Social Movements and the Printed and Electronic Word
Bob Ostertag

My recent book, People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements, examined the history of social movement journalism in the US. In it, I argue that the specific dynamics of the printed word were a fundamental factor in shaping what we have come to think of as modern social movements. In this presentation, I will outline the results of my historical research and then address some of the vexing issues posed by the transition of social movement journalism from the printed to the electronic word.

For two centuries, Americans whose concerns and interests lay outside the accepted political boundaries of the day have organized social movements as the principle vehicle for advancing their cause. Their journals have been these movements' most important tool, and have been applied to almost every task these movements undertook. The history of social movements and the history of their press are often nearly inseparable, and historians frequently peg the birth of a social movement to the founding of the movement's first journal.

It is therefore surprising that the history of the social movement press has been studied so little. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that, when judged by the standards typically used to assess the importance of mainstream publications - circulation, advertising revenue, size of book, longevity, and 'objectivity' - social movement publications appear to have been of negligible importance. Yet, even the most cursory review of the social movement press reveals the mistake of judging it by these standards.

It is my contention that the history of social movement journalism can only be understood in the context of the particular movements of which each journal was a part: its internal dynamics and strategies, its relation with its immediate adversary, its relation with the state, and its location in the broader culture (for example, the constitution of 'abolitionists' as the predominant voice against slavery, the direct conflict between abolitionists and southern slaveholders, the complex relation between abolitionists and the federal government, and the place of abolitionism in the broader culture, particularly in the North). Each of these four components is highly dynamic; together, they create a context of continual change.

As a result of this fluidity, there is no schematic framework which can simplify the analysis of social movement dynamics, and no substitute for nuanced and detailed historical analysis of the social movement press in the context of the movement of which it is a part. Conventional measures of a journal's importance, such as circulation, financial stability, and longevity, may - or may not - be meaningful measures of the significance of a movement publication. Movement publishers who cling single-mindedly to these objectives may miss crucial opportunities to contribute to overall movement goals; historians committing the same error may similarly underestimate (or overestimate) the importance of movement journals.

'Objectivity,' circulation, longevity, geographic distribution, and advertising revenue are commonly considered universal standards by which the importance of newspapers and magazines is measured. For the corporate media, however, these measures are not ends in themselves but are simply tools for maximizing profits. As such they are quite useful. Any business plan for running a publication as a profit-making endeavor must incorporate all these tools in a thoughtful and ongoing way. Advertising revenue generates profit. Circulation supports advertising. Longevity keeps the money coming. Large geographic distribution diversifies the profit base against local downturns.

'Objectivity' is not a profit-maximizing device but rather the ideological rationale for the whole enterprise. 'Objective' and 'unbiased' only became media buzzwords as a direct offshoot of the concentration of media ownership. Prior to the giant media oligopolies, these notions were conspicuously absent from American journalism. Newspapers and magazines were published because the people who made them had a point of view they wanted to get across, and made no bones about it. The notion that journalists should - or even could - write without a viewpoint or opinion emerged as a necessary ideological underpinning of media oligopoly, the selling point for the idea that media control by the few is not inherently detrimental to democratic institutions or culture.

Social movement journalism seeks to promote ideas, not profits. Movement journals seek to challenge corporate control of media, not justify it. They address readers as members of communities, not individual consumers. They cover social movements as participants, not 'observers.' They exist to make change, not business. If the political context of a given movement at a particular time offers conditions in which a long-lived, large-circulation, profit-making, journal can be strategically employed to further movement goals, then these are meaningful accomplishments. If such conditions are not present, these measures may be irrelevant or worse.

This is not to imply that social movement publications always come up short by the standards of corporate journalism. The Sierra Club Bulletin (now Sierra) has been in continuous publication for over one hundred years. The Earth First! Journal made a small profit beginning with its very first issue (mainstream publications typically expect a year or even much longer of red ink on the corporate ledger). Some gay and lesbian publications now produce profits that make the corporate giants envious (and the journals possible take-over targets). The AIDS epidemic, one of the biggest stories of the twentieth century, was first reported by a volunteer writer in the New York Native, a gay community paper less than one year old at the time. Gay papers consistently scooped the mainstream press in coverage of the epidemic for years afterward.

