From left to right: Issue 1973 and issue 1976 showing the evolution of the page layout. Oil over troubled waters (c1976), pamphlet written by Mark Hill. Keltic komix, printed by APP in the last century.
Aberdeen People's Press was set up in 1973.
The idea of starting a community paper was first put forward by the Aberdeen Arts and Community Workshop (based on the Powis housing estate) who gave the projet office space to get started. In order to put the projected paper on a more solid footing it was quickly decided to couple it with a printing operation. Money was raised from various sources: contributions from sympathetic academics; a grant from the Student Christian Movement; 'second prize' in the Bit Information Service / Time Out Book of visions competition. An ageing Rotaprint 30/90 was bought in London. And two of the founding members went on a crash two-week course in camera work, platemaking and offset printing at the pioneering Moss Side Press in Manchester.
The first issue of Aberdeen People's Press (12 pages) came out in June 1973 and cost 5 p.
With the setting up of the original print workshop, APP moved out of the Arts and Community Workshop to install itself in the basement of a large house belonging to a friendly (and reasonably well-off psychiatrist) in one of the wealthiest streets of Aberdeen, Rubilsaw Den South. An address which caused no end of mirth in the working class pubs where the volunteer APP salesforce went hawking the paper on Friday nights.
Fortnightly to begin with, then monthly, Aberdeen People's Press published about seventy issues over a period of four years before being revamped as the monthly Big Print. APP also published pamphlets and books on various subjects such as local social history, the oil industry, the anti-nuclear campaign and workers cooperatives. It also published two plays by John McGrath for the 7:84 theatre company.
As a printer, APP worked for a wide variety of community newspapers, militant organisations (of most varieties of left-wing persuasion), pressure groups, tenants associations, women's groups, trade unions and voluntary organisations. Originally staffed by a disparate group of enthousiastic amateurs, it gradually became (not without internal ructions) increasingly professional in its approach, and by the end of the 1970s was a workers' cooperative employing six people, most of whom had become members of Sogat (which had for a long time taken a very dim view of non-union, alternative printshops).
APP closed down in the early 1980s.
Its archives are conserved by Aberdeen University Library.
Aberdeen People’s press
Andrew Rigby (with the collaboration of Alan Marshall)
Article first published in Here is the other news, Minority Press Group Series, n° 1, London, 1980
The idea of establishing an alternative newspaper publishing and printing venture in Aberdeen started when some members of a local arts and community workshop became disillusioned with their particular form of radical action. They argued that one of the key problems in any form of community involvement was the tendency for people to define their life problems as ‘private issues’, individual problems, rather than relating them to the wider social, political and economic context. What was wanted was a medium for the communication of ideas, information and examples between individuals and the community, and between communities. The original project of an information service, a newspaper and a printing service was intended to go some way towards this. The group shared an anarchistic/libertarian socialist outlook and we aimed at self-management through self activity and self consciousness. We didn’t want to make other people’s revolution for them, but to help others become revolutionaries in their own right. To this end we stressed the need for information – information about existing injustices, information as sources of ideas for possible action, information about like minded people, and information helping to relate individual experiences to society as a whole. So the idea of a newspaper was born. We also knew from others’ experience that a stable financial base was essential, and in the anticipated absence of advertising revenue we decided to start a service press in conjunction with the paper.
Sowing the seeds of discontent
It was twelve months till the first issue of Aberdeen People’s Press appeared in May 1973. A period when our minds were definitely in the world of the ‘alternative society’ with the capitalist world only intruding when we couldn’t find property in the city’s oil property boom and when we were repeatedly turned down by grant giving bodies. In the end we found a rent free basement in a private house and were funded by the BIT Book of Visions competition, a large unsecured overdraft and a loan from one of the founding members. All this totalled £1,000, which bought some basic supplies. For the rest we used H[ire]P[urchase] and the 45 days credit then given by suppliers. By this time the core group of seven people had some clear ideas about the venture. We wanted a newspaper which people would read, free of heavy political analysis. We wanted to use hard information not available elsewhere in the press to reach people in their own areas of experience. We wanted to avoid imposing our own solutions. Our aim was to sow the seeds of discontent and positive vision. We also wanted a large and wide readership as a first step to breaking down the division between producers of newspapers and those who consume them as products. To shatter the mystique of publishing and newspaper production, we wanted to share any skill we might acquire with anyone who showed an interest and willingness to learn. But in all our discussions at this time we failed to recognise that we wanted to perform a variety of functions which were not necessarily reconcilable. With hindsight it’s possible to identify five main roles attributed to the paper: 1) Agitation. We wanted to make other people revolutionaries. 2) Service agency. We wanted to serve the needs and further the causes of powerless sections of society. 3) Education. We aimed at a ‘people’s paper’, demystifying the skill of writing and production through involvement. 4) Counter information. Covering issues not dealt with by the local and national capitalist media. 5) Communication/entertainment. We wanted the paper to appeal to its readership and to be enjoyed and appreciated by as wide a range of people as possible. A look at several of the issues which confronted us during our three years’ publication will show how these different roles created tensions and made our search for a clear sense of the paper’s identity difficult.
