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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course US: Newspaper Records  by Rhonda McClure. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Unlike history books, family histories written years later, or memoirs, the newspapers were recording the news at the time it was actually happening. Newspapers reveal society’s manners and attitudes for a given moment in time. By the same token, the newspaper may fill a void when necessary records either aren’t recorded for the time in question or they have been destroyed by fire or other disaster.

One of the reasons that many researchers do not investigate what newspapers may be available is because they often assume that searching the newspaper requires going page by page and issue by issue. This is not always the case, and as you will soon learn, there is a method to the arrangement of the newspaper. There may be some pages that you can skip once you know how the newspapers, especially those of small towns, are arranged and published.

Like any genealogical resource, it is important that you take the time to become familiar with it. Understanding how to use the data hidden in the newspaper effectively and where to find those newspapers that are most likely to have information about your ancestors will save you time and expand your family history, taking it beyond the basic names, dates, and places.

What Can You Find In Newspapers?

Instead of asking what you can find in newspapers, it might be a shorter answer if you were to ask what you can’t find in them. Remember that the purpose of the newspaper was to disperse information to its readership. The editor’s job was to keep the town or city informed of not just what was going on in the world, but also in the country, state, county, and city.

If the editor did his job well, and most of the earliest editors were men, then you have in each issue a snap shot of history for that date in history. As you read through each issue you will see the attitudes of the townspeople and the country as a whole. You can read about politics, religion, education, social and cultural events and attitude.

With the information gleaned in the newspaper you will not only be able to share your ancestor’s own personal information, but may also be able to talk about issues that he was involved in. Perhaps he ran for office or he was on a committee to get the first traffic light put up in the town. Newspapers are almost like hopping in a time machine. They are the next best thing to being there. As genealogists though, we want information about our ancestors. When we can’t find a birth record or a marriage record, we may turn to the newspaper to see if we can find a birth or marriage announcement. Obituaries may hold the only clues to where our ancestor came from or to whom our ancestor’s daughters married, which then allows us to turn back to more traditional records to learn more about them.

In addition to vital records, there are many miscellaneous items in the newspaper that may hold tidbits of information about the families you are seeking. You may find mention of many of the following:

  •  Family news (illnesses, comings and goings, awards)
  •  Voters lists
  •  Jury lists
  •  School events
  •  Social events
  •  Church functions
  •  Fraternal organization meetings, events, and fundraisers
  •  Political meetings
  •  Gossip
  •  Biographical sketches
  •  Historical sketches
  •  Legal notices
  •  Public announcements
  •  Shipping or business news
  •  Migration news or announcements

Ethnic or religious newspapers may offer additional information specific to the ethnic or religious group. Such information may offer insight into migration patterns or to when major groups of individuals arrived.

Remember: Newspapers are a reflection of the mood of the original readers. For genealogists this offers an understanding of the public mood of the time.

Other specialty newspapers include those created for the military and labor unions. Such specialty papers will address issues of interest to the soldiers or the members of the union. You may discover that your ancestor was a member of a labor union that was struggling to improve working conditions or get the workers benefits or better pay.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US: Newspaper Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.