William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, on the other hand, had nothing along these lines to recommend it. It was a one-man operation that never had a 'scoop.' In fact, it rarely had news at all in the conventional meaning of the term. It consistently lost money, and had only three thousand subscribers at its peak, yet it remains one of the most influential newspapers in US history. Its demand for immediate, as opposed to gradual, emancipation moved from the outer fringe to the core of the abolitionist movement, and then to national policy with the Emancipation Proclamation. Its uncompromising voice spread well beyond abolitionists to inspire and inform early women's rights activists and many others. It even bequeathed us the term 'Garrisonian,' an adjective first used to describe the most militant brand of abolitionism, and later generalized to indicate an uncompromising willingness to speak one's mind on social justice issues, regardless of the consequences. Frederick Douglass, a former slave, had to lecture constantly and mortgage his home simply to keep his papers in print, yet he is considered one of the giants of American political writing. One hundred years later, Not Man Apart, published by Friends of the Earth with almost no budget, volunteer writers, and a circulation of 35,000, was more influential in its day than any other environmental journal, including the Sierra Club Bulletin (then with a circulation of 300,000), and Greenpeace (with a circulation of more than a million).

If profitability and circulation are not reliable measures of the contribution of movement publications to the overall goals of the movement of which they are a part, what about other conventional standards, such as longevity? Duration of publication is certainly a measure by which the wheat of American journalism is typically separated from the chaff.

Here again we find influential journals at both ends of the spectrum, with no reliable correlation between longevity and contribution to movement goals. The Sierra Club Bulletin/Sierra! has been publishing continuously for more than a century. Walker's Appeal and the early woman suffrage pamphlets were one-issue affairs. The Furies became 'legendary' among lesbians in the second half of the twentieth century, despite publishing for less than a year.

The Liberator set an early standard with thirty-five years of uninterrupted publication, spanning the earliest articulation of 'abolitionism' to the legal abolition of slavery. But what if abolition had been achieved in ten years instead of thirty-five? The Liberator would not have entered the historical record book with its lofty thirty-five years, but would the reduced lifespan have indicated a less successful journal, or a more successful one?

In both the abolitionist and woman suffrage movements, even the softer-focused, larger-circulation publications went into a tailspin in the period just prior to victory, with many publications closing their doors. In both cases, however, the demise was a consequence of coverage of the movements' cause moving to the front page of the mainstream press. Here again, was the termination of so many publications a sign of the journals' failure or success?

Longevity is a particularly interesting conundrum in that it is equally prized by both the profit-driven media and by most movement publishers themselves. These latter may acknowledge that making profit is not what movement publishing is about, yet still believe that the longevity of their publication is a certain indicator of their contribution to the cause. This notion is a particular manifestation of the conventional activist wisdom which prioritizes building lasting institutions that can outlive the transitory character of activist upsurges and 'build for the long haul.' The idea is that by outliving the upsurge which created them, institutions (such as journals) can continue to further the cause, and remain at the ready so that when the next upsurge comes, the movement will have seasoned organizations ready to roll and not have to 'reinvent the wheel.' This notion too does not hold up well under historical scrutiny.

The tiny gay and lesbian papers that emerged in the 1950s and early 1960s assembled a remarkable track record. They fought for and won the right to publish and distribute materials that discussed homosexuality. They developed a dedicated core of increasingly confident and experienced activists, and a loyal readership. By conventional reckoning, they should have been perfectly positioned to lead the charge if a real mass movement emerged. But when 'gay liberation' exploded in the aftermath of Stonewall, these publications appeared confused and outdated, and quickly folded. After years eking out a bare existence in the desert, they starved in the midst of abundance. The movement itself, however, was none the worse for it, as new publications more in tune with the times sprung up.

