Alt-media maven Stephen Mindich, longtime publisher of the Boston Phoenix, in 1976. (Peter Simon)
I spent the morning of March 14, 2013, working my staff job for the Boston Phoenix, interviewing pushcart vendors in Downtown Crossing, the somewhat bleak, half-mile-long shopping concourse in the neck of the Hub. Days earlier, the vendors had been told by the private Business Improvement District that their licenses would expire forever in two months. Some proprietors had hustled there for decades, selling everything from earmuffs to sausages through cold winters and recessions. But when a host of corporations in the nearby skyscrapers pumped the bid full of big bucks, it was decided that all carts had to go.
Since Filene’s department store was shuttered seven years ago, Downtown Crossing has lacked the draw of a flagship merchant. On the depressing edge of the crater where that Boston landmark once stood, street vendors have since accounted for some of the only commerce. But now that H&M and other multinational retailers had moved in, the bid was discarding these merchants like rubbish. It was ripe for the Phoenix, which specialized in covering vulnerable underdogs who got clobbered by greedy, plutocratic interests. During my years on staff there, I had covered countless once-vital Boston institutions that were disappearing with little public attention or notice—from dive bars to the graffiti scene to the imminent extinction of the silversmith trade.
I realize the irony in paying more attention to Downtown Crossing than to the ominous mass email I received from Phoenix managers the night before, summoning all staffers to a mandatory meeting. My only concern, at least at the moment, was for the pushcart vendors, and I was nearly through writing my column about them when Stephen Mindich, longtime publisher of the Phoenix, walked into the newsroom and asked for everyone’s attention. The Phoenix, he announced, had printed its last issue. We were all out of a job.
The aftermath has been bittersweet. Thanks in part to our robust alumnae network, many of my colleagues landed gigs within weeks of our closing. We still drink pitchers every Thursday, though, cherishing our time together like separated foster kids visiting siblings. We moan about the quirky editors for whom we’re now slaving, and about how our ideas scare the shoes off of them. We’ve found that it’s generally considered bad taste to smoke pot in the bathrooms of our new workplaces. Mostly, we commiserate about the state of journalism. In its essence, it’s the same conversation that alt-media masochists have been having since Sam and John Adams were hanging at the Green Dragon tavern, guzzling ale and gunning for the Stamp Act in their own weekly, the Boston Gazette.
Though I’ve long considered myself an inheritor of a broad alternative tradition, after being laid off, I realized that I actually knew little about how various alternatives got started, about the cult characters behind them, and other details that might help me contextualize my place in time. With that in mind, my gut move after the Phoenix folded, after getting good and drunk a few times, was to spelunk my history in an attempt to understand whether fringe media—and fringe journalists like me—had a future.
I first cracked John McMillian’s excellent 2011 book, Smoking Typewriters, which bolstered my knowledge of the impact that the underground press had on the ’60s. Next, I turned to David Armstrong’s 1981 bible on alternative American media, A Trumpet to Arms. This was the book I’d been searching for to help chart my professional course. A Trumpet to Arms, like Smoking Typewriters, is based on a series of interviews with alt-media pioneers. A former editor of the influential Berkeley Barb in the mid-’70s, Armstrong was able to leverage his credentials and connections to score revealing stories from a wide range of counterculture stalwarts: the political cartoonist Ron Cobb; Steve Post, a free-form radio pioneer and early WBAI host; and John Shuttleworth, the former ad executive who started Mother Earth News out of his Ohio farmhouse in 1970, to name just a few.
Where Trumpet differs from McMillian’s work, however, is in its sense of history and scope. Smoking Typewriters focuses primarily on the 1960s as the defining decade for the underground press. But A Trumpet to Arms begins long before Vietnam radicalized Baby Boomers, and addresses alt-media developments all the way through 1980. By covering underground feats from the American Revolution, to the women’s suffrage movement, to the age of nuclear proliferation, Armstrong connects rabble-rousers throughout history—and makes clear that the alt-media ethic existed long before the Summer of Love.
