In the Paper- The Value of Using Newspapers in Your Research

The activity for Day 18 of the Family History Connection experiment is to write about traditons. I could do that. We do have some traditions – Christmas Eve, peach and plum cake baking in the fall, and… um… uh… Honestly, I’m kind of at a loss on this subject. Shameful! Not only can I not think of any other traditions at the moment, I spent ALL DAY organizing my computer files so I can work more efficiently on the project about my great-grandfather.

But… I did find this lonely blog post that’s been languishing in my draft folder for a year or so. Therefore, today I am going to share how one tiny newspaper article led me on a three-year journey. Hopefully, you’ll also gain a little knowledge regarding the value of using newspapers in your family history writing. (Family!!! Please share with me any traditions you can think of. I’m going to blame “Covid-brain” on my lack of awareness.)

Quite a few years ago, I stumbled across a post on an Ancestry message board. After reading this post, it was obvious to me the newspaper article was referencing the divorce proceedings of my husband’s great-grandmother, know to the family as Catherine C. FitzAllen.

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I figured I’d read this one article and have an interesting tidbit I could add to her story. Little did I know that I would eventually locate over 250 unique articles and write a book about her escapades!! (Unabashed plug here.)

Throughout the research and writing process I learned a ton! Despite the fact that “fake news” had yet to be invented, newspaper reporters in the late 1800s certainly took more liberties than we can today. Name variations and inconsistent spelling also presented some problems in assuring that I was reporting the story as accurately as possible.

Here’s a bit of what I learned:

No One Newspaper Site is The One You Need

I found the majority of articles using my subscription to Genealogybank.com. But, I also accessed Newspapers.com, Fultonhistory.org, ChroniclingAmerica.gov and a bunch more. The site you should use is the one that has the papers you need!

How do you figure that out?

  1. Make a list of the locations your ancestors frequented. Include their residences as well as places of business. You might also consider including the locations of close relatives on that list. I was able to determine a kinship relationship through a little snippet I found in a local paper from 1885, “Master Willie Dillon of Albany, NY is spending the summer with his cousin Miss Kittie Seeley at 1110 Penn Street.”
  2. Check with the various sites to see which ones have the papers you need. An easy way to do that is to visit The Ancestor Hunt website and review the lists for each geographic area you will be researching. This website also identifies where you can find certain papers for free! Of course, Cyndislist is also a fabulous reference for lists of newspapers.

Be sure to check out your local library’s website. Sometimes you can access certain papers for free if the library has purchased a subscription. Also consider using social media or sites like Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. I have asked people in various geographic areas if they would be able to scan certain articles for me (from the original paper.) I have seen more than a few poorly scanned newspaper articles. When a scan is unreadable, the only option is to obtain the original!

Downloading the Scanned Images

  1. Never use an image you clipped from a paid website! I am referring to downloading images from a newspaper (or any site for that matter) and then using it on your blog or in your book. While the original material is owned by the newspaper, the scanned image is the property of the company that scanned it. That applies to work that is out of copyright as well. The copyright of the original text or image may have expired long ago, but the copyright of the scanned image is likely to be quite recent. If you are using the scan for personal use only, you’re probably fine but be sure to record the complete citation. More times than I would like to admit, I forgot to record a page number or a column number only to have to revisit the website for that info later on.
  2. Download the scan as a PDF or JPG depending on what your end goal is. If you’re planning to insert the article into a document, then downloading it as a JPG will be best. If you plan to transcribe the article, especially if it’s lengthy, downloading it as a PDF will be more readable.
  3. Another reason to save the scanned image is newspaper sites change contracts periodically. If they drop a certain paper from their site, you won’t be able to access it. Genealogybank.com no longer carries the Kansas City Star nor the Kansas City Times. If I was searching now, I might never have found the hundreds of articles that formed the bulk of my book! Good timing, I’d say!
  4. Cite your source! On some sites, when you download as a PDF, all the identifying information you need for a citation is included, usually above the article. In my zeal to gather as much “intel” about my most recent project as possible, I sometimes forgot to enter the information into my research log. Some of the newspapers I accessed were pretty obscure and it took me some time to find them again. In other cases, I “saved” an article without documenting the source because ” it didn’t really fit what I was looking for.” Then, a few weeks later, I realized there was in fact a connection. Backtracking again! (That is why you enter everything into your research log – even the negative searches.)

Be consistent in naming your downloaded articles. This took me some time to learn. I name all my articles by person, date, newspaper name, page, website. You may decide to leave out the name if you’re putting all the files into one person’s folder.

Example: SEELEY_Catherine_1889_07_10_ChicagoTribune_p2_col4_genbank

Yes, I know I don’t have to use underscores anymore. I’m old. It’s what I do. Why do I include the name of the website? In this example it is Genealogybank.com. I finally discovered that trick helps me locate the article again if I did forget to write it down.

Uh – oh – I guess I never did finish this post… perhpas that’s why it sat in the Draft folder so long. I know I was going to add some tips about transcribing newspaper articles. I’ll post that at a later date. For now, I’m going to “sign off,” with apologies to those who were expecting another family-oriented post. We will see what tomorrow brings!! (Maybe I’ll remember some more family traditions!)

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