What of the environmental movement? After decades of 'long haul' journalism as the most prominent voice of 'conservationism' and 'outdoor enthusiasts,' the Sierra Club Bulletin should have been perfectly positioned for the 1960s and the birth of 'environmentalism.' It even had an editor well suited to the job in the form of David Brower, who tried everything within his considerable personal powers to cajole the journal into the new era. The result: Brower was run out of the organization, and started a new journal, the aforementioned Not Man Apart, with substantially less money, less staff - and more clout.

If the record of journals attempting to make the transition from an era of relative quiescence into a time of widespread activism is one of failure, what of those journals which emerged during a movement's heyday and survived the subsequent decline? Here the record is even worse.

The pioneer gay glossy The Advocate is a particularly dramatic example. Launched as a community-based journal to track police violence against homosexuals, The Advocate reinvented itself as a slick 'lifestyle' mag, not only managing to survive the decline of gay radicalism, but attaining commercial success unparalleled in the history of social movement journalism, with major advertising accounts, Wall Street investors, and substantial profits. Yet in terms of social justice advocacy, the latter-day Advocate has been simply awful. The quality of its content traces a trajectory almost precisely inverse to its profitability.

The underground press of the 1960s fared no better. The few underground papers that survived the waning of the counter-culture did so through increasing reliance on sex ads in the personals, a tradition that began as an expression of 'free love' ethics and degenerated into run-of-the-mill pornography. And then there was Rolling Stone, which secured an advertising base by explicitly purging the counter-culture of radical politics.

Those journals that closed when they sensed their time was up appear in a comparatively appealing light. These range from Garrison's The Liberator to the 1970s lesbian journal Amazon Quarterly. Once abolition was achieved, Garrison abruptly and unceremoniously shut his paper down, despite widespread criticism from his allies. Gina Covina of the Amazon Quarterly went straight to the point when she noted, 'When we quit to pursue other interests, we didn't feel guilty because we weren't, by any means, leaving a vacuum ... There were lots of other papers. We weren't needed in the same way we had been.'

This conundrum is rooted in the very nature of institutions in general, and the particularities of movement journals in specific. Social power is always exercised through institutions, be they banks or mafias, armies or churches, states or families, anti-slavery committees, or environmental journals. By creating a stable set of relations among their members and rules for their behavior, institutions make it possible to aggregate social resources and personal energies. These very things, these fixed rules and relations, make institutions inherently resistant to change to at least some degree. Yet, institutions function in social milieu of constant change. This confrontation of institutional rigidity and social fluidity results in perennial endeavors of institutional 'reform,' and movement publications are no exception.

In general, building an institution is a difficult project, and reforming an existing institution is often a more efficient strategy than launching a new one. As institutions go, however, the start-up costs associated with launching a movement journal are remarkably low: a handful of people (or even one single person) and a few dollars have often been sufficient. The 'cost' of reforming an existing journal may be much higher. Movement journals are typically staffed by people who work long hours for little or no pay, and who often perceive challenges to their existing way of doing things as invalidating the many sacrifices they have made. This accounts for the conspicuous failure of most movement journals to outlast the particular social and political context in which they emerged, and the ease with which they are often replaced by new journals more in tune with the times. Mother Earth News would be one of the very rare exceptions to this pattern: emerging from the widespread 'back to the land' movement of the 1970s, the journal managed to transition from an activist-run journal to a professional enterprise without losing focus on its core social and political objectives.

