The Los Angeles Free Press was one of the first and, by all accounts, one of the most successful ‘underground’ newspaper weeklies. The ‘underground’ label has both metaphoric and physical connotations: metaphorically, the paper was underground because it was independent, as it was run and founded by former pro-socialism activist Art Kunkin; physically, the paper was underground because it was headquartered in the basement of a Los Angeles coffee shop, aptly named The Fifth Estate. At its height in the late ‘60’s, the L.A. Free Press–known colloquially as Freep–had 100,000 subscribers, with thousands more readers throughout California.
Make no mistake: Freep made no intentions of being mainstream. Lionel Rolfe, a writer who become immersed in Los Angeles’ coffeehouse culture and was eventually hired by Freep, credits Freep for influencing “a whole underground press movement across the country.” John McMillian, in his book Smoking Typewriters, explains how Kunkin’s path to Freep was nurtured by a number of dissident outlets that our class covers: Kunkin wrote for The Militant, Correspondence, and News and Letters; he delivered broadcasts on KPFK, a Pacifica Foundation radio station; he read the Village Voice. Kunkin was enamored with and, subsequently, heartbroken by the Voice, as McMillian writes: “Although he admired its investigative journalism and cultural commentary, as a refugee from the Old Left, he loathed its reflexive support of liberal Democrats. To his mind, this made it an ‘Establishment’ paper–but it also convinced him of the need for a radical alternative.”
Just how alternative? McMillian continues: “The longest article in the first issue, headlined ‘Puritanism Scores a Victory,’ discussed an obscenity conviction against a twenty-five-year-old theater manager who screened Kennith Anger’s Scorpio Rising, a homoerotic biker film.” Front page headlines from the early years included ‘Mobile Fort Will Put Down Riots’, ‘Poverty Board elections to be held March 5th’, and ‘Cleaver or Gregory? Peace and Freedom chooses candidates.’ Kunkin wrote that last article himself in August 1968, explaining that the two candidates represent “revolutionary” and “moderate” approaches to the black and anti-war movements. Kunkin writes: “This new stage is important because the choice taken now will probably affect the ability of Peace and Freedom to survive past the November elections. It may even help determine the character of the non-electoral street opposition of anti-war and black forces to the establishment. In the long run these factors may affect the country more than whether [Hubert] Humphrey or [Richard] Nixon will actually become President of the United States.” In covering the Peace and Freedom conventions over the big two political parties, Kunkin made sure Freep would never be mistook as a mainstream paper.
According to McMillian’s book, Kunkin saw how the community lifted up Pacifica radio and used Pacifica’s success as a selling point to investors. Apparently, it was not a good argument. Kunkin eventually founded Freep in 1964 with little more than a few hundred dollars that, as McMillian writes, “he rounded up from friends.” Melissa Goldsmith’s thesis on Freep’s (and others’) coverage of Jim Morrison–who wrote for Freep on occasion–gives a little more insight into how Kunkin ran his business. Goldsmith writes: “the newspaper had subscribers, but could also be found for sale in newspaper racks or bins on street corners as well as through people holding a certain number for sale chanting ‘don’t be a creep, buy a Freep!’” Goldsmith notes that free copies were usually easy to find at local coffee shops, too. A February 1965 edition was sold for ten cents, by December 1967 the price rose five cents and sold for 20 cents outside of Los Angeles county, and a August 1968 issue advertised a five dollar a year subscription.
As mentioned before, Freep was founded on some of the same business and ethical principles as Pacifica radio. Of course, Freep had a clear political stance and was print media, so the content, although similar to an extent, was approached in a different fashion. Also mentioned previously was Kurkin’s love/hate attitude toward the Village Voice; McMillian characterizes Freep as “a stripped down, radicalized version of the Village Voice, geared toward Southern Californians.” A more modern example would be The Indypendent, a free online and print paper that covers New York City, because it embodies Freep’s leftist spirit and big-city/local-focus dynamic. For instance, local headlines such as “Homeless folks have real solutions to the housing crisis,” “Evictions Postponed” and “Police Reform’s Next Step” could very well source from either publication (the middle is Freep, the other two are from Indy). Another modern comparison to be made, although less apparent, is Buzzfeed. This is inspired by two common themes found on Freep’s frontpage. First, Freep always included an eye-catching, reader-friendly headline that seemingly is generated by Buzzfeed curators. For example, “128 places to go this week” and “Social Security for Vampires” advertised stories that might cause a pedestrian to pause and flip through Freep–an interaction somewhat like Buzzfeed’s clicky, link-friendly headlines. Second, both independent publications experienced, or are experiencing, relative success. (It’s worth noting here that a new version of Freep emerged in 2005 under publisher Steven Finger, but the website is, to say the least, disappointing. The value in the website is to see the old front pages of Freep; don’t expect to find consistent updates there.)
According to McMillian’s book, the beginning of the end came in 1969, when “Kurkin unwisely published the names, addresses, and home telephone numbers of eighty undercover narcotics agents employed by the state of California as a ‘public service announcement.’” In 1970, then editor Brian Kirby left the paper with roughly half of the staff to create their own independent paper. Soon, Freep became more known for its sex ads than its journalism, famously featured in the 1979 crime thriller Hardcore. Freep managed to sputter along for most of the ‘70’s, finally ceasing publication in April 1978.
It covered riots, muckraked for stories, took radical stances, figured out a shoestring business plan and ran with it. The Los Angeles Free Press truly lived when it lived. Unfortunately, it also dabbled in yellow journalism, combusted from inside, and lost its hard earned reputation to sex advertising. But, as one can infer from Freep’s story, the paper was never about what other people view as successful. To Kunkin, it was a dream. Rolfe succinctly states: “The difference between Kunkin and everyone else at the Xanadu [coffee shop] in the early sixties was that Kunkin actually went out and started the paper the rest of us just talked about.” A journalist’s dream, indeed.
And, not that they need the click-bait, Buzzfeed