Agitation or communication?
Soon after we started publishing there was a major split in the ranks. We had attracted a number of radically minded people who saw possibilities for furthering their own revolutionary aims. After a few months, and with some rancour, a number of them left. Their main complaint was that the paper was not sufficiently radical, since their prime commitment had been towards the paper as an agitational agency. The core group felt however that it was necessary to wean people away from the status quo, and were wary of being too explicit. The people we were trying to reach got most of their ideas from capitalist institutions. We didn’t want to be dismissed as ‘revolutionary freaks’. We wanted to subvert the superstructure rather than confront it, and to achieve this we had to get people to read the paper. This highlighted the recurring problem – how open should we be about our political beliefs? If we were too open wouldn’t we frighten off our potential readership, thus defeating our communication role? But we would also frustrate another aim – that of getting a wide range of people involved in the production and running of the paper – the educational function. As an open group we were available to be used as a resource by all kinds of people. One person who caused us some problems was a conservationist who thought that Enoch Powell was the greatest thing since sliced bread. We stared off printing his letters, but eventually found them so politically unpalatable that we sacrificed our commitment to being ‘open’. Jesus freaks, divine lighters, Labour Party followers, social workers, community workers and real ale enthusiasts were just some of those who sought to use the paper for their particular purposes. In the paper itself we tried to provide comprehensive and regular coverage of campaigns and projects embarked upon by many different groups. This was a reaction against the capitalist media and its practice of focussing on an issue one day, only to forget it the next: issues are treated like products, to be attractively packaged and sold, and then discarded. Repeatedly, however, we found that this aim of servicing other groups by extended coverage conflicted with our commitment to other goals – such as our belief in producing an interesting, attractive paper. For example, a group of residents got together to oppose a scheme to demolish their houses to make way for an inner ring road. We took up the campaign and publicized their meetings and activities. But sustained coverage of this battle didn’t make for interesting reading to those not directly affected. In time we became aware that many groups just used us as a resource, with no greater commitment to the paper than that we helped them pursue their own specific aims. With this awareness grew a realisation that the paper could have its own interests. This was brought home to us when we faced a conflict between our role as a service agency and as a counter information service. We had obtained from some social workers a story about a serious dispute between them and the Director of Social Work. The social workers asked us to run the story in support of their struggle, only to come round just before our deadline to demand that we hold back. Running the story would damage their cause, they were not prepared for confrontation with their boss, and their future prospects would be damaged… We agreed in the end to their wishes. But in the discussion afterwards we saw more clearly than ever that the paper had its own interests and priorities. We should not always take our direction from other groups.
Contradictions of an ‘open’ policy
This discussion took place at a time when we finally began to realise some of the contradictions between our different goals. We had consistently sought to involve people in the running of the newspaper and in nearly every issue extended an invitation to interested people to contact us. But we never really resolved the problem of how to cope with them when they did come round to help. We were caught between the interests of our readers and those of the group producing the paper. This conflict, between putting out a regular, readable, accurate paper and the attempt to demystify the skills of journalism and production, showed itself in a number of practical ways. Time devoted to passing on the rudiments of design and paste-up only clashed with the pressures of deadlines. Neither commitment was kept very well. When we involved newcomers in writing and editing articles we ran the risk that their political position would be at odds with our own. We also increasingly aimed to produce a paper with a definite style and professional appearance. As a result, our initial concern to bring in previously inexperienced people inevitably suffered. It soon became obvious that what we lacked was people with the kind of journalistic skills to turn in a variety of news stories on time. We were coming to depend more and more on ‘armchair’ stories – lots of good opinions but few original facts. Our agitational role became dominant and there was a much greater emphasis on the standard campaigning issues of the day – reflecting national leftist attitudes at the expense of local coverage of the North East’s oil boom, distorted labour market and overburdened social services. It was ironic that this coverage declined when it did, for we had some months previously published a substantial pamphlet on the oil industry in North East Scotland. This detailed factual report (Oil over troubled waters) had been a considerable success and made some members of the group feel that the longer research and production schedules of a pamphlet better suited our skills. It would also generate fewer conflicts than producing a paper. There was more time for discussion, a clearer division between producers and consumers, and less emphasis on the physical production that had always been a major source of problems. However, this line of thinking was only one of the factors which led to a decision to cease publication of Aberdeen People’s Press in the summer of 1976. We had still failed to resolve the differing commitments of the group to the various goals we had set. Three years of trying had taken its toll, and in the background was a crippling financial loss. Even at its demise the paper was selling 1,600 copies a month and sales were rising. But production costs had become excessive, and the more volunteers we took on the more the paper lost.
