A Brief History of American Alternative Journalism in the Twentieth Century

By Randolph T. Holhut

It has been said that the duty of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. While mainstream journalism has more often than not just paid lip-service to that credo, alternative journalism has lived up to those words.

Throughout its history, alternative journalism has dug up the news that others would wish to see buried. It has spoken truth to power. It has stuck up for the common person and worked for the public good. It has used the craft of journalism as an agent of social change. This is a brief history of the genre and the people that shaped it in this century.


The period between 1900 to 1920 saw the emergence, growth and demise of alternative journalism.

With the turn of the Twentieth Century, the combination of new publishing and distribution technologies, a literate population that hungered to know what was really going on and fierce competition by newspapers and magazines to bring these people the truth set the stage for the creation of a new form of journalism - ``muckraking'' as President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed it in 1906.

The muckrakers - Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Will Irwin, Ray Stannard Baker and Upton Sinclair chief among them - invented and perfected the craft of investigative journalism in the first two decades of this century.

S.S. McClure and the magazine that bore his name started off the muckraking movement. In the pages of McClure's beginning in late 1902, Tarbell exposed the business practices of John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company; Steffens began chronicling corruption in city and state governments and Baker began reporting on the problems of working people.

Tarbell, Steffens and Baker's stories caused a sensation and drove the circulation of McClure's past the half-million mark. It was eventually joined by other mass-market magazines such as Collier's , Cosmopolitan , Everybody's , Hampton's , The Independent , Pearson's and The American Magazine .

For the first time, there was a group of writers and a concentration of publications hammering away at the ills of American society. Nothing before or since has equaled the scope of the muckrakers' work. They uncovered corruption in business and politics, food adulteration and harmful ingredients in patent medicines, the plunder of natural resources, the plight of black Americans and the victims of unfettered capitalism.

While this was happening, two other publications pushed the boundaries a little further out. The socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason , had a peak circulation of 760,000 during its life as a weekly from 1895 to 1917. It was here where Sinclair's classic book on the Chicago meatpacking houses, "The Jungle," was serialized a year before its publication.

The Masses , published monthly from 1911 to 1917, was not so much a muckraking magazine as it was a fusion of art, culture and radical politics that broke taboos and thumbed its nose at the establishment. Not until the rise of the underground press in the 1960s would there be other publications that would share The Masses ' libertine spirit.

A combination of factors killed the muckraking movement. Advertising pressures forced magazines to either soften their content or go out of business. World War I and the resulting wave of reaction made it difficult to challenge the established order. The U.S. Post Office denied mailing privileges in 1917 to magazines such as The Masses , Appeal to Reason and Emma Goldman's anarchist magazine Mother Earth for their opposition to the war. All three ceased publication.


The years between 1920 and 1950 were a transition period for the genre. The public soon tired of appeals for reform. The national mood was summed up by Warren Harding in his campaign for the 1920 Republican Party presidential nomination; America wanted "a return to normalcy."

The muckrakers themselves left journalism for other fields. It would take five decades before another sustained movement of investigative journalism would appear that was comparable to the peak years of the muckraking era from 1902 to 1912.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 ushered in a period of intramural squabbling on the Left and repression on the Right. The utopian image of a people's democracy captured the imagination of the American Left, but it only took a few years for that image to fade into a lengthy clash of conflicting visions: socialism versus marxism versus communism versus anarchism.

The Right had no problem figuring out the meaning of the Russian Revolution. They viewed it as a threat to existence of capitalism and the established order that needed to stamped out immediately. The wave of mass arrests and deportations of suspected communists and anarchists ordered by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in 1919 further chilled the climate for dissent.

It was an era where mainstream liberal publications like The Nation and The New Republic were considered subversive literature. For the publications that were further Left, it was a challenging time.

The Masses reappeared as The Liberator in 1918 but it never was able to recapture and sustain the momentum it had before America entered World War I. The unresolved battle between art and revolution sapped its strength and the magazine was turned over to the Communist Workers Party in 1922.

From the ashes of the Masses//Liberator arose The New Masses in 1926. When the Great Depression struck in 1929 and America became more receptive to ideas from the Left, the magazine was poised to become one of the most influential publications of the 1930s.

It continued the original Masses tradition of fusing art, reportage and revolution together into a highly readable package. Most of the important writers of the period - Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, Thomas Wolfe, Dorothy Parker, Erskine Caldwell, Mike Gold, Theodore Dreiser, James Agee, Langston Hughes and Josephine Herbst - appeared on its pages.

Another important dissident publication was launched in the post-World War I era, the Daily Worker. It was started up by the Communist Party in 1924 and generally reflected the prevailing views of the party. Often dismissed as a mere mouthpiece for the CP, it was more of a radical labor paper that at the same time tried to become a popular paper of the Left. Despite a peak circulation of only 35,000 and consistent financial problems, it lasted until 1957.

The religious counterpart of the Daily Worker was Dorothy Day's newspaper, the Catholic Worker . Founded on May Day, 1933, Day was the publisher, editor and chief writer until her death in 1980. Through good times and bad, the paper never wavered in its editorial line of social justice, pacifism, the dignity of labor and the glory of God. It endures today as the voice of the Catholic Worker movement with a circulation of about 100,000.

