Using Newspapers Effectively
- Newsletter of the BCG
Shelia Benedict, "Using Newspapers Effectively,"
OnBoard 9 (September 2003): 20-22.
It is difficult to imagine the readers of a certifying
body’s newsletter needing to be reminded about the
effective use of any source. The reality, however, is that
all of us should review basic skills from time to time.
There are many instances when looking over a checklist of
sources for a particular project reveals one or more had
been overlooked or, at the very least, those on the list
required reexamination to be absolutely certain nothing
Regarding newspapers in particular, they can be very useful
sources of information, especially when other resources
or their repositories have been destroyed through a variety
of events, natural or otherwise. Newspapers are a compilation
of other sources: interviews, public lists, events, and
so forth. Not always reliable? Of course not, but are all
other sources reliable? When using data from any documents,
it is always important to remember that what lies within
the pages has to be verified for accuracy.
A researcher should never settle for one article in the
newspaper about any given event because there may be more
written on following days. For example, an obituary search
does not end if just one is found not long after someone
has died. Further, should the researcher be convinced that
all the information is there—when and where died,
relatives, the cemetery and funeral home? Not necessarily!
A thorough search requires looking for that obituary on
every day possible from death to burial and often some days
beyond. Why, you might ask, would I need to do that? The
answer is simple: On one day the information is correct,
and on the next errors have been made.
A classic example is taken from an astute student of mine
several years ago. She searched for an obituary and when
located, found it listed the two descendants, a son in the
military and a daughter whose name was listed as Frances.
She continued the search and, when reviewing obituaries
published the very next day, a second article listed only
the military man and mentioned he was currently serving
in France. Which one has the correct data—a military
man in France or two children, one of which was named Frances?
The inconsistent findings made further research necessary.
The point to be made here is that had the researcher stopped
with only one day’s obituary and considered the search
a success, it would have been sheer folly. What if the wrong
obituary was used to further the search? Would that not
confuse and alter the search pattern, causing erroneous
data to be posted to a particular family? Further, looking
for Frances could have resulted in weeks, months, or even
years of wasted time only to find she that did not exist.
Another example is the case of a man who was born in one
state, lived in another, and died in a third. Would obituaries
or news articles be available in more than one locale? Of
If newspaper research seems difficult, or at least time
consuming, it is often made that way because of errors found
in the newspaper itself or by the researcher who may have
noted the wrong date or location, causing a great deal of
wasted time looking in the wrong place. In addition, some
researchers confine their searches to only one newspaper,
thereby neglecting additional data that may be found in
other articles on the same subject.
Note: As with other sources of information, newspapers have
definite limitations. Check their reliability, information
sources, completeness, and objectivity.
Why research in newspapers?
For one thing, they are printed public memoirs of community
events, meaning the information genealogists require may
often be found within their pages. Further, as mentioned
above, when a disaster , such as fire, negligence, or destruction
of public records takes place, newspapers act as a replacement
Where can newspapers be found?
Most libraries, public and private, as well as many historical
and genealogical society collections have compiled indexes
and/or microfilm collections of newspapers from the larger
cities all over the world. Public libraries in local areas
are the best source of small community newspapers. There
are publications for general circulation and also religious,
ethnic, and specialty publications.
When were newspapers available?
Newspapers cover many generations, ethnic backgrounds, and
religions in all areas of this and other countries. In this
country, there are scattered collections dating back to
the early 1700s, although those may be difficult to locate,
so some identifying information is important to have, such
as the time period or locale involved.
How can one access newspapers?
There are directories of old newspapers that can supply
the names and locales where and when they were published.
Important to note is that not all newspapers were or are
printed daily. These directories usually list the publication
schedule and even data about the locale, start date, publisher’s
name, and political bias.
Further, on-line sources are essential. One easy site is
<www.newspapers.com>. Once there, choose a category:
US newspapers, trade journals, business publications, and
more. In addition, many public and private libraries have
their catalogs on-line.
What is found in newspapers?
The following information can be discovered in newspapers,
bearing in mind not all categories are in every paper. Included
are companion articles that should be read in conjunction
with vital notices.
- Births. Official lists naming parents (often the mother’s
first name is not included), when born and name of child.
Also, families often put a formal announcement in a local
paper and those include a lot more data (grandparent names
on both sides of the family, maiden name of mother, sibling
- Marriages. Official lists are brief (name, date, not
much more). Again, family articles can contain a variable
amount of data. They may be brief or lengthy (complete
list of the wedding party, special guests, minister).
Local papers are the best source; often sent to a locale
where a family might still have relatives.
- Deaths. Varies from a brief death notice to full obituary.
A death notice usually has minimal information (name of
deceased, date of funeral, mortuary), and not much more.
A full obituary is usually a paid announcement, so can
include generations of relatives or just the immediate
family and may even include cause of death. Certainly
the cemetery, date of burial, and funeral director will
be listed as well. Again the best source is a local paper.
Many of the news articles, especially those for births,
engagements, marriages, and deaths, end with a brief notice
requesting that publications in other locales pick up this
announcement. This is a definite clue that there is family
in those areas to search for. Further, if one or more parties
to a particular event is or was a prominent person in the
area, a reporter or editor might write a news item about
the people involved.
