Underground papers: through an alternative lens
“We were the original media disrupters. It was our version of reality.”
That’s how Harvey Ovshinsky describes the impact of underground newspapers in the 1960s on high school kids. And he would know – Ovshinsky was a pioneer of the movement, founding the Fifth Estate in Detroit at the age of 17, considered one of the first and longest-running underground newspapers.
“I always wanted to get things off my chest, and journalism was my way,” Ovshinsky said.
Raised in Detroit, when he graduated from Mumford High School, he said, “my mom took me out to Los Angeles. I was popular in high school, but I was a rebel. She wanted me to start over. I hated it out there. I worked for the Los Angeles Free Press, and I got enthused, and I wanted to run home and start a similar paper, and so I did.”
The Los Angeles Free Press was among the most widely-circulated underground newspapers in the 1960s, founded by an unemployed tool-and-die worker, Art Kunkin, who was also a former organizer of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), where he had served as the business manager of that group’s paper, The Militant. The LA Free Press was originally published from 1964 to 1978, and was notable for its radical politics, which had rarely been seen in print before. It is often cited as the first of its kind. The paper wrote about and was often directly involved in major historic issues and was in the orbit of noted people of the ‘60s and ‘70s, from the Chicago Seven, to Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg and Abbie Hoffman.
In 2005, a new incarnation of the LA Free Press was revived, with no ties to Kunkin, as an alternative to “corporate-controlled media.” It continues to publish.
“This was a new kind of journalism of that time,” said Bob Levin, author of The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Underground. “The Free Press saw itself as an advocate of personal freedom as well as a vehicle to aid the anti-Vietnam war movement. Because of its coverage, of the Vietnam War and how it became a touchstone for anti-war activists, the Los Angeles Free Press is given degrees of credit for ending the war.”
“The first alternative weeklies of the 1960s were referred to as ‘the underground press’ because they appealed to cultural outlaws – think ‘drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll’ – and they sprouted up in big cities with titles like the Berkeley Barb in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Los Angeles Free Press, and the East Village Other in New York City,” said Michael Fuhlage, assistant professor, Wayne State University. “But they also appeared in smaller places, most typically college towns, in the midwest. The Kansas Free Press published its first issue in November 1963, in Lawrence, Kansas. Its goal was ‘to help remedy the inadequacy of the American Press.’ Its writers urged an end to racial oppression against black people under Jim Crow, nuclear weapons proliferation, and U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.”
In Ovshinsky’s case, he returned to Detroit from LA in 1965 and began what he called an “under the radar” underground newspaper that was handed out at high schools. He called it the Fifth Estate.
“Everyone thinks I named it the Fifth Estate as a backlash to the fourth estate (mainstream media) – but that’s not true,” Ovshinsky said. “The Fifth Estate was the name of the coffee house in LA, in the basement where the LA Free Press was published, and I spent a lot of time there – so I called it the Fifth Estate.”
At the time, Ovshinsky said, there were dozens of underground newspapers. "They were mainly mimeographed or xeroxed or photo-offset, and handed out at schools. Increasingly, school papers were becoming the disrupters. They were investigating the news and looking into issues, both in content and graphics.”
The underground press was, for the first time, giving voice to the younger generation, and they had a lot to say.
Ovshinsky said it was a major change from the daily newspapers at the time, “who generally only wrote about kids if they got into trouble, or about women if they were in the society pages. But we were highly-motivated because of the war and the draft.
“Without motivation, things don’t get done. There has to be some level of jeopardy – just like in a good screenplay,” he pointed out.
Before the Fifth Estate, Ovshinsky passed out newsletters for the “Creative Boys Club,” made on carbon copies. “I always wrote. I was always a writer and journalist. I started the Creative Boys Club, not to have meetings, but to have a newsletter to pass out in the neighborhood,” he recalled.
That morphed into the Transylvanian Newsletter, which sold for 10-cents a copy in his Seven Mile and Greenfield neighborhood, before he began a literary magazine at Mumford, the IDiom.
“That almost got me expelled from Mumford, because some counselor thought an image was pornographic,” he said. “It wasn’t.
“I always wanted to get things off my chest, and journalism was my way.”
After creating the Fifth Estate, the impact was immediate and strong. He was joined in his efforts by Peter Werbe, who continues to this day, and John Sinclair.
“I wanted to be a beatnik. I was a jazz fanatic. I wanted to write poetry,” Sinclair recalled. “I was a Negrophile, because of the music – R&B, Ray Charles, Charles Brown. I was a fanatic as a teenager. It was all black music and I wanted to understand what made it all so great.”
In addition, “I was pissed off,” he said. “They killed the president.”
Ovshinsky tapped into Sinclair’s anger and talent, and Sinclair became the Fifth Estate’s arts writer from the second edition on.
“In the underground press, I was a star,” Sinclair said, recalling he had been the editor of his college paper at University of Michigan-Flint. He came to Detroit in 1964, and with other artists, poets and musicians, started Detroit Artists Workshop.
