Newspapers have a history almost as old as writing. Early civilizations carved their public announcements on stone or metal and posted them in public places. Once paper was invented, multiple copies of hand-written messages could circulate important information. From the 17th century, pamphlets and newspapers printed with movable type spread information faster, easier and more cheaply. This opened up possibilities for private individuals to make public announcements, in addition to articles about events of interest to contemporary readers.
Newspapers are usually published on a regular basis and most concentrate on a geographical area of interest to readers. Newspapers rapidly became significant sources of information for their communities. Today the digital age makes access to this information and thus their communities so much easier.
How can a family historian take advantage of newspapers?
Look and you shall (or might) find
Lost a branch of the family in some distant place? Write a "letter to the editor" for the newspaper covering the area where an ancestor lived, asking for descendants to please contact you. You might find your lost relatives or someone interested in the same family lines. Some newspapers have a specific section dedicated to enquiries about family members.
Find which newspaper to contact via http://www.onlinenewspapers.com and even email the letter.
Think laterally when you searchIn addition to stories about national and local events, newspapers carry information about births, marriages, deaths, funerals and obituaries, society events, missing persons, shipping announcements and passenger lists, shipwrecks, petitions, examination results, advertisements, trial records, court cases and inquests, government notices - the possibilities are almost endless.
A family history can be so much more interesting than just a series of names and dates, and newspapers can provide fascinating stories to add to your family chronicle. Sometimes look for more details about an event you know to have occurred. Look for information you cannot find anywhere else - think about "might a newspaper have had reason to mention this?" You might confirm (or refute) a legend passed through the family, or turn a 1-line entry in a genealogy into a human-interest story.
Some newspapers specialise, or have done so in the past - a local newspaper might give detailed accounts of local events whereas you might be better consulting a national newspaper or government gazette for government announcements. In a city with more than one newspaper, one might be more likely to have a Personal Announcements section.
Don't limit yourself to only thinking of local papers. When the new colony of New South Wales was founded, it was some years before a local newspaper was regularly produced. In the meantime, reports about the new colony appeared in newspapers around the world, especially in the London papers. (In the days when news was carried by ships, remember that there might have been significant delays before the "news" reached the press.) Even today, newspapers still carry summary reports of significant overseas events.
You probably (should) have a healthy scepticism for the accuracy of newspaper reports. However newspapers give contemporary views about what was happening in the world. Our ancestors saw and reacted to those same reports and advertisements - this might help us understand their reasons (for example) for migrating.
Don't limit yourself to searches that mention your ancestor by name. Much can be learnt about our ancestors' lives by reading about what was happening around them. However, sometimes our ancestors are mentioned by name, and a newspaper report might provide the details of the story.
Where should you look?
Libraries have been microfilming newspapers for years, and you might need to visit state or national libraries or specific newspaper repositories to see the films. However the "digital age" is making it easier to research ancestors who lived a long way away. Many newspapers have their own digital archives, sometimes only for recent years, but some extending hundreds of years.
The (London) Times Digital Archive, 1785-1985, is part of the Gale Research Collection (or Gale Digital Collection). It is fully searchable record of every page of The Times (London) for those 200 years. The Gale collection also includes other 19th Century British newspapers as well as the 17th-18th Century Burney collection of British newspapers. See http://www.gale.cengage.com/DigitalCollections/.
You might be able to access this wonderful collection of historic newspapers without cost. Although the Gale Collection is available by subscription, it is often freely available at home for those with a library card for their respective national, state or county library. In the US, the Gale Collection also includes 19th century US newspapers and is freely available through many major state libraries, specifically for residents of that state. Check the website of your national, state or provincial library's digital collection, to see if they provide access to the Gale Collection.
In some countries, national libraries or major institutions are digitising historic newspapers. Those interested in New Zealand can search "PapersPast" (http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz), a wonderful collection of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals from 1839-1920. In Australia, the National Library is digitising Australian newspapers from 1803 to 1954. Papers already copied may be accessed via http://newspapers.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/home.
In the US, the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) and the Library of Congress are undertaking the National Digital Newspaper Program, to "create a national, digital resource of historically significant newspapers from all the states and U.S. territories published between 1836 and 1922". Papers currently available can be seen at the Chronicling America site at http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.
There are other digitisation projects underway, some national and some for specific newspapers. Some collections cost to access and some are freely available. The subscription site Ancestry.com has over 1,000 newspapers searchable in their historical "Newspapers and Periodicals" section. You can also search over 145 million historical newspaper articles in GenealogyBank's Historical Newspapers Collection (1690 - 1980) www.genealogybank.com (subscription required). Sites such as Footnote www.footnote.com and WorldVitalRecords.com have searchable collections.
Don't forget to check library catalogues for books, CD-ROMs or microfiche indexes compiled from newspaper sources, for example - personal notices or shipping arrivals. There are also websites with indexes compiled from newspaper sources.
Sometimes a newspaper reference to an event might be your only evidence to the presence of a family member, or contain information about an ancestor that you could find nowhere else. Other times you know that something significant happened to an ancestor, and might find a detailed account in a newspaper.
In summary, you might not know in advance what is there to be found, but be assured that delving into newspapers, both past and present, will be richly rewarding - and electronic access makes it so much easier than it was. What are you waiting for?