Planning Your Newspaper Search
(Finding Your Stories)

A well-planned newspaper search makes your research more effective and more fun. I'll share some of my favorite research tools to help you target your search and set your story quest up for success.

For details and suggestions, listen to this episode of How to Find Estelle, grab a copy of the Planning Your Newspaper Search Worksheet, or consult the transcript below.

Links from this episode

(In order of appearance)

Planning Your Newspaper Search (Transcript)

[00:00:04] Narrator: Estelle True-Nell was a remarkable woman. Our modern era has forgotten her, and I think that's too bad. I'd like to introduce you to her amazing life, one career at a time. Along the way, we might pick up a tip or two for ourselves, as we learn How to Be Estelle.

[00:00:25] In this episode, we'll focus on How to Find Estelle (and your stories) by planning a more effective newspaper search.

[00:00:34] I'll confess to you that one of the joys of my life is newspaper research. We are so lucky to have an amazing number of options at our fingertips these days, and yet there are still many more sources that are not online. Any newspaper search can be just plain fun, but a well-planned search can be even better, because you're more likely to find relevant sources and helpful information.

[00:00:56] I talked in another episode about playing the Name Game to brainstorm different variations, spellings, and keywords. Today, I'd like to take you through a strategic approach I've started to use to narrow in on the right places to search. I'll give you a bunch of options, and you can decide which ones appeal most to you.

[00:01:15] I'm going to put a newspaper search planning worksheet in the show notes for this episode so you can print it or copy-paste the steps into your favorite app and try it for yourself.

[00:01:22] The key is to spend a little time organizing your thoughts and planning which dates and locations you need to search for each person or topic.

Getting Started - Names and Terms

[00:01:32] So, if I'm trying to find sources about Charles L. Young and the traveling show companies he managed between 1886 and 1890, I'll start by making a list of what I know.

[00:01:41] I begin with the basic Name Game. I'll plan to search for variations on his name, including different spellings, initials, and abbreviations. If I know the name of the touring company or the names of the plays they produced, I'll plan to search for those, and because "Charles Young" is a fairly common name, I may decide to add in terms like "advance man" or "agent.""

[00:02:01] Once I've found some relevant stories, I'll read them carefully to identify additional terms like the names of cast members, advertising slogans, or names of the productions and the theaters where they played. By planning my list and adding to it as I go, I'll use clues from good search results to plan more good searches.

[00:02:18] I'm going to pay attention to time frames, too. If you're looking for news items about a specific event or date, you might plan to search through the papers a few days or a week or two before and after the event, in case family members traveled or the papers reported out-of-town guests who attended.


[00:02:35] Next, I'll list the likely places to look. When I'm looking for Charles, I'm looking for the cities where his productions appeared. I'll pay attention to news stories that report where the company played last, and where they're going next. I can sometimes find Charles in the paper in lists of people staying at local hotels or in brief items that report when he visited theater managers days or weeks in advance.

[00:02:56] For each location, I'm going to note the name of the city or town, AND its county and state. The county can be especially helpful when looking for people in smaller towns. If a small town didn't have a paper at that time - or sometimes even if it did - other towns in the area often picked up news items from neighboring communities. There are times when I find that the local paper didn't survive, but another newspaper in the area reprinted items from it, so I can still find some news about my subjects.

Newspaper Directories

[00:03:24] Once I have those initial notes about who, where, and when, I look to see what papers are available for those locations and time periods. If you are from the area, you might already be aware of your options. If not, it's really helpful to check resources like the U.S. Newspaper Directory from the Library of Congress.

[00:03:42] I often start there just to see what might be available. I'll put a link to the directory in the show notes. The Directory allows you to select a location and time frame. So, if I want to know what options were available in Kansas City, Kansas between 1900 and 1910, I'll enter state, county, and city and then set my date range. Or, I can just choose the state and county to leave my options open. From there, I see what the directory tells me and widen or narrow my approach as needed.

[00:04:08] Then, I browse through the titles for any that seem like good candidates. When I view the record for a particular title, I can follow the Holdings link to see what might be available. This isn't the only place I use to identify potential newspapers, but it's a good place to start. I use the directory to get an idea of what might have been published at the time, and what issues of the paper might have survived.

[00:04:28] I like to try free sources, next. Since I'm already at the Newspaper Directory, it's easy for me to stay with the Library of Congress and navigate to its Chronicling America site. From there, I use the "All Digitized Newspapers" tab to browse by state and see what's available online.

[00:04:44] The next directory-type site I might check is the Ancestor Hunt's Newspaper links. This site can be incredibly helpful because it connects you with a variety of places across the Web. For example, if I'm searching in Kansas, Ancestor Hunt has links to the Kansas Digital Newspapers site from the Kansas Historical Society and to newspapers from the Google News Archive. You'll also find links to newspaper collections that have been put online by local libraries. Ancestor Hunt has done yeoman's work that will help you see what's available online.