George Seldes - an independent journalist and author - made a bold attempt to single-handedly revive the muckraking movement with his weekly newsletter, In fact . Published from 1940 until 1950, it was one of the first publications that was solely devoted to press criticism and was staunchly anti-fascist.

Seldes attacked the shortcomings of the commercial media with vigor. He also printed stories that the commercial media wouldn't touch _ stories that came from sources ranging from the Congressional Record to reporters who were suppressed by their editors. It had a peak circulation of 176,000, one of the largest-ever circulations for a liberal weekly _ more than The Nation , The Progressive and The New Republic combined.

In fact started publishing in an era when the Left was a legitimate force in American society. It shut down when the paranoia of the Cold War and the communist witch hunts of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy were ascendant.


The years between 1950 and 1960 were a crucial incubation period for the era of the underground press of the 1960s and early 1970s.

As in the years after World War I, the post-World War II period marked another period of decline for the Left. Those years of hardship also gave birth to a quintet of magazines that all would help usher in the modern era of alternative journalism.

The first was the National Guardian , which began as a weekly in 1948. It strived to be a dissenting voice to the Cold War and sought to revive the more militant aspects of the New Deal without having the taint of the Communist Party that the Daily Worker had. It opposed both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, gave extensive coverage to the Civil Rights movement, was alone in defending Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and was a consistent advocate of forming a third national political party. The paper's name was shortened to the Guardian in 1967. It ceased publication in the early 1990s

In 1953, veteran Left journalist I.F. Stone picked up where Seldes left off with his weekly newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly . Stone did not do as much press criticism as Seldes, but he did perfect Seldes' technique of finding official duplicity through a careful reading of government documents. Treated as a pariah through the 1950s, he opposed U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover long before it was fashionable. His reportage of America's maneuverings in Vietnam in the 1960s made I.F. Stone's Weekly must reading for journalists, scholars and the anti-war movement. It stopped publication in 1971.

Two years after Stone started his newsletter, the Village Voice was launched by Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, with financial backing by novelist Norman Mailer. Its politics were more liberal Democrat than radical socialist, but politics were secondary to the Voice's reputation. What made the Voice a model for future alternative publications was its style and wit.

As editor for the first two decades of its existence, Wolf recruited talented people and let them do their thing. Sometimes, rambling and egocentric writing was the result. More often than not, the Voice was home to the most in-depth, literate and entertaining writing of any weekly in America.

Two smaller publications round out the top five seminal influences on the modern era of alternative journalism. Liberation , started in 1956 by pacifist philosopher A.J. Muste, took the pacifism and non-violent activism of the Catholic Worker and added intellectual anarchism to the mix. Paul Goodman, David Dellinger and Bertrand Russell were among the main contributors to this monthly, which folded in 1977.

The Realist, published by Paul Krassner from 1958 until 1974, used ridicule and satire as its weapons. Journalism was the last priority in Krassner's magazine, but it provided the inspiration for the outrageousness of the underground press of the 1960s.


The second golden age of alternative journalism took place between 1960 to 1975. The political, economic and technological circumstances that made the first golden age - the Muckraking era from 1900 to 1915 - possible were again present in the 1960s. Offset printing made it possible for anyone with a typewriter, a paste pot and a little bit of money to put out a newspaper cheaply. A vast audience of young people - alienated by the mainstream media - was ready for something different. The Vietnam War and the growing revulsion with it was an even bigger catalyst.

On May Day 1964, Art Kunkin handed out the inaugural issue of the Los Angeles Free Press, generally acknowledged to be the first of the Sixties underground papers. By the end of the decade, there would be an estimated 400 regularly and irregularly published underground papers in existence in America. They included the Berkeley Barb, the East Village Other, the San Francisco Oracle and the Chicago Seed, among others.

From their predecessors, the underground press borrowed the fusion of art and politics of The Masses, the advocacy journalism of Appeal to Reason, the moral fire of the Catholic Worker and Liberation, the free-swinging satire of The Realist and the non-conformity and self-expression of the Village Voice. The result was an eclectic, unpredictable style of newspapering that went far beyond the traditional styles of journalism on the Left.

The third wave of feminism that began in the 1960s fueled a boom in feminist publications. At first, feminists tried to used the underground press as their forum but it was just as unreceptive to their ideas as the mainstream media. By 1970, it was clear to women that if they wanted to get the word out about their movement, they had to do it themselves.

It Ain't Me Babe was started in Berkeley in 1970 as the third wave's first feminist newspaper. It only lasted a year, but its righteous anger and energy was contagious. The Washington, D.C.-based off our backs , started a few weeks after its West Coast counterpart, had more staying power and became the most respected newspaper of the women's movement.

The feminist publication that got the most readers and the most attention was Ms. , which debuted in 1972. Glossy and more politically conservative than papers like off our backs , Ms. kept left-wing and lesbian feminism at arms length and emphasized a personal rather than collective vision of women's liberation.