I’ve only been contributing to the alternative press for a decade. But in that time, I’ve witnessed modern theaters of every battle in this book: the debate over escort ads; the fight to organize newsrooms; the arrests of journalists. But only now, peering back through the lens of A Trumpet to Arms, do I realize that while a lot of methodology has changed—I have a phone, camera, post office, and encyclopedia in my pants pocket—the purpose of alternative media has not. My peers are simply the latest longshots against Goliath in a predictable and cyclical race to record history as one sees fit.
A Trumpet to Arms is out of print and essentially forgotten these days—it was last published by South End Press in 1999. Nevertheless, the book packs timely, relevant insights about the enduring cycles of alternative media, and it does so with style. Armstrong shows why the alternative press is, was, and will remain a crucial cultural force, and demonstrates that while certain books and publications may cease printing, this journalistic legacy will live on.
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In 1980, right around the time when Armstrong was finishing A Trumpet to Arms, the liberalism that characterized much of the previous two decades was vanishing. A score of formerly aggressive alternative media outlets were shedding their activist leanings in favor of softer news that played friendlier alongside stereo ads. The New Haven Advocate and the Aquarian in New Jersey, notes Armstrong, began covering fashion. The Phoenix went so far as to release a four-color, glossy insert—an ode to urban pampering—called Savor. Against that backdrop, and with the bogeyman Ronald Reagan taking office, the apathetic climate was ideal for a book charting the alt media’s past, present, and potential future.
Seeing hope in the lessons of old struggles, Armstrong describes the adventures behind some the most innovative publications in US history. A Trumpet to Arms spans more than two centuries of underground press movements, all spurred by Americans looking to petition some kind of authority or oppressor. The book opens by saluting the pamphleteer Thomas Paine—by Armstrong’s account, an American alt-media originator—whose 1775 poem “The Liberty Tree” inspired the book’s title. From there, we learn of vast contributions from a kaleidoscopic cast of gays, blacks, laborers, and others who were not just misrepresented in the so-called traditional news media, but were also maligned and degraded by them. Take, for example, The Revolution, a furnace of rousing contrarianism founded by early feminist polemicists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In an issue printed in 1868, Stanton wrote, “We declare war to the death on the idea that woman was made for man… . We proclaim the higher truth that, like man, she was created by God for Individual Moral Responsibility and progress here and forever.” In response, the New York Sunday Times advised Stanton to “attend a little more to her domestic duties and a little less to those of the great public.” Armstrong doesn’t have to ruminate on how he feels about such shameful episodes; his anecdotes tell the story.
Armstrong uses the phrase “alternative media” to describe a wide variety of outlets, from the underground newspapers of the 1960s to well-funded national magazines like Ms. That’s not to say that all alternative outlets were the same. In addition to being a former editor of the Barb and the Syracuse New Times, the author had also written about alt-media for several publications, including CJR. Those years as a researcher and participant had revealed to Armstrong few recurring themes between, say, Paul Krassner’s biting satirical magazine, The Realist, and the holistic new-age journals of the 1970s. At the same time, the author notes that all of these entities shared certain things in common. Unlike daily broadsheets and network newscasts, which pushed status-quo ideals, alt reporters experimented with bizarre and idiosyncratic writing styles, all while covering taboo topics like sexuality, political protest, and full-blown revolution.
In the process, they didn’t just re-invent journalism, they also refashioned its presentation. Using delirious illustrations, ragged right text, abstract collages, and other novel techniques, indie artists changed magazine design in ways that bled into the mainstream as early as the ’60s. Armstrong celebrates these milestones subtly, allowing others to sing the praises. In one case, the author quotes noted alt publisher Richard Neville, who helped usher in the psychedelic sheen of hippie periodicals: “When did you last frame a page of the Times?” he asks an interviewer.
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The hostility between commercial and alternative attitudes is an ancient and recurring theme in media. But perhaps because A Trumpet to Arms pre-dates the contemporary war on mainstream journalism, in which partisan pugilism too often passes for media criticism, Armstrong is able to revisit the underground press revolution without endlessly bemoaning The New York Times and its exalted ilk. Instead of haranguing, the author acknowledges the inherent codependence of the suit-and-sandal castes:
Within society as a whole, the alternative media are catalytic, introducing new concepts and values which society then accepts (usually with modifications) or rejects. . . . The relationship of alternative media to the dominant society is, of course, two-way. Not only do ideas introduced by alternative media modify society, they are also themselves modified in the course of being absorbed by mainstream culture. In effect, the mass media, through which the public is introduced directly to those ideas, use the alternative media for research and development.More than any other quality, Armstrong grants alternative status based on a publication’s readiness to cover controversial stories with neither apology nor delay, long before the mainstream takes those topics up. Armstrong mentions oft-forgotten Native-American papers that fought racist laws, as well as little-known magazines like CounterSpy, which Village Voice co-founder Norman Mailer helped start, whose goal was to impugn surveillance agencies.
