Using newspapers for genealogy

The United States used to be a country of newspapers. Just about every town had one, and they all made money, not only by selling newspapers, but by selling advertising. In fact, some newspapers only made money by selling advertising, distributing copies for free.
Advertising didn’t just mean ads for businesses: People paid money to announce births, marriages, deaths, and sometimes even the comings and goings of their family. To find those, you’re going to need a good idea of dates, the name of the town, a healthy dose of patience, and a little luck.

I’m Mike O’Neill, and in this video, I’m going to cover how to search for newspaper items of genealogical value in just five minutes.
If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to find what you need on one of the big websites that index and image old papers: I prefer GenealogyBank.com, but Newspapers.com is good as well. And that’s where you should start, of course.

But the numbers aren’t good. Newspapers.com touts more than 7,400 newspapers, but there are over 19k towns & cities in the U.S., and another 15k unincorporated communities. You can bet most of those towns had at least one newspaper at some point.

Just consider my hometown, Princeton, which has two newspapers today: the Town Topics & The Princeton Packet. Then there are two small regional papers, the Trenton Times and the Trentonian, which cover the Trenton metro area, which includes Princeton. I could go even further: when I worked on a congressional campaign for New Jersey’s 12th district, we followed a dozen newspapers which covered central New Jersey news, including dailies from Philadelphia and New York City.

Finding the little paper that covered your ancestor’s town may take some work, so you should be willing to

  1. call up existing papers and local libraries to find out where microfilms are kept.
  2. use inter-library loans to get microfilms, &
  3. work with small volunteer historical societies that made the effort to preserve their local paper.

Let’s take an example from my own research: finding a 1929 obituary from Crofton, Nebraska—current population 726. I had no luck with newspapers.com or genealogybank.com, so I searched the web, and discovered the Crofton Journal. I rang them up (it took a few calls) and was told that the paper was in business back in 1929. They suggested the local library. I called them, and they let me know that the Nebraska State Historical Society was my best bet. And they were: I got the obituary I was looking for.

I’ve since learned that Family Search’s Research Wiki is a good resource for identifying repositories and records for a given location. In the case of Crofton, the wiki points right to the Nebraska State Historical Society.

You should also take a swing at worldcat.org once you know the name of the paper you want. Worldcat combines thousands of library catalogs into one database. In some cases, the publication you’ll want only exists on microfilm. Take the information you found on worldcat to your local library, and ask them to obtain the microfilm via interlibrary loan.

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