“We were the weirdos around Wayne State University,” he said. “It was a Bohemian Embassy. We were learning about mimeographing poet magazines, music magazines. The mimeograph revolution was the beginning of the underground newspapers, and the tabloids came from that.”
“We were listening to underground music, underground culture, underground radio stations,” Ovshinsky recalled. “Underground then meant ‘below the radar’ – until the mainstream press caught on and we were in the dailies and on TV. We didn’t pay too much attention to the straight media because we were too busy doing our thing – but they all paid attention to us.”
Sinclair said a syndicate of underground papers – Underground Press Syndicate – would share articles around the country, extending their reach and influence.
“No money was involved. Nobody got paid. But you would driven by your beliefs,” he said. “But my writing in the Fifth Estate was published across the country, so that was a beautiful thing.” Later on, when Sinclair became manager of the MC5 band, “I’d write about them, and they’d be reprinted all over. When it was printed in a New York paper, we got our record deal.”
Sinclair moved on from the Fifth Estate to edit the Detroit Sun during its brief run.
The counterculture moved to an area near downtown Detroit, on Plum Street, that Ovshinsky said “simulated Haight-Ashbury, with coffee shops, incense, candles. Barry Kramer (publisher of Creem magazine, which later had its offices on S. Old Woodward in Birmingham) had a shop there, Gilda Radner would hang out. It increased our circulation. The music companies really discovered us, and that increased our ad revenue. The records, books, art, cinemas, the full culture – we were all part of it. It was exciting.
“I didn’t know we were making history. I knew we were recording history.”
In 1968, Ovshinsky moved on from Fifth Estate. One, he said he was restless. And two, he was drafted. He became a conscientious objector, doing his alternative service at the Lafayette Clinic as a nurse’s aide, where he met his wife. Later, he became involved with radio, TV and screenwriting.
“I told my story in different media,” he said. “Creativity and storytelling has always been my thread.”
Fifty-five years on, the Fifth Estate is still in existence, although Ovshinsky no longer has any ties to it. Werbe, still carries the torch forward, identifying it as an anarchic press.
“An anarchic vision to us is not violence – it is how people live a vision of a cooperative society,” Werbe explained. “In a village, no one dominates over another. Modern society has eliminated the change that philosophers envisioned for 19th century harmonious classes, like peaceful co-existence, not power over others. This society is one of chaos, one that is steeped in chaos, genocide, land dispossession. It might not be possible, but it’s our ethics.”
In its heyday of the early 1970s, Werbe said the Fifth Estate was one of 500 other alternative weekly newspapers in the country with a combined weekly circulation of four million.
“There were lots of publications, and many military ones, that opposed the Vietnam War,” Werbe said. Around 1970, a police informant was planted in their midst. “Some suppression was local,” he said. “Local police would sometimes come to printers, and say, ‘Why are you printing this Communist paper? They’re opposing our boys.’ Yet we supplied to many GIs, and we still do.”
People reading the Fifth Estate, “and the 499 other weeklies, weren’t believing The Detroit News but believing the alternatives. We took on all alternative movements – civil rights, black rights, gay rights, youth and labor struggles, women’s rights. There were a lot of grass root movements,” Werbe said. “Strident calls for revolution became standard fare on our covers.”
After the war ended, he noted, “499 or so other underground and alternative papers disappeared. We were the only one who still had a critique of the whole system.”
At one point, the Fifth Estate had a weekly distribution of 20,000 papers. Today, Werbe said the goal is to publish yearly, with a distribution of about 4,000 papers. As they always were, a lot of their distribution is free, because Werbe said that is the expectation. There are also no ads in the paper.
“We refuse any ads. We call it the ‘Voice of Capital.’”
Unlike other papers, mainstream or alternative, the Fifth Estate has no editor or publisher, but an editorial collective of about five people, each with an equal say. “We used to be in the Cass Corridor. Now we’re in cyberspace,” Werbe said. Each issue costs the paper about $4,000 to print and mail, with all revenues coming from subscriptions and donations.
Ken Wachsberger, an underground press chronicler living in Ann Arbor and author of Voices of the Underground series, helped start and work on a few underground papers in Lansing after becoming what he called an “accidental revolutionary” in 1970, when he casually attended a student strike at the student union at Michigan State University following the shootings of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. Before he knew it, “the doors swung open and the cops came in. They had the doors and windows blockaded, and if anyone had wanted to escape they would have jumped into the arms of a cop.”
Wachsberger, previously unpolitical, was the first of 132 to be arrested – but the last to be arraigned.
“I finished the semester, but needed to pull back and reflect...all of a sudden school wasn’t relevant,” he recalled. He finished the semester but dropped out two semesters shy of graduation, moving off-campus into a house with his friend Davey Brinn, who had been working on the underground paper Generation, “an anti-war, counterculture, lifestyle, pot, women’s rights paper. We were best friends and we did everything together. That was my intro to the underground press. Then I worked on another underground paper, on campus, Bogue Street Press, that was more into health food, and was also anti-war.
“Every underground paper was anti-war.”
The two papers combined and put out the Joint Issue, from 1971 to 1975. He said they were the one of the first underground papers that came out free, supported by ads.
