Journalism history – the utopian press

All alternative media serve to educate, socialize, promote and represent the special interests they cover and the utopian press is no exception.  Just as the black and women’s press attempted to represent and report on topics either ignored or ridiculed by the mainstream media, so did the different utopian publications; just as the black press tried to elevate its readers through education, socialization and promotion, so did the utopian press attempt to attract and encourage members.  But because utopian colonies faced such ignorance and mistrust from the outside world, promotion and representation were essential-especially for the outer-directed utopians looking to recruit and spread their beliefs.

Utopians often based their lives around new and radical ways of thinking-thus, it was necessary to educate themselves and others about these beliefs in order to adhere to them.  The Phalanx, for example, taught the tenets of Fourierism through essays and translations of Fourier’s works.  It is doubtful such information would have been readily available from the mass media or at libraries, but in order to run a phalanx colonists needed to know the precise rules Fourier provided.  Because so many utopians rejected city life and asked members to live closer to the earth, utopian publications no doubt spoke to former city-dwellers on farming, industry and how to survive.  The single modern-day example given in the book, The Whole Earth Catalogue, is a good example.  In addition to news about new theories and communities information and tools for self-sufficient living are available.

Because many of these colonies were so different from mainstream life and were based on specific principles or ideals, socialization was the key to keeping members on track and training new members to live in the society.  The press is a logical conduit of socialization; people base their opinions on the information they receive, and if within a colony they receive powerful essays in support of that colony’s particular beliefs, they are more likely to believe themselves.  Quite often the utopian press would socialize and educate at the same time, teaching about the theories of the movement but also applying it to everyday living and interaction, showing colonists how they should live their lives according to this scheme or that.  The Owenite New Harmony Gazette, for example, focused on the philosophy of human perfectibility rather than the day-to-day business of the colony-quite unlike the mainstream press, which is usually more concerned with events than themes or ethics.  Brook Farms’ The Harbinger was devoted to Fourier’s idea of social reform and very motto, “the elevation of the whole human race, in mind, morals and manner…[by] orderly and progressive reform” is virtually the goal of socialization in general-to change people for the better (“elevation” and “progressive reform”) by teaching them how better to live with one another (“morals and manner”).  Virtually any time a publication attempts to educate it is also attempting some socialization, and socialization is the key tactic toward most utopians’ stated goal of improving society.

Utopian publications, especially those in outward-directed colonies, attempted to promote their views and communities as well.  This served several functions: for both inward- and outward-directed colonies good public relations was the key to recruitment.  Though the outward-directed colonies were much more concerned with spreading the word, none could or did survive long without a steady influx of new, excited members who were willing to work hard toward the perfect societies they thought possible.  Also, many utopians had very radical ideas, including celibacy, community marriage, community property and nudity.  The only way to avoid fear and mistrust from the surrounding world was to promote the communities’ ideas as not really that bad and dispel rumors that they were immoral or satanic.  The Dial, not based in a specific colony, promoted the Transcendentalist ideals nonetheless, reaching a highly influential and literary crowd and making it mark upon American art and literature for generations.  Editor Margaret Fuller expressed The Dial’s reader-friendly public relations strategy as follows: “I trust…that this journal will aim, not at leading public opinion, but at stimulating each man to judge for himself, and to think more deeply and nobly.”  The assumption being, of course, that if everyone deeply considered the matter for themselves the validity of Transcendentalism would be apparent.  Just as The Dial helped spread Transcendentalism beyond the small group that founded it, countless other publications attempted to spread their beliefs to the outside world: The Industrialist Christian tried to spread Christian Socialism beyond Hiawatha Village, Oliver Verity believed the key to Home’s success lie in publicity for the colony and it’s philosophy.  And the Oneida Community turned to public relations out of self-defense, having already been chased out of Vermont by angry neighbors.

Finally, just as the mainstream press claims to represent its audience (as a watchdog on the government and a forum for editorials, for example), the utopian press attempted to represent the philosophies, colonies and people it covered.  There were two main goals for this representation: reporting news that concerned the group but would not be covered by other media and to give colonies a voice against detractors.  We see many day-to-day examples of the former kind; The Harbinger covering Fourierist conventions that would not get covered by traditional news sources, the Oneida Circular publishing John Noyes views as well as community news.  But though Horace Greely’s Tribune was receptive to new ideas and utopian theories, it was the exception not the rule, so utopians often found themselves fighting negative public perceptions without an established media outlet.  That, in fact, was why the Onieda Circular was founded-to dispel rumor and fight negative publicity about their ideas on community marriage.  The BCC’s Industrial Freedom was a forum for socialist ideas that could not have been discussed through normal channels.  Representation and promotion were often tied very close for the utopian press.

It is apparent with just the examples given in our book that the utopian press performed all four of the familiar functions of the alternative press.