Companion articles (used in conjunction with vital notices)
include church news, christenings, confirmations, engagements,
banns or bonds, anniversaries, probate filings, and estate
Beyond Vital Records
- Land: land sales, farm sales, claims,
homesteads, delinquent tax lists, sheriff sales
- Legal: lawsuits, civil and criminal
trials, divorces, guardianships
- Feature stories: family reunions,
oldest resident with interview, family or whole congregation
relocations, organizations, politics
- Immigration/naturalizations/citizenship: Ship
arrivals and departures, travel news, vacations
- Military: enlistment, discharge, promotion,
injury and deaths, military organizations
- Church: new minister, Bible school,
events, locale moves, organizations
- Advertising: physicians, dentists,
lawyers, organizations, morticians, churches, new businesses
- Entertainment: vaudeville, plays with
actors listed, stage and movie news
- Early history: slave sales, temperance
unions, witch trials, floggings, indentured servants
- Other: fashions, hobby, society pages,
disasters, “Remember When:” (ten to fifty
years ago), fraternal organizations, undelivered mail
- Specialties: ethnic, religious, business,
and other specialized publications
- Indexes: examples: New York Times,
Sacramento Bee “fiche” abstracts, microfilm,
newspaper collections, and the Internet
A number of books have abstracts, extracts, or transcriptions
of newspaper articles spanning times and place. For example,
in Karen Green’s Pioneer Ohio Newspapers 1802-1818
(Galveston, Texas: Frontier Press, 1988), The Ohio Gazette
extracts give enough information for the researcher to decide
whether an article is worth reading. To locate the correct
issue, Green includes the date, volume, and page number.
Another example is compiler Jill Garrett’s Obituaries
from Tennessee Newspaper, (Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical
Press, 1980) in which obituary abstracts are alphabetical
by the surname of the decedent, followed by the name of
the newspaper and date of publication.
Remember to review everything in the article, obituary,
or legal notice. Make absolutely sure nothing that gives
clues is overlooked. If you find an article that has photographs
attached, those could be the only pictures available. Cherish
Effective use of any source means that you never view it
in isolation. Consider it part of your total body of work
and compare the information found with everything else you
have collected. Analyze and verify using those other sources,
and when satisfied with your results, record it accurately.
Effective use of newspapers requires checking every word
for clues to the family and, of course, attempting to locate
a trail to other sources within the printed article. Then
occasionally smile—newspapers can be a genealogist’s
On-line Newspaper Sources (please note
that URLs are subject to change from day to day)
- Library of Congress (LOC) (Catalogs of Newspaper Holdings
on the Internet) <http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/news/newscats.html>
and Newspaper Indexes/Archives/Morgues <http://lcweb.loc.gov/rr/news/oltitles.html>
- Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) <http://www.oclc.org/oclc/forms/pisearch.htm>
- Newspaper Abstracts: An ongoing project (before 1925)
- Current Newspapers <http://www. naa.org/hotlinks/index.asp>
- New York Times (current back to about 1997); [Similar
websites may be found for other current newspapers everywhere]
- U.S. Newspaper Program <http://www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html>
- Journal and Newspaper Databases by Name <http://www.library.siue.edu/lib/info/jname.html>
- George W. Littlefield Southern History Collection <http://www.cah.
- The British Library: The World’s Knowledge (also
links to libraries in other countries) <http://www.bl.uk/collections/otherlib.html>
The following are individual state projects on-line. Check
your own home state or county in case a similar project
is available there.
- The California Newspaper Project <http://cbsr26.ucr.edu/cnp/cnpmore.html>
- The New York State Newspaper Project – New York
State Library <http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mysnp>
- North Carolina Newspapers; State Library of North Carolina
1. American Newspaper Directory, 1898. New York: George
P. Rowell & Co, 1898. (Printed quarterly 1869–1908).
2. Benedict, Sheila Eglit, CGRS. “Newspaper Research
Beyond Obituaries.” Ontario, CA: Federation
of Genealogical Societies and California State Genealogical
Alliance 2002 Conference.
3. Bremer, Ronald. A Compendium of
Historical Sources: The How and Where of American Genealogy. Revised ed. Bountiful,
Utah: AGLL, Inc., 1997. [This book contains a state-by-state
4. Croteau, Maureen, and Wayne Worcester. The
Essential Researcher: A Complete, Up-To-Date, One-volume
Sourcebook for Journalists, Writers, Students and Everyone
Who Needs Facts Fast. New York: Harper Perennial-Harper Collins, 1993.
5. Falk, Byron A. Jr., and Valerie R. Personal
Name Index to the New York Times Index: 1975–1984
6. Gebbie, Mark. All-In-One Directory. New Paltz, New York:
Gebbie Press, 1998. [This reference is updated yearly and
is available in hard copy and on diskettes.]
7. Goldstein, Norm, ed. The Associated
Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing
8. Green, Karen Mauer. Pioneer Ohio
Newspapers 1802-1818: Genealogical and Historical Abstracts. Galveston, Texas:
The Frontier Press, 1988.
9. Hosman, C. Lloyd. Newspaper Research. Indianapolis: Heritage
10. Neagles, James C. The Library
of Congress: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry
11. Sniffen, Irene G. “Newspapers as a Genealogical
Source.” National Genealogical
Society Quarterly 68
(September 1980): 179–87.
Shelia Benedict, CGRSSM
This article was originally published in OnBoard,
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