By Matt Davidson
Written as a part of the Portland Design History Class at PSU
The Portland Scribe was an underground newspaper from Portland, Oregon that ran in the 1970s and didn’t follow a set art direction, and kept a very DIY aesthetic throughout its six years of circulation. The Scribe had a circulation of between 5,000 and 10,000, with each 28-page paper costing only 25 cents each.
The Portland Scribe was founded by Michael Wells in 1972, after his previous publication, the Willamette Bridge went under in 1971 due to financial struggles. Alongside Wells, key members present at the founding of the Scribe include Wells’s wife Mary Wells and Maurice Isserman, a writer who had worked at the Bridge for a year prior to its closing. The Scribe was also founded and utilized as a response to the Vietnam War, as the war didn’t sit well with the majority of staff, who viewed it as “proof of evil in our country.” Additionally, The Scribe was a part of a large national movement in the 1970s where many cities had their own underground newspapers, such as the Diggers in San Francisco. The Scribe was built around a core group of approximately 15 people, who were divided into departments of about two to three individuals.
Recently, I was fortunate to have a conversation with Isserman, where he explained that the atmosphere of the Portland Scribe offices was very relaxed and informal, leading to everyone knowing each other and building friendships. Nearly all of the money the publication received was funneled back into production, as Isserman, who was one of three co-editors, was paid only five dollars a week. Because of this, many members of the Scribe staff, Isserman included, worked at the Oregonian to earn a living and hosted radio shows on KBOO.
Stories and cartoons developed at the Scribe were heavily inspired by political events both at a local and national level. Some topics covered were local protests, the Black Panther Party, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Nixon’s impeachment and subsequent removal from office. Sometimes the anticipated stories didn’t turn out in the way that the reporters desired. As Tamim Ansary, a former writer for the Scribe, says in an interview with the Oregonian: “I covered anything that caught my fancy, but as a journalist my specialty was failing to get the story and writing a witty feature about not getting it.” According to one source, one such story that was never contained in the Scribe was the arrest and subsequent trial of a Portland State University instructor who was taken into custody under suspicion of conspiracy to bomb a large building in Portland. At the trial, a member of Scribe staff ran across a writer who was working on a story about the trial. Upon requesting that the story be printed in the Scribe, the author asked for only a year’s subscription to the publication in return. When the employee ran this proposal by the rest of the staff, it was rejected, leading to the Scribe losing the story entirely.
Local events were also greatly highlighted in the Portland Scribe, as the center spread of every issue held a calendar ranging from music and art events to sports and conventions. Each week highlighted on the calendar would bear a unique illustration, often fitting a theme. For example, one issue’s calendar collects a series of abstracted ice cream cones, and another that features astrological signs. Other calendars show images relating to the events held each week or demonstrate the artist flexing their hand-rendered typography skills. Some issues also include duotone photographs in place of the drawings, such as the flowers featured in the 17th issue. The paper contained copious amounts of advertisements for local businesses on each spread, with every issue featuring a large, intricate drawing advertising KBOO. This comes as no surprise because of the connection the staff had with the radio station.
The love for the community did not stop at the printed page however, as the publication helped out local businesses through fundraisers. One notable part of this effort consisted of benefit concerts. Organizations helped by these fundraisers include the People’s Food Store (one of the oldest co-ops in the city), as well as community centers, coffeehouses, women’s health clinics, and the Students for Democratic Society.
The design and layout of the Portland Scribe was not planned out ahead of time, aside from some basic guidelines. Instead, pages were laid out the night before the weekly issues were sent out to print. Despite this fact, former Scribe writer, Isserman, claims that the Scribe’s design direction was significantly more dialed in and professional than the Willamette Bridge. This led to the Scribe having a very unique look, with a wide range of typefaces and illustration styles throughout an issue, even often all on one spread.
Jim Beller, a cartoonist and former designer for the Scribe, states: “I didn’t think much about graphic design. For instance, it never occurred to me that we could change the masthead or the look of the paper after we completed our editorial takeover. I did love the wax paste-up process, assembling all of our justified-text paragraphs we made on a special typewriter with headlines made on a funny little filmstrip device.
