NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND
How it is like Oz was and Ink will be
Last week, both the Times and the Guardian announced that their prices would have to be increased 'before long'. Mr Lawrence Scott, the Guardian's chairman, thought that there would be few newspapers which could avoid such increases, necessitated as they were by the bogey of rising costs. Earlier Mr Henry Stevens, company secretary of the Daily Telegraph, went so far as to suggest that almost no national newspaper was making a profit and, in one case at least, a very substantial loss was being incurred.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the underground press is on the edge of a vast boom. Among magazines such as Friends, Time Out and Oz, circulation is growing at a pace which the various organ- isations can hardly contain, and plans are already well established for the publication of two new weeklies. These will be designed not just to appeal to young people, but to steal away some of the readership of already existing overground magazines. This curious phenomenon has occurred without any of the traditional trappings of success—very little advertising, no tit and bum content, no proper distribution and very little fuss. It has obviously fulfilled a need experienced by those who were dissatisfied or frustrated with or just left out by the accepted organs of communication. Whereas previously the sub- ject matter has been largely concerned with the pop milieu, its interest is now extending to political involvement, social discussion, the other arts, and even sport. And far from being amateur either in spirit or in organisa- tion, a determined new professionalism has crept into the hearts of those responsible. I would have thought that in the long term the national newspapers and weeklies had far more to fear from this particular renaissance than from the threat of any union-sponsored industrial unrest.
The explosion began four years ago in the mind of Jan Wenner, a twenty-seven year old Californian, who saw that none of the media understood or were prepared to take cognis- ance of, the hurriedly expanding pop-orien- tated culture. Even today, BBC television, for example, devotes not one single second to this subject. The only programme which ever made some attempt in this direction, How It Is (with which, admittedly, I was involved) the BBC took off in spite of an audience larger than the average for Omnibus. Wenner knew that the snobbish and scandal- seeking attitude with which the press then talked about pop, was alienating an entire generation. Since pop was reckoned to be the most eloquent voice of young people, it was at least worth taking seriously however childish and misguided that voice might sometimes be. His newspaper Rolling Stone, supplied that seriousness. It wrote about pop and all that pop involved in a non-didactic, non-patronising way. The result was often over-seriousness and a feebly edited concen- tration on trivia; but the circulation has grown to nearly a quarter of a million and the 36-page fortnightly is distributed inter- nationally.
A host of others grew up in its shadow.
Some, like Oz, the Australian satirical journal, experimented typographically hoping completely to change newspaper design. Illegibility was achieved more often than might have been desirable, but its success was often stunning. The layouts devised for Oz by Australian Martin Sharp are largely responsible for the huge growth of posters and poster design during the past six months. Another publication, Time Out, begun two years ago as a single sheet alternative to the almost unreadable What's On, has now de- veloped into a 100-page magazine, partly review, but mostly information, which many hotels recommend to foreign visitors in pref- erence to What's On. Time Out, one con- cierge told me, is somewhat more reliable. Other papers such as Black Dwarf or Red Mole, have been largely propagandist in in- tention but none the less have given access to information of much wider public interest. The Bertrand Russell/Ralph Schoenman memorandum is only one notable example.
It seems logical, therefore, that a 'news- paper' as opposed to a 'magazine' which speaks directly to young people about the things which interest them and is not exclusively restricted to either pop or propa- ganda, should soon have taken shape. There are two in preparation. The first, called The Alternative is already hawking around a brochure and a dummy. 'There is a large and increasing number of radical and intelligent young people,' the brochure tells us, 'who are not satisfied with what the national papers have to offer.' The fault, it says, is that most established publications are too big, having to satisfy both the old and the reactionary as well as the young and the radical. This seems to me far too simplistic on analysis of the difficulties of the newspaper industry. The discovery, moreover, that the board of directors includes ex-members of the BOAC Welcome Aboard magazine (plus the general ad-man's chat in which the brochure is written), leads one to suspect that a com- mercial solution is being sought to fulfil a commercial need.
The second sounds altogether more excit- ing. It wants to demonstrate that youth and radicalism is an attitude of mind and not an age-bracket. It wants to provide space for the kinds of story that journalists are fre- quently aware of but afraid to publish be- cause of particular editorial restrictions. It intends to be non-profit-making and not de- pendent for its existence on advertising. Its activities are to include the publication of pamphlets and eventually books. It is non- political and non-propagandist. Its editorial staff and correspondents are to be properly paid. Already many distinguished journalists have offered their services; one famous pub- lishing editor has done the same. The news- paper intends to achieve an immediate circu- lation of 50,000 and it has revolutionary plans for distribution to keep to this inten- tion. It will certainly be youth-orientated but without being in any way exclusive. Its title like its ambition is simple and fundamental. The body needs blood. Newspapers need Ink.