I can write the alternative press’s history — or one passably passionate version of it — because the institution’s trajectory matches my own. As a hard-core baby boomer (no apologies), born in 1948, I hit college in 1966, Walpurgis Afternoon, as it were, on the 20th-century cultural calendar. I was greeted there by the first issue of the redesigned and recently radicalized BU News. The cover overhead: rotc vs. education, accompanied by a photo of a ROTC cadet printed as a negative image. The editorial: abolish rotc; page-one story: president case, houston condemn war, slums.
The latter pieces quoted university president Harold C. Case saying the US is “more alone in the world than we know” thanks to the Johnson administration’s Vietnam policies, and cited student-body president Julian Houston (who became a respected Boston judge) calling for “a total re-evaluation of our educational purpose, and perhaps even a revolution.”
There was also an invitation to try out for the paper’s staff, codedly promising that “cool heads prevail” at the News . Needless to say, I headed straight to the BU News office and offered my services as a reporter and photographer, skills acquired in gentler times working on high-school publications.
There I met the strangest and most wonderful cast of characters I’d encountered in all my 18 years. Secular-humanist nerds on dope. Hyperventilating social activists. Blue-collar scholarship geniuses and eccentric millionaires’ children in mutually gratifying solidarity. Love at first sight. I became an overnight BU Newsnik, anxious to subvert and bedevil the university, its president, the government, the military, the church, and every other authority dedicated to holding back the flood of over-educated young people inadvertently created by America’s post-Sputnik frenzy to out-school the Russians.
I was not alone. My generation’s distinguishing shared experience was media; our common characteristic was a determination to do things our own way. Inspired by Elvis and Kerouac and Ed Murrow and Dylan and betrayed by the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam draft, we saw every advantage in re-invention and none in convention. And, thanks to the Cold War Space Race, the World War II establishment — the infamous hand that fed us — had given us the tools to re-work just about anything.
As budding know-it-all journalists, we threw out every playbook and rulebook in sight. One by one, we transferred out of the communication school that had admitted us and re-enrolled as English or poli-sci majors. We cozied up to progressive profs like Mad Murray Levin and Howard Zinn and made fun of the J-school instructors who limited the art of reporting to “who, what, where, and when.” We went straight to that most elusive “w” — why.
In the darkroom, we pushed standard black-and-white film to wantonly high speeds with specialty developing concoctions so we could shoot everything with available light — imparting an atmospheric, realistic look to our pictures and abandoning the flat, grain-less, over-lit direct-flash intrusiveness of standard press photography.