Sunday, May 30, 2021

About Those Newspapers


I've been thinking a lot lately about newspapers. After all, they are an excellent go-to source when the family we are trying to fix in our family tree seems to slip through the cracks of those decennial document years. In newspapers, we can find those elusive relatives in every column from the somber obituary page to the celebratory society page. If we are fortunate and have family from those down-home-on-the-farm communities, we even might find our relatives mentioned as who's coming to dinner, or who's visiting from out of town.

I use newspaper collections a lot in my family history pursuits. My main reason is to help complete collateral lines—those siblings of direct line ancestors whose descendants turn out to be my DNA matches. Until next year, when the 1950 census is finally released, we are mostly limited to the 1940 census when we want to round out the picture of the current-day extended family—unless, of course, those relatives got their fifteen minutes of fame in the local paper.

It's partly because of newspaper entries that I've been able, in these past two weeks, to add 126 names to my family tree—this time, with a good number from my paternal side, that missing connection to Polish ancestry from immigrants to Milwaukee. Now, my combined tree stands at 25,908 individuals. Likewise for my husband's family, where the addition of seventy nine more names yields a tree of 20,991 people.

That's not to say newspapers are my only resource for records in the mid-twentieth century. There are, of course, many other resources which are digitized and posted in genealogical websites. Those, however, can be limited by the openness of jurisdictions. I find it far easier, for instance, to trace descendants in Texas or California—sometimes even Ohio—than I can in many other states which are not as well represented in online collections. It is in such cases that newspapers become even more important as a research tool.

As much as I appreciate the research boost of newspaper collections online, though, one realization about newspapers has me concerned. Perhaps your hometown's newspaper is struggling as much as mine is to keep up their subscription level, from a business point of view. With access to the news possible from so many other outlets, not as many people rely on newspapers in their old-fashioned print format the way our grandparents might have done.

With more and more local newspapers going out of print, though, what will become of that handy resource for future researchers? We may be able to tap into free collections through digitization projects like Chronicling America—or subscribe to a number of newspaper collections online—but what will be the go-to resources for community coverage for future researchers, when print news goes out of vogue? 

I chuckle to think that YouTube videos, or maybe even vignettes on TikTok, will become the massive piles of data a future generation of genealogical researchers will have to trawl through, but there is a serious side to contemplating such a turn of events. Each medium presents its strong suit and its weak side. While newspapers brought us a blend of international news from a national perspective—and a touch of local highlights and community service items—social media may not provide the same focus. 

Those of us who are vocal on Facebook—if, in its future defunct state, it becomes preserved for historical purposes—will make our far-removed descendant researchers quite pleased at our persistent use of such soapboxes. Those of us who didn't avail ourselves of such outlets will become invisible. And lest you think that will never be the turn of events, let me remind you of online services like GeoCities, a treasure trove of information until the company went defunct.

For now, I'm quite a satisfied researcher, thanks to the system of broadcasting information via print form known as newspapers. My research goals have, in many cases, been fulfilled through those daily publications. But I am curious to think about what will replace such services in the future, and how such changes will impact future researchers' ability to find us and learn what our lives used to be like.


  1. I have enjoyed a few free weekend looking at Newspapers online. I wish there were more online...local ones!
    Hope you are ok this Memorial Day Weekend. I got a Hi from Iggy last week in my comments!!:) We are doing one day at a time here. Gene is struggling to get back to where he was before the procedure.

    1. It's interesting about those newspaper collections: some companies seem to have certain localities in their collection, but not include others. It does take some looking to find the coverage for specific family lines and locations.

      Yes, I got a "Hi" from Iggy as well! So good to see him again. Wishing Gene could find an answer about that procedure. So frustrating! But he certainly is a fighter and keeps at it, which is good.


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