[00:05:13] I do trust that site to have great information, but I'm ultimately responsible for my own searches, so I do still look at other sites to see what else I might find. I'm doing my due diligence, but mostly, it's just fun.

Search Engines

[00:05:25] Next in my search planning, I'll go to my favorite search engine and do a search on the name of a newspaper, or I'll do a search like the name of the location and the phrase "historical newspapers" in quotes (so, "Kansas City, Kansas" and "historical newspapers," for example). When you put the terms in quotations it narrows your search to just those phrases, so do try some different combinations. Depending on your subjects, you might also look for specialized collections. In my case, I'm looking for popular entertainment and vaudeville publications, so a search will take me to sites like Old Fulton New York Post Cards and the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections, both of which have copies of the New York Clipper.

[00:06:00] I have found some useful online collections this way, and searches like those usually point me to another favorite source - state historical societies and libraries.

State Libraries and Historical societies

[00:06:08] While you're at your favorite search engine, look for the name of the state library, archives, or historical society for the states in which you're interested. From there, you can visit each site and browse or search to see what digital and analog newspaper collections they might have available. For example, both Kansas and Missouri have really impressive newspaper collections, so I'll see what's available through them for my subjects in those states. It's worth looking more broadly at these sites, too, because most of these organizations have digitized other materials that might be of interest. While you're there, look at any other lists and resource catalogs they've put online.

[00:06:43] Some of the big names in search have also digitized newspapers for us, so next, I'm going to look at Google Newspapers and at the Internet Archive to see what titles and date ranges they have available. I'll put links to all of these in the worksheet and the show notes.


[00:06:57] Once I've looked at free resources, I'll turn to fee-based newspaper databases. Remember, you might have access to some or all of these for free with your library card from home, or at a computer at your local library.

[00:07:08] I have become hooked on newspaper research with a few of these sites, but before you invest your money in a subscription, definitely check with your local library, and check each service's coverage to see what they have available. If you do think you might want to subscribe, you can often find a free trial for a few days to explore some of these sites to see if they really will be helpful to you.

[00:07:29] On each of these sites, you can search or browse by location to see which titles and date ranges are included in each database. I'll put links to each site's collection list in the show notes. Going in alphabetical order:

[00:07:38] - You can use the Ancestry catalog to determine what newspapers and newspaper indexes are available. I'll confess that I don't usually think of Ancestry first for newspaper searches, but there is information available, so it's worth a look. Ancestry is connected to both and Fold3, so if you do have a membership or have access through your library, it's worth a look.

[00:08:00] That also reminds me of FamilySearch, which is free, although you'll need to set up an account. I wanted to mention that to you here because the FamilySearch Wiki has links to other online newspaper collections beyond the ones I'm profiling today. I also like to check the FamilySearch Catalog and search for specific places to see what resources are available. Depending on the city, I do sometimes find newspaper- and periodical-related information. People have published indexes and excerpts from local papers, so there could be a book of obituaries or birth announcements from the town paper for a specific time period.

[00:08:32] There are three fee-based newspaper databases that I consult regularly for my research. Depending on their coverage, you might find one that works especially well for you. The fee-based sites I tend to use are GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive, and Each one has an online coverage list showing the newspapers and date ranges they offer. While you're exploring, it's also worth looking at any pages they have offering search tips. For example, does the database let you use wildcards to search for variations on the spelling of a word?

Analog Searches

[00:09:02] As I mentioned in the previous newspaper episode, it's important to plan for non-digital searches, too. Look for local libraries and genealogical and historical societies for your areas of interest. You may be able to reach out through social media, email, or their websites (or even by phone, if you still do that). You can often consult with a volunteer to find out about what each group has available. It's not realistic to assume that they'll do your research for you, but they can talk with you about what resources they have to offer, and some may be able to help with specific research questions for a fee. They can also help you plan a visit to do research on-site if that's a possibility.

[00:09:38] When you're looking for libraries, you might also want to check WorldCat. It's an online catalog that helps you search across thousands of libraries. You can search for specific newspaper titles, or you can search for keywords like "newspapers" and the name of the city. From there, you can narrow your search by format. WorldCat might clue you in to indexes or other research works that might be of interest, too.


[00:09:58] After you do some planning and explore your options, you'll have a more effective plan to guide your searches, and that should make the really fun part - searching - easier and even more rewarding.

[00:10:09] When you think through your research questions and plan a strategy, you can expand and target your options. That should increase the odds of finding what you're looking for. Start with the name game, add in details about places and time periods, and then see what's available. That will give you a great start and it should set you up for some productive and very fun searching.

[00:10:28] Next time, I'll share some ideas about tracking your searches and watching for updates as new material comes online. Happy planning, happy searching - it's a key part of our strategy as we learn How to Be Estelle.