“We got huge readership – and then we got more ads,” he laughed as he recalled selling the ads, as well as writing for it.
“When the Vietnam War ended, a lot of them moved on. The underground press was everywhere. They spoke to all difference voices of the counterculture. They were all united against the war – whether the gay press, lesbian, women’s rights, black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, prisoner’s rights, socialist, labor, or New Age – they were all different genres and different readerships. All of them were anti-war, and that was what unified them,” Wachsberger said.
For those who primarily read The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, alternative newspapers, or alt-weeklies, are newspapers that don’t cover general news but instead choose more stylized social and political reporting, with opinionated reviews and columns, investigations into avant-garde or offbeat topics, including in-depth magazine-style longform feature stories, and have an emphasis on local arts and culture. Typically published weekly in tabloid format and printed on newsprint, they represent a more commercialized and mainstream evolution of the 1960s counterculture underground press. Some of the most famous of the era were The Village Voice, The Stranger, LA Free Press, LA Weekly, SF Weekly, Houston Press, Boise Weekly and Detroit’s Metro Times, all of which were always free, earning their keep through advertising.
Wayne State University assistant professor Michael Fuhlage said other eras of upheaval have seen their own versions of underground or alternative newspapers.
“We’ve had an alternative press in the U.S. for as long as we’ve had political dissenters with the means to pay to fund their own publications,” Fuhlage said. “Newspapers provided the connective tissue of the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War, the suffrage movement from the 1850s through passage of the 19th Amendment a century ago, and radical protest movements against the Vietnam War.
“That kind of alt-weekly also was available in Ann Arbor. When the Ann Arbor Argus debuted in 1969, its credo declared, ‘There has to be an alternative to the Ann Arbor News – Michigan Daily, Detroit News/ Free Press ‘objectivity.’ … we want to get as much down as possible with what’s happening news-wise, politically, musically and everything else that’s happening.’ So they were doing what a good community newspaper does: fulfill the needs of their readers by reporting on topics they were interested in, in ways they could relate to, and in ways they could not find in the mainstream press. ‘Objectivity’ wasn’t enough. They wanted to know what was going on from people who shared their point of view and related to the world in ways that they did.”
Fuhlage said that not all of them were so focused on politics. “The first issue of Detroit’s The Sun, in 1967, contained tips on how to get high by smoking banana peels and how to not get arrested for selling and using drugs. It also promoted the local music scene and alternative newspapers at Cass Tech and Grosse Pointe high schools. When they were able to endure, it was because they provided news and opinion that their readers and patrons thought was worth supporting through single-copy purchase. If you look at the actual issues, you can see that they also relied on advertisements by clothing boutiques and bookstores and anyplace else that saw potential customers in those papers’ readers. Those that didn’t get revenue from those sources got it from donors, but many alt-weeklies had to be funded out of the editors’ own pockets because they saw them as labors of love. Those editors really were in it out of a sense of mission.”
Over time, some of the same forces facing traditional media have impacted alternative press. Some alt-weeklies succumbed to their time. Others merged, and others have been purchased by media conglomerates.
“The pressures we’re facing are similar to the ones facing the dailies and magazines. They’re all going through the same things, not just for print, but everyone revenue-wise,” said Jason Zaragoza, executive director of Association of Alternative Newsmedia, a trade association of alternative weekly newspapers in North America which currently has 131 newspapers in 42 states, Washington D.C. and four Canadian provinces.
Zaragoza said a tenet of alt-weeklies is “We don’t have a subscription base, which the dailies have had, and advertising revenue has plummeted. So some of our papers have been looking at online components.” Among the different courses of actions different papers have been sampling are reader revenue, subscription programs, paywalls, and offering extra perks, including early entrance to stories, and member-only monthly events.
“And some are asking – can you pitch in $5 or $10 a month? And that’s not just us – it’s across the board, at magazines and dailies,” Zaragoza said. “This is not just us, it’s industrywide because the advertising side is plummeting and will continue as advertising keeps going to Google and Facebook.”
Once upon a time, classifieds, including apartment listings and phone sex and escort service ads, filled the back pages of many alt-weeklies. Then came Craigslist and other online sites.
“The back-of-the book ads have basically vanished – the massages, personals – they’ve gone to Craigslist,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst, Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalists.
Readers who assume all the income is being made on publications on the internet would be wrong.
“That industry has been slow to adapt to changes to the rhythm of producing a weekly to the demands of up-to-date websites,” Edmonds said. “If you’re the New Yorker, they have a terrific website that’s up-to-date daily, but they have tremendous resources. It’s more difficult for others.”
Edmonds noted it’s compounded by the nature of alt-weeklies advertisers, who are often restaurants and nightlife, “where there is more competition to verticals, other places to get that information.”
“For a little while, they (online alternative publications) were flying high because investors, including venture capitalists, were betting on their economies. Then they cut their losses and decimated their staffs,” Zaragoza explained. “Things like Buzzfeed, Mike, the Huffington Post, Patch, Vox Media – all have had major layoffs and closures.”