There’s also the ecological press movement, which, among other things, A Trumpet to Arms credits with transforming the way Americans eat. Armstrong was spot-on in his assessment of tree-hugger publishers; since germinating in the late-1960s, healthy and holistic ideals have been embraced far beyond the ideological left. Additional space is dedicated to the more than 560 feminist publications that sprouted between 1968 and 1973, and to the role that women had in writing the alternative playbook.
Moving forward, Armstrong dedicates a great deal of space to the range of papers that proliferated to protest American aggression in Southeast Asia: from the Toronto-based Amex-Canada, which catered to draft dodgers in exile, to newsletters that turned up on military bases, like Up Against the Bulkhead and The Last Harass. The stories of these classic alternatives are fascinating: alt icon Ray Mungo stealing printing equipment to start his Liberation News Service in 1967; reporters from Rat, a scrappy SDS spinoff, covering the campus-wide student revolt at Columbia University in 1968.
In his most eloquent entries, Armstrong demeans the cowardice and laziness of mainstream outlets without sounding like a sour counterculture cheerleader. Facts, after all, are facts, and the fact is that it took The New York Times until 1966 to report on the American-led massacre in North Vietnam—nine months after the daring peacenik magazine Ramparts published what Armstrong calls a “comprehensive condemnation of the US Army’s conduct.”
Reading A Trumpet to Arms around the decennial anniversary of the Iraq War, I couldn’t help but think about contemporary mainstream outfits. Despite more than a decade of bloodshed in the Middle East, the 10-year mark of the invasion was hardly acknowledged in any meaningful form, let alone roundly condemned as the costly debacle that it was. In Boston, my local tabloid quoted a soldier on page 1 boasting: “I would absolutely do it again. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The Phoenix would have been the first to call out such hawkish idiocy. Unfortunately, the anniversary came four days after we shut down, as did the plethora of tall tales about American success on that front. In the weeks and months that followed, the Phoenix was also missed as Boston’s five-term mayor, Thomas Menino, announced plans to retire, setting off a 16-way scrap for the ages, and in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, as media from all over the world proved incapable of communicating the region’s proudly provincial quirkiness. Starting moments after the explosions, a number of publications reached out to me for dispatches. But while the BBC, The American Prospect, and a few others took my input seriously, the bigs like CNN and The Huffington Post asked me to chase puff pieces with the robot media that had parachuted in. Editors at those places didn’t seem interested in my knowledge of the city, or the people who live there. They just wanted more of the same Boston Strong hero-worship they had been peddling all week. Needless to say, the ordeal served as a reminder of how special the Phoenix was, and how fortunate I’d been to work there.
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As mass media continues to consolidate, and fewer companies control more venues, peripheral voices have been pushed farther out of public reach and relegated to incestuously amplified comment sewers in obscure orbits of the Internet. In that dystopian context, A Trumpet to Arms is infinitely more important now than it was in 1981. As it reads, the book can help one navigate the labyrinth of modern media. Pick any paragraph, substitute the word “blog” for “printing press,” and Armstrong’s research is as good as updated.
The déja vu is hard to ignore. As Armstrong notes, during his own heyday at the Barb, “The flirtation between rock and revolution was a quarrelsome one, ending when rock stars jilted their would-be radical allies.” Such has been my own experience, as hip-hop artists who helped radicalize me—Common, Mos Def, Ice Cube—have traded in their underground appeal for sitcom roles and corporate sponsorships. As for avant-garde business prototypes, Armstrong explains that the alternatives have been crowd-funding since William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the abolitionist siren The Liberator, was beaten by a pro-slavery mob and dragged across the cobblestones of old Boston.
