Much of what we know about the tumultuous years of the 1960s and early 1970s came from the mainstream press outlets and especially the newspapers at the time. Coverage of protests and especially the cultural aspects of the “Movement” (art, music, the drug culture) tended to be muted by both the restrictions of editors as well as a conservative self-censorship that tended to either eliminate or diffuse what was often deemed “offensive” content. In visceral reaction to this conservatism emerged a vibrant underground press during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
John McMillian’s “Smoking Typewriters,” published in 2011, recounts the formation of this underground press and its role in the protests and cultural fomentation of the 1960s. Furthermore, he discusses how many of the newspapers that were begun with deeply alternative and underground roots now thrive as part of a host of the ubiquitous “city newspapers,” the Village Voice being the most famous of those to survive. (A more local example is the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, MO, started as an alternative city weekly in 1977.)
On a local level, the book is particularly relevant. Columbia, Missouri — hosting what was arguably the preeminent journalism school in the country (a journalism school that published two mainstream newspapers: the Missourian and the Maneater) — also had an active underground press in the 1960s. The press evolved from a rotating cast of disenchanted J-School students, full-time student activists, anarchists and left-leaning Union members. The Columbia Free Press, loosely associated with Students for a Democratic Society chapter at the University of Missouri, was probably the longest lasting of any of the papers. In February 1969, the Free Press published a cover that was considered so scandalous, the subsequent controversy and legal case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. (The cover graphically depicted the violation of the Statue of Liberty by University of Missouri policemen.)
In McMillan’s first chapter, “Our Founder; The Mimeograph Machine,” the author discusses the interface between the Students for a Democratic Society and the underground press movement on college campuses. While often loosely tied together, the two made for convenient bedfellows, especially in college towns like Columbia where the mainstream and campus press were either 1) in lock-step with campus administration, or 2) published by a deeply conservative old-boys network. McMillan also discusses the distinct regionalism of the formation of these presses, explaining that “each of these tabloids grew out of relatively isolated subcultures.”
Finally, it must be emphasized that this book is particularly good at sketching out how, as part of a much larger trend, these papers eventually became part of the mainstream culture. In his last chapter, “From Underground to Everywhere; Alternative Media Trends Since the Sixties,” McMillan goes on to say: “The main reason they all became known as “alternative” is because they positioned themselves against the daily newspapers.” And in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these papers continued to publish extensive exposés against the powers that be and political machines of the day, relying heavily on low rent advertising to continue their status as “free rags.”
Please check out “Smoking Typewriters” for a fascinating look at the emerging underground press of the day.