The biggest trend in alternative journalism was ``New Journalism,'' the combination of non-fiction reporting with literary techniques associated with fiction writing. The genre was created in the early 1960s; not in the underground or Left press but in mainstream publications such as the New York Herald Tribune's Sunday magazine, New York , and in Esquire .

Warren Hinckle III invented the concept of ``radical slick'' when he took over Ramparts in 1964. Founded two years earlier in San Francisco as a liberal Catholic quarterly, Hinckle converted it into a monthly and introduced contemporary graphics and design, high-profile publicity efforts and provocative investigative reporting.

Circulation zoomed up to 250,000 on the strength of Ramparts' exposes of the Cold War and Vietnam War policies of the U.S. government, but the magazine went bankrupt in 1969 and limped along until going under for good in 1975. The flashy muckraking style of Ramparts was revived the following year when several of its former staffers started up Mother Jones .

Ramparts was great at muckraking, but not as good at covering rock & roll. Jann Wenner, miffed at Ramparts' treatment of rock and the counterculture, decided to start a biweekly in 1967 - Rolling Stone . A little slicker and more conservative in style than the underground papers, it celebrated music as being something that was above and beyond politics.

Rolling Stone grew more and more successful as the years passed. Its financial success came in part from corporate America's recognition of the consumer possibilities of the counterculture. By being more of a lifestyle publication than a political one, it survived the implosion of the New Left at the end of the 1960s that killed off most of the underground press.


The period from 1975 to the present saw a maturation of the alternative press, as it struggled to stay relevant in yet another conservative age.

The weekly papers that were started in the 1970s took a different tack, eschewing radical politics for community involvement and local news coverage. Two papers that were started in the late 1960s, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Boston After Dark (later absorbed into the Boston Phoenix) pioneered the local approach to alternative journalism. By reaching out to the communities where they published and celebrating the concept of regional identity, the city and regional weeklies ended up with far larger audiences than their more strident predecessors.

The idealism of the Sixties underground press was tempered somewhat by this approach, but it was not totally compromised...at least for a while. Eventually, the lure of advertising dollars was too great to ignore. Investigative reporting gave way to arts and entertainment coverage, lifestyle features, restaurant reviews and fashion spreads. The message to alternative weeklies was clear - go downmarket or go out of business.

The political mood of the country shifted again to the right in the 1980s, and the alternative press struggled to adapt. But unlike previous eras of conservatism and reaction, the changes brought on by the movements of the 1960s proved harder to kill off.

The alternative press is heading into the Twenty-First Century bloodied but unbowed. Of the three stalwart journals of the Left that survived all the changes of the century - The Nation, The Progressive and The New Republic - The Nation and The Progressive maintained their editorial ideology and struggled under constant financial difficulty while The New Republic turned into a neo-conservative magazine and prospered.

Other alternative journals are still in business, but are far from robust. In These Times, a socialist newsweekly that started publication in 1976, just barely fought off bankruptcy and now is a biweekly. Mother Jones fought off a costly challenge by the Internal Revenue Service to its tax-exempt foundation status in the early 1980s, struggled financially and eventually cut back from 10 to six issues a year by the end of the Eighties. Ms. ceased publication in the late 1980s and was reborn in 1990 as a adless, reader-supported bimonthly.

The Village Voice still chugs along as the flagship of the alternative press. Like most of the urban weeklies such as the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and L.A. Weekly, they all struggle to maintain a balance between muckraking and fluff that will please advertisers while not alienating readers.

The bimonthly Utne Reader has done well as an alternative press version of Reader's Digest. The liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and its magazine EXTRA! continues the work of Seldes and In fact by reporting on media bias and suppressed news. Z Magazine is a vibrant new voice on the Left and an example of how two people - Lydia Sargent and Michael Albert - can put out a solid publication with a shoestring budget. Other publications such as CovertAction Quarterly, Dollars and Sense, CounterPunch, Earth Island Journal, High Country News, Index on Censorship, Multinational Monitor, Southern Exposure, and the Texas Observer also further the tradition of the alternative press.


Looking back over a century of alternative journalism, one can see its resilience in the face of political and economic pressures. It has endured periodic government repression and sharp changes in the political and cultural climate. It has maintained a commitment to social change, even when it is not a popularly held sentiment. As long as there is a majority media that serves the interests of the powerful rather than the people, there will be a place for dissident voices. That place will be the alternative press.


David Armstrong. ``A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America.'' South End Books, 1981.

Abe Peck. ``Uncovering The Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press.'' Pantheon, 1985.

Robert J. Glessing. ``The Underground Press in America'' Indiana University Press, 1970.

Laura Kessler. ``The Dissident Press: Alternative Journalism in American History.'' Sage Publications, 1984.

John M. Harrison and Harry H. Stein. ``Muckraking: Past, Present, and Future.'' Penn State, 1973.

Louis Filler. ``The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism (revised edition).'' Gateway, 1968.

Daniel Aaron. ``Writers on the Left.'' Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.

Edwin and Mary Emery. ``The Press and America: An Interpretive History'' Prentice Hall, 1984.

Mari Jo and Paul Buhle and Dan Georgakas. ``Encyclopedia of the American Left.'' University of Illinois Press, 1990.

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