“I’d say that the spirit behind funky ceramics and sixties-era underground comics, as well as the illustrations by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther paper, informed the style of the Willamette Bridge.” While he describes the Bridge here, the same applies to the Portland Scribe. Papers were all 28 pages-long, in black and white with the option of a single spot color or a “rainbow.” Pages would often consist of six to eight columns of text in the stories, with images and photographs intermingled.
Because of the variety of styles and contributors to the Scribe, many wouldn’t praise the overall design and layout, yet there is still something there for everyone. The Scribe demonstrates a lot of creativity and inspires the reader to go out and create. Inspiration was also shared around the office with a program in which the Portland Scribe and other similar publications from across the country (such as one based in Texas) would send each other copies to boost the quality of underground papers as a whole.
While the Scribe had some in-house artists and designers, many were freelance, which led to an ever-changing masthead from issue to issue. For example, in the annual women’s issue the creatives listed in the masthead were nearly all women. Many freelancers were simply “paid in exposure,” as the Scribe had a very slim budget which relied heavily on advertising fees due to the low purchase cost for each copy.
Left to right: Sketch-filled cover of Issue 14 (May 1972). Cartoon from Issue 10 (April 1972).
Illustration critiquing the medical field in Issue 24 (July 1972). Music-centric cover for Issue 23 (July 1972). Syndicated illustration from Issue 28 (August 1972) by Jan Faust.
The process for creating issues of the Scribe was fast-paced, as it was a weekly newspaper. On Monday mornings, the core group of about fifteen people in the office would gather to discuss stories and decide what kind of content to pursue. Those in charge of opinion columns decided what was important that week. From there, content generation would continue throughout the week until Thursday evening, where everyone would come together to build the layouts for the issue, which was then driven to the printer early Friday mornings. The printshop that was used most frequently was Gresham Outlook, which also printed several other local publications.
The process of production began with the typewritten documents and hand-drawn artwork being taken to the production team. From here, the decision would be made whether to use the original artwork in the paper or have it outsourced and turned into a screenprint. After all of the content was decided on, the task of layout would begin following a basic protocol on what could be placed where. In the Scribe offices, there were 28 thick paper artboards that the paper documents would be affixed to using melted wax. Upon the publication’s inception, Mary Wells used a process involving heating the wax in an electric skillet and applying the wax using a large brush. A subsequent production manager purchased an electric waxer for $16 to streamline the process.
After the waxing process, boards were photographed, and photographs were driven to the print shop. The boards would be scraped clean after, in order to be reused for the next week.
In 1974, Michael Wells was recruited to join a new publication, the Willamette Week. This left an opening that led certain employees in the Scribe offices to vie for control. What should have been a smooth transition, exploded into what has been described as “power struggles” and “coup d’états.” On top of these battles for the throne, there was also a significant amount of additional infighting, in which some employees would attempt to attack the character of their coworkers and ruin their workplace reputation. Eventually, in 1978, the IRS shut down the Portland Scribe due to a tax debt of $3000, ending it with the same fate that its predecessor, the Willamette Bridge, suffered.
Although the Scribe’s life cycle wasn’t very long, as Isserman says: “It proved that you can do a weekly alternative newspaper.” This was shown to be true when, in 1978, a group of Portlanders, inspired by the Scribe and led by David Milholland, decided that our city should not go on without a similar creative outlet, and founded the Clinton Street Quarterly (CSQ). The CSQ, much like the Scribe, contained a mix of graphic styles with a unique sense of humor and was heavy on political editorials and stories. The CSQ expanded to include a Washington edition in 1982, which eventually melded back with the Oregon edition to form a single Northwest version of the publication.
The Scribe’s spirit also lived on in some form through Michael Wells’ involvement in the Willamette Week, which, although it started before the Scribe closed, could be viewed as the larger and more direct successor of the Scribe. It is also theorized that the Willamette Week was inspired by the Scribe, as they use a very similar structure, and follow a similar set of views and demographics.
In conclusion, although it ran into several hitches along the way, one of which claimed its life, the do-it-yourself, rebellious nature of the Portland Scribe left a huge impact on the community and continues to inspire artists, writers, and designers to this day. •