Whatever became of '60s underground papers?

You wouldn't know from the multicolor movie-star studded cover that the issue dated June 18 was its last. After two years of losing circulation, Boston's second alternative newspaper -- the Real Paper -- ceased to be.

Boston -- the city with perhaps the largest student population in the country -- seems no longer able to support two alternative papers. So after nine years of headbutting rivalry with its competitor, the Boston Phoenix, the Cambridge-based Real Paper finally conceded defeat.

Born in the counterculture spirit that pervaded the Cambridge-Boston area in the late 1960s and early '70s, both the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper stood as reminders of the heyday of the underground press -- a time when anti-Vietnam and prorock 'n' roll feelings pulsed through the pages of these nonestablishment papers, and every story was written with a point of view.

But the war ended. National issues changed. And so did the people who published and read the underground papers. Many of these inky orators passed into oblivion. But during much of the late '70s new alternative media were being spawned -- diverse and scattered phenomena of regional papers that occurred without the urgency of the unifying antiwar theme.

Today there are well over 40 alternative papers (depending on the definition) scattered about the country, with a combined circulation of more than 3 million. They are a diverse lot, ranging from slim leaflets to fat tabloids and expressing as many different points of view as politicians at a pancake breakfast.

Yet if there has been any trend that has marked their development in recent years, it has been a movement toward "localism and regionalism," says Darrel Olden, president of the 40-member National Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The papers are forging stronger links with their communities and developing "good business principles."

The Chicago Reader, one of the most successful of today's alternative papers, has a circulation of 110,000. Editor Bob Roth says the paper focuses on more in-depth regional features. This approach, he says, is now being used by other alternatives, such as the San Diego Reader and the East Bay Express in San Francisco.

The Bay Area is home to another alternative weekly -- the Pacific Sun -- the oldest alternative paper in the US other than the Village Voice (which goes back to the 1950s and may merit its own special category).

In Seattle, The Weekly is in its fifth year of publication and maintains a paid subscription list of 25,000. It is currently waging a campaign to prevent the merger of the city's two establishment papers.

While these papers appear healthy, Boston's Real Paper wasn't so fortunate. Most observers see it simply as a victim of economic realities.

"The closing of the Real Paper is a business story," said its most recent editor, Mark Zanger, adding that "we didn't fail because of content. We were simply No. 2 in a limited market."

Steve Mindich -- editor of the Boston Phoenix, which purchased the Real Paper's circulation list of 10,000 paid subscribers -- attributed its closing to "the marketplace, which makes the decisions." But others believe the decline of the Real Paper began in 1975 when two nonnewspapermen, Ralph Fine and David Rockefeller Jr., bought the paper from a workers' collective.

In the end, says Steve McNamara, editor of the Pacific Sun, the closing of the Real Paper portends "no dismal trend" for alternative papers. He does not believe the student-oriented underground press of the 1960s, of which the Real Paper was a part, was the direct predcessor of most of today's alternative newspapers.

Yet some think these papers should show a little more of the spunk of yesterday's underground publications. David Armstrong, former editor of the Berkeley Barb and author of a recent book on the alternative media, says there is often "little real point for their publication" -- that many of today's alternative papers still focus on the white, middle-class, well-educated products of the post-World War II baby boom. He doubts how true an alternative that is.

Most alternative paper editors bristle at this charge. Says editor McNamara, "We're not concerned with how to attract someone who went to a Grateful Dead concert 10 years ago and is now married with three kids . . . . Our responsibility as an alternative paper is to carve out a community readershi p."

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