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Skillbuilding: Using Newspapers Effectively


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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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 was overlooked.

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 course.

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 source.

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 names).
  • 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 settlements.

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 them!

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 good friend!

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) <http://www.
    newspaperabstracts.com>
  • 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] <http://www. nytimes.com>
  • 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.
    utexas.edu/collectioncomponents/littlefield.html>
  • 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 <http://statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/tss/newspape.htm>

Selected References
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 newspaper guide.]
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 Supplement. In volumes.
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 Company, 1992.
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 House, 1985.
10. Neagles, James C. The Library of Congress: A Guide to Genealogical and Historical Research. Salt Lake City: Ancestry Publishing, 1990.
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, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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