Armstrong takes into account the internal conflicts over sex, drugs, and power that crippled some alternative ventures, as well as the constant threat of co-option posed by a mainstream that was becoming decreasingly distinguishable from its subterranean doppelganger. In a few captious passages, Armstrong points to the apparent hypocrisy of some alternative media. He reports, for example, that a 1980 conference for the National Association of Newsweeklies featured a cocktail hour atop Bank of America’s corporate headquarters. The author hits such critical notes loudest in a chapter titled “Ten Great Places to Find Croissants After Midnight,” in which he scrutinizes “urban weeklies of the seventies” for soothing, rather than challenging readers, and for subsequently neutralizing “large segments of America’s most activist generation.”
I’ve felt the same way about my own publication. But even after the Phoenix transitioned to a glossy magazine format six months before it died, focusing more on lifestyle frills than I may have liked, I knew the drill. Restaurant reviews attract more eyeballs and advertisers than do investigative features. They always have, and probably always will. Technically speaking, before absorbing the more literary Cambridge Phoenix and, later on, the rival Real Paper, Mindich launched his empire with Boston After Dark, which was primarily a source of music listings and reviews.
As Armstrong reports, neither the Phoenix nor its alt-weekly contemporaries were designed to be overtly radical or styled solely to provide entertainment news. Instead, they were adaptive vehicles—adored for their “use of the personal voice in writing; their willingness to do in-depth, magazine-style features about issues generally skimmed by daily newspapers”—that reacted to whatever readers needed at a given moment. Sometimes, that was advice on which new bands to worship; other times, it was a unifying drum to follow into protest. Though I never scored a single cover story in the sleek new Phoenix, editors still gave me ample inches to publish investigative pieces, wage class warfare, and, in one instance, report from the Democratic National Convention on acid.
Considering my own experience, it’s natural that I found A Trumpet to Arms to be at its most dramatic when it flashes back to the cultural mayhem of the ’60s, from Black Panther papers having their distribution lines cut by government saboteurs to the arrest and even murder of key alternative players. Armstrong brightly illustrates the summer of 1968, when underground sheets like the Seed helped lure thousands of young people to protest the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. As the history books now show—thanks to detailed documentation by alternative outlets—chaos ensued for that entire week, on a scale that would only erupt sporadically across America for years to follow. That was true until 2011, when Occupy Wall Street protesters, along with their own media networks, surfaced from coast to coast in the tradition of the many aforementioned crusaders, and like those before them, were indiscriminately beaten and imprisoned.
Along with hundreds of other maverick reporters who filled voids left by the mainstream’s generally shallow coverage of Occupy, I followed the encampment era up close and all across the country. In my travels, I bonded with other sympathetic journalists. Some gave me a couch to crash on; others shared sources, photographs, and inside information. Even then, I was aware of a connection to the fringe media of protests past—especially after reporting on last year’s demonstrations outside of the NATO summit in Chicago. At a rally in Grant Park, I asked one officer about the chipped and battered old batons that a few of his colleagues were wielding. Avoiding eye contact, the cop whispered without moving his lips, “That’s his daddy’s from ‘68.”
The experience in Chicago alerted me to the all-powerful, multigenerational enemy with which alternative media is at perpetual odds. I’m prepared for that battle, and also hopeful that the marginal press will live at least as long as the agents we ride against.
Like Armstrong, I plan to play a part in keeping alt ideals alive. I recently teamed with another local weekly—Dig Boston, where I started my career in 2004—to convene a gang of young dissidents to trade ideas and network regularly. So far it’s gone well, with more than a dozen eager writers whose interests range from dismantling Monsanto to reporting on the oft-forgotten corners of the city’s minority neighborhoods. I’m uncertain of what will come of our efforts in the longer term—if the appetite for passionate reporting will eventually erode entirely, or if we can carry on tradition, and sound a trumpet to arms. Wherever this trampled road takes me, I’ll use Armstrong’s wisdom as a compass:
When one underground enterprise succeeded, all the others were strengthened. . . . This did not only benefit activists. The public benefitted, too, from the much greater availability of new visions and values, which broadened the political, cultural, and spiritual options of millions. . . . Without [the alternative press], the counterculture and the New Left would not have taken root and flourished.