|Founders||Walter Bowart, John Wilcock, Art Kunkin, Max Scherr, Michael Kindman, and Harvey Ovshinsky|
|Successor||Alternative Press Syndicate (APS)|
|United States, Canada & Europe|
The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), later known as the Alternative Press Syndicate (APS), was a network of countercultural newspapers and magazines formed in mid-1966 by the publishers of five early underground papers: the East Village Other, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Berkeley Barb, The Paper, and Fifth Estate. As it evolved, the Underground Press Syndicate created an Underground Press Service, and later its own magazine. For many years the Underground Press Syndicate was run by Tom Forcade, who later founded High Times magazine.
A UPS roster published in November 1966 listed 14 underground papers, but within a few years the number had mushroomed. A 1971 roster, published in Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book, listed 271 UPS-affiliated papers in the United States, Canada, and Europe. According to historian John McMillian, writing in his 2010 book Smoking Typewriters, the underground press' combined readership eventually reached into the millions.
UPS members agreed to allow all other members to freely reprint their contents, to exchange gratis subscriptions with each other, and to occasionally print a listing of all UPS newspapers with their addresses. And anyone who agreed to those terms was allowed to join the syndicate. As a result, countercultural news stories, criticism and cartoons were widely disseminated, and a wealth of content was available to even the most modest start-up paper. First-hand coverage of the 1967 Detroit riots in Fifth Estate was one example of material that was widely copied in other papers of the syndicate. It was hoped that the syndicate would sell national advertising space that would run in all five papers, but this never happened.
The early papers varied greatly in visual style, content, and even in basic concept — and emerged from very different kinds of communities. Many were decidedly rough-hewn, learning journalistic and production skills on the run. Some were militantly political while others, like the San Francisco Oracle, featured highly spiritual content and were graphically sophisticated and adventuresome. According to historian Abe Peck, The Rag in Austin was the first to successfully merge countercultural content with radical politics, and "to represent the participatory democracy, community organizing and synthesis of politics and culture that the New Left of the midsixties was trying to develop."
Shortly after the formation of the UPS, the number of "underground" papers throughout North America expanded dramatically. Walter Bowart and John Wilcock of the East Village Other, with Michael Kindman of The Paper, in East Lansing, Michigan, took the lead in inviting the other papers to join.
The San Francisco Oracle, The Rag, and the Illustrated Paper (a psychedelic paper published in Mendocino, California) joined soon afterward, and membership grew rapidly in 1967 as new papers were founded and immediately joined. The first paper in the deep South to join was The Inquisition (Charlotte, North Carolina). "Fluxus West," a Fluxus offshoot mostly engaged in mail art and self-publishing activities, founded by Ken Friedman, was also one of the founding publishers in 1967.
The first gathering of underground papers, sponsored by UPS, was held at the home of the San Francisco Oracle's Michael Bowen in Stinson Beach, California, in March 1967, with some 30 people representing a half dozen papers in attendance. The meeting was chaotic and largely symbolic, and the concept amorphous. As Thorne Dreyer and Victoria Smith wrote for Liberation News Service (LNS), the formation of UPS was designed "to create the illusion of a giant coordinated network of freaky papers, poised for the kill." But, they added, "this mythical value was to be extremely important: the shoes could be grown into," and the emergence of UPS helped to create a sense of national community and to make the papers feel less isolated in their efforts.
By June 1967, a UPS conference in Iowa City hosted by Middle Earth drew 80 newspaper editors from US and Canada, including representatives of Liberation News Service. LNS, founded by Marshall Bloom and Ray Mungo that summer, would play an equally important and complementary role in the growth and evolution of the underground press in the United States. An attempt that summer to coordinate and centralize the UPS at the offices of the East Village Other in New York City by Bob Rudnick failed.
Soon after, Tom Forcade took leadership of UPS, opening an office on West 10th Street in New York City, at which it curated the underground press collection for regular microfilming and published the UPS News Service. Offices were relocated to Miami during the summer of 1972 to cover the Democratic and Republican Conventions, both of which were held in that city that summer. Under Forcade's leadership, UPS would later also publish the Underground Press Revue.
The explosive growth of the underground press had begun to subside by 1970, and by 1973 the boom was clearly over. After a 1973 meeting of underground and alternative newspapers in Boulder, Colorado, the name of the syndicate was changed to the Alternative Press Syndicate (APS). APS was ultimately a failed attempt to reinvent the syndicate to compete with the growing network of alternative weeklies networked by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. APS members sorely needed revenues and in 1973, "Richard Lasky, ex-Rolling Stone Magazine Advertising Director of the successful San Francisco-based weekly and Sheldon (Shelly) Schorr of Concert Magazine, published in several cities," created a national advertising media selling company, APSmedia. APSmedia placed advertising from primarily record and stereo companies with success, placing more than 350 pages of advertising for many of the publications in the bigger markets in the first year. As cities were in the major markets, it mostly sold ads into publications without the advertisers knowing anything more than the names of the client papers. In 1976 APSmedia dissolved.
By 1974 most underground newspapers in the U.S. had ceased publication. Although many of the members of the UPS and its successors were founded when the legendary urban underground papers were already dead or dying, their influence resonated through the 1970s and beyond, in scores of eclectic papers founded in small towns and suburbs, such as Long Island's Moniebogue Press and Suffolk StreetPapers, offering general audiences alternative perspectives on local news and culture, and in publications specializing in Native American politics (such as Akwesasne Notes), peace, ecology, etc.
As the underground press movement evolved, women's liberation, initially a non-issue in the male-dominated underground press, became an increasing focus. The UPS passed the following resolutions at its 1969 conference:
- That male supremacy and chauvinism be eliminated from the contents of the underground papers. For example, papers should stop accepting commercial advertising that uses women's bodies to sell records and other products, and advertisements for sex, since the use of sex as a commodity specially oppresses women in this country. Also, women's bodies should not be exploited in the papers for the purpose of increasing circulation.
- That papers make a particular effort to publish material on women's oppression and liberation with the entire contents of the paper.
- That women have a full role in all the functions of the staffs of underground papers.
These resolutions were a harbinger of staff rebellions by women that split several papers, including Rat, where the feminist faction seized control of the paper for several issues. A few papers, already weakened by staff burnout, poor finances and other factors, died in the wake of these schisms, while others lost revenue and circulation by barring sexual content and advertisements, which in any event were increasingly being spun off into tabloid sex papers like Screw.