Left Notes tried to put on paper the essence of an SDS meeting: “warm, honest, probing discussions that helped to build a store of trust and a sense of community.”
Distribute attitude widely, add offset printing technology, and an underground press is born. McMillian sketches quick portraits of seminal underground papers in Los Angeles (the Free Press), East Lansing, Mich., (The Paper) and Austin (Rag). He notes the boy’s-club nature of the nascent underground empire. He sources the great banana-smoking hoax of 1967 to the proto-viral spread of subversive information through these papers. The FBI’s inept but effective harassment of radical journalists is deftly recounted. McMillian’s narrative centerpiece is the rise and fall of Liberation News Service, a sort of would-be alternative Associated Press co-founded by charismatic eccentric Marshall Bloom. LNS initially embraced a no-editing policy characteristic of many early underground papers, whose amateur staffers often distrusted the red pen as counter-revolutionary. In an almost slapstick turn, Bloom’s LNS was eventually overrun by Marxists who wanted to edit, and chafed under Bloom’s top-down style. Bloom, in response, liberated the printing press and moved it to a Massachusetts farm. For a while, two LNS factions distributed material for the burgeoning underground press. Bloom committed suicide in 1969, and the increasingly professional New York LNS office carried the torch until 1981.
All such ideological intrigue was long gone by the time I discovered Public News. By the time I went to work for alt-weeklies—the Houston Press and later the Missoula Independent (both founded in 1989), the notion of “alternative” as a meaningful category was succumbing to the death of a cultural mainstream to be alternative to. Alt-weeklies had become professional, with ad staffs and journalism awards. They’re still there in most major cities and many minor ones. Many produce respectable—if rarely mind-opening—journalism, but few consider themselves catalysts for community. Which community? Now we troll for market niches, drowning in blogs, swamped by Facebook. You can find the dirty movie on your phone. You can watch the dirty movie on your phone.
One quibble with the book, at least for Texas readers: Despite singling out Austin as an early hotbed of liberal politics and alternative media, despite quoting Daily Texan editor Willie Morris and despite McMillian’s nod to Austin attorney Dave Richards for securing the Rag’s right to peddle its wares on the UT campus, the Texas Observer isn’t mentioned. The Observer’s founding preceded the Rag by a dozen years. Morris edited it, and Richards is a longtime Observer supporter and onetime landlord. We’re relegated to an endnote, inexplicably characterized as a “stapled newsletter.”
Hrmph. Probably just as well. A little alt-journalistic respectability—not to mention a little respect—can be a dangerous thing.
Former Observer managing editor Brad Tyer has been writing for alternative newspapers since 1990. He’s currently the Fishtrap writer-in-residence in the alternative reality of Grant County, Oregon.