I stated at the outset that there is no schematic framework which can simplify the analysis of social movement dynamics, no 'stages' theory of social movements, and therefore there is no substitute for nuanced and detailed historical analysis of movement publications in the context of the movement of which they are a part. The movements included in this study demonstrate the point. The trajectory of the abolitionist movement is the most neatly linear. The goal of immediate abolition of slavery with full political rights for slaves emerged as a consensus goal out of years of debate between various alternatives. Once abolitionism took off, over the next thirty years it enjoyed a relatively steady increase in its number of adherents, who were increasingly militant and vocal. The goal of woman suffrage likewise emerged out of a variety of ideas for the advancement of women's rights, accompanied by an upsurge of militant activity. But then the movement fell into decades of 'doldrums' during which the movement adopted an increasingly mainstream, genteel tenor, and final victory came with a whimper, not a bang.

The gay and lesbian movement takes an altogether different trajectory. Accumulating momentum very gradually in the 1950s and early 1960s, it suddenly exploded into a mass movement when its trickle of activists flowed into the mighty river of 1960's radicalism. This momentum lasted well into the 1970s, creating a golden age of 'gay liberation' when breathtaking victories were won in a stunningly short period of time. The movement then began to disintegrate, until the AIDS epidemic forced the community back into political mobilization.

The GI movement is even more narrowly bounded by the period of US military intervention in Vietnam. The movement grew from nothing at the outset of the 1960s to a power that brought the world's most formidable military to a grinding halt, then quickly dissipated when US combat operations in Southeast Asia ceased.

The environmental movement offers yet a different trajectory. The movement's key victories (the creation of the EPA, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more) all date from the widespread activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, as the global environmental catastrophe has become increasingly apparent, the issue has gained a more or less permanent place in the corporate media. This has helped create a continuous widespread interest in the issue and broad support in opinion polls, yet most 'members' of environmental organizations today limit their activities to mailing checks to national organizations. The crisis this movement seeks to address, meanwhile, offers no clear solutions, such as abolishing slavery, enfranchising women, or withdrawing from Vietnam.

The trajectories of the press these movements created are just as varied as the movements themselves. The abolitionist and woman suffrage press show the most similarity. Extremely radical, fringe journals came first (The Liberator, Revolution), followed by journals with a progressively softer tone and broader circulation (National Era, The Women's Journal, The Women's Column). Finally, there was an across-the-board decline, and even collapse, of the movements' journals in the period just victory was won.

Both movements achieved consensus on one very specific policy objective around which everything in the movement then revolved (immediate emancipation without emigration for the abolitionists, and suffrage for women). But consensus was not something the movements were born with; it developed over time. Should emancipation happen gradually or all at once? Should the freed slaves be sent abroad or remain in the US? Should they have the full political rights of citizenship? Should the US Constitution be replaced or amended? All these questions were unresolved in the early years of abolitionism. Winning the vote for women likewise emerged only gradually as the consensus objective among Nineteenth Century American feminists, whose concerns entailed a much broader vision of advancing women's rights.

In both movements, it was in the early period, when ideological and policy consensus was up for grabs, that radical journals could hold sway with tiny circulations and no resources other than the passion of their publishers' convictions and the fire in their words. Once the movement's direction was settled and the task of the day became winning converts to a generally accepted program, uncompromising adherence to principle became a much less valuable asset, and more conventional assets like financial backing, a stable staff, and a more flexible appeal, all increased in importance. The National Era, which dominated the later stages of the abolitionist movement, quickly reached a circulation nearly ten times the peak achieved by either Garrison or Frederick Douglass. In the woman suffrage movement, the later and tamer Women's Journal quickly outran The Revolution by the same proportion.

The gay and lesbian movement, on the other hand, never had one objective which, if won, would constitute 'victory.' Even the present-day battles over marriage rights and military service do not represent anything close to a consensus in the gay and lesbian movement about priorities, while even those activists that do prioritize these issues do not imagine that achieving these objectives would constitute anything more than another step on a long journey. The environmental movement is even further a field, addressing challenges that will never be 'won' but only better managed, and which promise only to become more complex and thorny. The path cut by these movements is thus less linear, and the story of what resources are most valuable to movement journals, and when, is correspondingly more complex.

