December 18, 2002

The unexpected package arrived in the mail in November 1989. It was from a former colleague, Simon Dumenco, an editor at Seventeen Magazine at the time and a media junkie who, like me, appreciated alternative and obscure publications.

“Thought you’d be interested in this,” he wrote on a Post-It Note attached to a copy of a newsprint magazine titled Factsheet Five, a title that I wasn’t familiar with. That was all he said.

Factsheet Five
, or F5, as it’s called in the alternative press, was a catalog of thousands of publications with titles like The Food Insect Newsletter, Hossatopia, Homocore, and Fame Whore. There was Dick E. Bird News, the zine for serious bird watchers, and SOS (Secular Organization for Sobriety), a pamphlet for people looking for alternatives to religion-based recovery programs. Often, the descriptions of the quirky magazines’ contents were stranger than the titles.

That was my introduction to the world of fanzines–or zines, pronounced zeens.

Dumenco knew I was a voracious reader and he figured I’d want to somehow be a part of this subculture and network with these publishers. He was right. Within a week, I started my own fanzine, which I called Obscure Publications. I intended to serve as a trade magazine of sorts for this publishing genre.

In Obscure, I profiled the most interesting of these amateur journalists and gave their works wider exposure. For a decade, I traded publications with thousands of other micro-press publishers, taught classes on fanzine history and production, and spoke at conferences about the role of zines in the publishing world. Often, I was asked whether fanzines were journalism and if their creators could be called journalists.

But Is it Journalism?

The best answer: Yes and no. Some fanzines are sloppy rants produced by psychopaths. (One of these guys sent me a 10-page death threat in 1992; he was unhappy with a review of his “work.”) Others are carefully produced works of excellent writing and reporters.

So what are these fanzines?

Simply put, they’re homemade publications that usually have a staff of one and are produced as entertainment and not for profit. They generally don’t have regular publishing schedules, and they’re usually traded or sold through the mail. Many of them are handwritten and Xeroxed. Others are pounded out on old Royal typewriters. Some, though, are published on newsprint or glossy stock.

Zines Fill Niches

Mike Gunderloy, who founded the Factsheet Five catalog in the mid-1980s, says zines are “so diverse as to be pretty much unclassifiable.” The mainstream press, when writing about the zine scene, usually showcases the quirky ones–The Daily Cow, Pills-A-Go-Go, and The Tawdry Times, for example. But Gunderloy notes that ” a lot of people are doing solid, useful work in niche markets that traditional magazines never fill.”

Zine publishers can’t be stereotyped-– nor can their readers. The zine producers I know range from gay punk rockers, to legal assistants, to college librarians, to the man who pens “The Playboy Adviser.”

While zines are usually pegged as reading material for teens and GenX-ers, that’s not always true. James Danky, the middle-aged newspapers and periodicals librarian at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, has one of the country’s largest fanzine collections. He’s collected them around the world. Tom Trusky, an English professor (he’s headed to retirement age) at Boise State University, discovered fanzines in the early ’90s. He was so taken by them that he curated two campus exhibits.

“There are goofy publications in the subculture,” Trusky notes, “but some zines are very serious and on serious subjects.”

Fanzines have been around since the Depression era. The earliest ones were rooted in science fiction. When Gunderloy started his Factsheet Five catalog in 1982, he focused on these sci-fi publications. Over time, though, he branched out into other area as the zine world expanded with the declining price of photocopying.

Music (especially punk) publications took off in the 1980s, as did gay and lesbian zines. By late 1989, Gunderloy’s zine catalog was published bimonthly and each issue had 140-pages of tightly packed reviews. When I jumped into the zine world in 1989 (while serving as a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine), I discovered there were many zine publishers who took their work seriously (while having fun doing it). Many of them produced desktop-published zines that were more entertaining and better written than some professional magazines.

One of the best editors is David Greenberger, who interviews residents of nursing homes for his long-running zine, The Duplex Planet. He’s published 155 issues so far, all of them filled with honest, respectful conversations with senior citizens.

John Marr is another veteran zine publisher with his Murder Can Be Fun zines, now over a decade old. Marr is a self-taught expert on disasters and has written historically accurate tales about the Great Boston Molasses Flood, various Disney Parks tragedies, and postal worker killings. Marr, who says he spends weekends doing research at the library, was recognized a few years ago in a front-page Wall Street Journal profile.