Printing, an essential subsidy
But if that sad equation showed the problem of trying to change society in the midst of a capitalist economic and social structure, then the same conflict faced the main income-generating activity of Aberdeen People’s Press: the printing service. Right from the start the printing service was an essential part of the project, providing an all-important subsidy. But it was also intended as a ‘service’ press for other radical groups and as an experiment in workers’ self-management. Because of its service function, the printing organisation developed differently from the paper, which was an open group. We had customers who, despite being ‘sympathetic’ or radical, expected us to meet our deadlines and to reach a certain standard of work. We also bought our supplies and equipment in the capitalist market, with its rising prices. These pressures meant that if we were to survive we needed regular income from our work – and to get work we had to provide a good service. We also had to replace equipment and pay wages. In short, we had to operate as a commercial enterprise. This was difficult to reconcile with the non-commercial ethos of the newspaper: it used human resources like there was no tomorrow. The paper never paid wages but the printing had to and did. And that gave those working on the printing side a longer term perspective which in turn led to a clear division between the two ‘wings’ of the project. For a time this was heightened by geographical separation, when the newspaper moved into new premises in advance of the printing. About nine months after stopping publication we attempted to restart the paper with a different organisational structure – this time based on clear responsibilities. There would be an editor, news editor, features editor, distribution, advertising, etc, each person responsible to a collective who would decide editorial policy. This group was to be a closed group so that everyone could know who did what and new people would be given proper attention to bring them into the group and acquire skills. There was a good response to the proposal and a lot of enthusiasm. But in the end it didn’t get off the ground for lack of ‘journalistic energy’ – we had people enthusiastic to do all the other jobs, but not enough people to go out and get the stories. This reinforced the move by the remaining publications group towards pamphlets and books.
Pressures for a formal structure
Since then the structure of Aberdeen ¨People’s Press has become more formalised as result of several different kinds of pressure: 1. Democratic control. It had always been felt that those who actually did the printing should control its day to day running. In the end, the organisation of the printing was split off from the publishing and this greatly increased the print workers’ job satisfaction and scope for employment rights. Such needs had always been difficult to pursue in a mixed collective of paid and unpaid workers where the full-time workers felt it ‘greedy’ to demand even basic rights like holidays. It also left a well defined group in complete control of the publishing. By this time we had started on a series of labour history pamphlets and books, a report on the Equal Pay Act in Scotland and another on local child care provision. 2. Financial pressure. We had worked now for four years with old worn-out equipment with no real thought given to replacing it. But paying reasonable wages and replacing the equipment had become two of our main priorities. To get any kind of finance (other than grant aid, which our political aims made very difficult) we had to sort out who we were legally; and to get finance either from HP companies or from [the] Industrial Common Ownership Fund, we had to define who was a member of the company. This made the distinction between the printing and the publishing a formal legal difference. One was controlled by paid employees, the other by a looser voluntary group. 3. Trade union pressure. In 1977, the local branch of the Scottish Graphical Division decided it was time for us to put our cards on the table. We were not members of a print union (we were in the TGWU), but we were printing for trades unions, trades councils, the Labour Party, etc. We had never been against joining a print union, but had been very wary of them in the light of some local printers’ experiences. Until recently print unions laid heavy emphasis on craft training, even in the semi-skilled small offset field, and this has excluded a great number of potential members. But now we were being offered membership, and after much discussion of the possible limitations we accepted. In particular we had to think carefully about the amount of work we did for community papers which, of course, are put together by non-union labour. Also, union membership would commit us to decent wages and conditions of employment, two things which for many years had been difficult to achieve in alternative employment, as they necessitated operating in the same level as commercial organisations. On the whole, however, print unions are willing to accept that this kind of work does not jeopardise their members’ jobs. Although there was some resistance to our membership at the beginning – because of our unconventional structure and origins – we have now developed very good relations with the union. This means that we are now a closed shop, committed to better wages and conditions for our members (in line with other printshops). In practice, though, it has not restricted our plans or our particular recruitment needs as a political co-operative.
Two defined groups
So, over seven years, Aberdeen People’s Press has sought to resolve its internal contradictions in the context of considerable external pressure. The result has been that what was once an open, only vaguely defined group, involved in both printing and publishing a community newspaper has become two much more clearly defined groups. A printing co-operative employing five people and committed to economic survival so as to be able to provide an essential service for radical groups in Scotland. And a publishing group of about a dozen people working in their spare time to produce books and pamphlets. Though the groups work very closely together, each has its own clearly defined aims and priorities. As regards the newspaper, a new community paper – Big Print – has now been running in Aberdeen for over a year. Though it has tried to avoid some of our pitfalls, it still has problems over skill sharing, quality, volunteers, money and the balance between political education and news. One solution has been to work with a very small editorial group and to rely on contributions from like-minded people outside the team. But it’s still grappling with many of the conflicts which seem endemic to community papers.
(Article reproduced with the permission of the authors)