The Sierra Club Bulletin (now Sierra), the flagship of the environmental movement press with a huge circulation and the financial muscle of the Sierra Club behind it, has been enormously effective - when it has been used as one element of a broader activist strategy. The publication reached its apogee of influence in the successful fight to prevent the damming of the Grand Canyon, when David Brower used the Bulletin in close-knit coordination with grassroots mobilization, aggressive lobbying, and paid advertising in the New York Times. In other periods, when the journal has not been as tightly linked to an audacious political strategy, its clout faded dramatically, despite having larger circulation, more stable staff, and healthier finances.

The Earth First! Journal offers another successful example of the strategic use of a journal. The paper was launched with essentially no money and peaked at 10,000 subscribers. Yet this was sufficient to achieve the goal its publishers had in mind, which was not so much to win policy battles per se, as to redefine the left fringe of the movement into a magnet that would pull the entire environmental debate to the left.

From printed to electronic word

There was a specific window of time that we can rightly call the era of the social movement press, and it is bounded by technological developments. It began in the early 19th century when the invention of the iron press and machine made paper - the first major innovations to the printing press since Gutenberg - which dropped the cost of regularly producing a small newspaper low enough to place it within reach of a small group of people or even a sufficiently dedicated individual with few resources other than passion.

During this era, the linkages between social movements and their journals were extremely tight. Movement journals were often a movement's first institution; in some cases they remained the only one. In fact, not only do historians frequently peg the birth of a social movement to the founding of the movement's first journal, but the scholarly literature on social movements generally place the emergence of what we think of as modern social movements at the start of the 19th century, precisely when the changes in print technology became available. This is not coincidental. The specific dynamics of the printed word are fundamental to what we have come to think of as social movements:

1. The process of assembling the resources to print a journal on paper with a printing press, a process which necessitates at least some level of social organization right from the start;

2. The process of building distribution networks to distribute a journal, networks which in turn became the backbone of organizations. My research showed that the commonplace notion that social movement organizations create journals to get their message out is upside down: it has been much more common that social movement organizations emerged from the distribution efforts of radical journals; and,

3. The fact that print journals are assembled in discrete issues of fixed and limited content. Not everything can be said. Someone must decide which words go in and which don't, so there is by necessity a gate-keeping function, and those who execute this function become at a minimum de facto movement power brokers, and more often high-profile movement leadership.

4. Since the printed word exists in a limited number of journals, each with a limited number of issues of limited size, highly motivated readers could read virtually all of the published words, resulting in a sustained and focused discourse that was central to the formation not only of the movement's strategies and tactics, but also of its identity and the identity of its adherents - of what it meant to be an abolitionist, a woman suffragist, and so on.

These dynamics all stem from the fact that the printed word was, to borrow a notion from economics, scarce. The electronic word, in contrast, is abundant, and this difference upends all the social dynamics that accompanied the printed word. This shift is now playing itself out in every part of our culture. The implications for social movements are profound:

1. Publishing on the internet is free, no resources have to be assembled to launch a log or website, and thus no a priori social organization is implied.

2. Distribution is immediate, worldwide, and free. The social networks required to distribute print journals, networks which generally then formed the backbone of social movement organizations, are not necessary.

3. There is no limit to what can be said. The gatekeeper function inherent in the printed word, which empowered so many movement leaders, has vanished.

4. The electronic word is limitless. The problem of who gets to speak and for how long has been solved. But the solution poses its own problem: with everyone speaking, who has time to listen? How will all the 'chatter' of the internet cohere into the sort of sustained discourse that lead people to identify as militants of a social movement, to throw the obligations of daily life to the side and make history?

The answers to these questions are only beginning to be invented. What we can say for certain is that the era of the social movement press is coming to a close. Something new is being born, something substantially different from what came before. The dynamics of theprinted word were so central to how movements constituted themselves, to what social movements were, that we can expect the transition to the electronic word to transform not only how social movements communicate, but also indeed what social movements are.