Another favorite of mine is Al Hoff who publishes Thrift Score, a zine about shopping for second-hand goods. It’s a quirky publication (which was recently published in book form) that profiles popular thrift items and offers tips on thrift shopping. Hoff is considered an expert in this area and is often called on by feature writers looking for “analysts” to comment on the second-hand store scene.

Fred Woodworth is regarded as the underground’s leading expert on anarchism. He’s been publishing The Match: An Anarchist Journal from his Tucson home for 30 years now and is working on his 95th issue.

Experts on Everything

In the zine world, there are experts on nearly everything. A young man who calls himself Dishwasher Pete, has been publishing Dishwasher, a handwritten zine about his restaurant job adventure, since the 1980s. He’s finally gotten recognition from the mainstream media. (David Letterman even invited him on his show a few years ago.) Pete was recently discovered by the popular Public Radio International show, “This American Life.” Its producers put him to work. Now a regular on the program, Pete’s beat is the restaurant industry. Most recently, he covered a restaurant association show.

I recently started selling Mark Saltveit’s zine, The Palindromist, in my online store. His journal for people who write and read palindromes is a cult favorite. Salveit proudly reports that New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz recently cited his magazine and used one of his puzzles on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Success Story

One of the great fanzine success stories surrounds Beer Frame: The Journal of Conspicuous Consumption, which was founded in 1993. Editor Paul Lukas examined products of the likes of Armour Pork Brains and Darkie toothpaste from Asia. His zine led to a book, and got him writing jobs with New York Press, Fortune, and Money magazine.

Most zine editors don’t start their publications with the hope of becoming acknowledged experts in their field, and to be mentioned on public radio. So why then do they publish? What drives them to put so much effort into work that gets so little exposure? That’s a question that’s been asked for decades. In the 1940s, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham discovered these small publications and tried to understand what made them so appealing. In the end, he decided that the answer was in the “aliveness and naturalness” of zines.

He wrote in his 1978 book, The World of Zines: “Having seen, in my years in psychiatry, so much of the general flaws in human relations, I was attracted to something that was so positive and was not acknowledged as such. I felt that (the zine culture) was essentially unpolluted by the greed, the arrogance, and the hypocrisy that has invaded so much of our intellectual life.”

As for zine publishers, they offer a variety of answers to the question of “Why Publish?” Daniel Drennan, editor of Inquisitor, an attractive zine that covers art, technology, and culture, says, “Independent voices are so important in a world of corporate media culture. If I didn’t do this, I’d go crazy.”

In my 10 years of exchanging zines and letters with other publishers, I often asked myself why I kept publishing. I realized it was the networking with other writers that motivated me to continue Obscure Publications. I traded zines and letters with people like “Mr. Apology,” who set up a confession telephone line and published transcripts of the callers’ tell-alls in a magazine titled–-of course-–Apology.

I got to know Beowulf Thorne, publisher of Diseased Pariah News, the zine for persons living with AIDS. Another snail-mail friend was Jeff Kelly, whose Temp Slave! zine was publishing stories about the exploitation of temporary workers long before the mainstream press began examining the issue.

Over the years, I’ve probably received tens of thousands of zines, with most of them ending up in the trash can. I have saved the best zines, though. They fill some five boxes that I’ve carted around for years. These zines have names like Chip’s Closet Cleaner, Slug & Lettuce, Evil Eye, My Pathetic Life, and Crash. Only one of the five titles is still being published today.

Print to Web

Many zine editors have abandoned their print editions and moved to the web in recent years. The publishing subculture still thrives, though, I realized a few weeks ago when my copy of Zine Guide catalog arrived. It was 160 pages thick and packed with titles as quirky as the ones I read in my 1989 issue of Factsheet Five.

There will never be a shortage of young zine editors to take the place of veterans who outgrow zine publishing or move to the mainstream, says professor Trusky.

“There are always going to be passionate people, disaffected people, and people with agendas,” he says. “When there aren’t, that’s the day zines will die.”

— This story first appeared in the Winter 2000 Poynter Report

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From 1999 to 2011, Jim Romenesko maintained the Romenesko page for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based non-profit school for journalists. Poynter hired him in August…
Jim Romenesko

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