Lesson: Newspapers

Lesson: Newspapers


Students will:

  • compare a newspaper from 1920 or before to a current newspaper, and note at least five things that are the same/different about the two
  • conduct a search using an actual historical newspaper/online newspaper bank
  • take notes on pertinent information gleaned from the newspaper search in their “Storykeepers” notebook.


  • You will need to arrange to borrow old newspapers, either in bound or loose form. (We were able to borrow one bound volume from our county historical society that contained two years of a local weekly paper. We picked a year that we thought might mention the death of our class research person, even though we knew she had died out of state.) Sources: local historical society or library. It would be ideal to have enough copies of old newspapers for each student or teams of students to each have their own. If not, you could project a copy of one onto your smart board so you can all view the same paper. (Attached are random samples of Glover, VT news columns as they appeared in the Orleans County Monitor throughout the decades from the 1870s through the 1950s.)


2015 update: many old local papers are now available online free at the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” website!


  • A current copy of the local paper that covers your town’s news
  • Online access to a local newspaper archive.  You may find a free service in your area, such as Northen New York Historical Newspapers, or find a national free newspaper archive service, like theoldentimes.com, or you may wish to subscribe to a newspaper archive bank, such as GenealogyBank or NewspaperArchive.  (Limited trial subscriptions are usually available.)
  • Student “Storykeepers” notebooks












Social/Society column



What kinds of family history can you find in a newspaper?

  • All kinds of things, besides headline news stories, including: notices of births, engagements, marriages, deaths, obituaries, family reunion stories, military records, passenger lists, biographies, probate and legal notices, and social notes.
  • Often these will tell you more than just names and dates; you might learn occupations, residence,  birth order, other ancestors’ names and addresses, hobbies, cause of death, and history of the family and person. You might even find a drawing or photo.

What newspapers wrote about

  • In the early American newspapers (up until about post Civil War time), newspapers focused on world, national and state news. There was no television, radio or internet; so people relied on a newspaper to learn about news outside of their local area. There was very little local news in newspapers before the time of the Civil War. The news about your neighbors you learned by talking with others at the general store or the post office.
  • As the methods of producing a newspaper became less labor intensive, and towns grew in population, newspapers began printing more local news. By the 1870s, most local papers had more pages, and they devoted a good chunk of this new space to local news. Each town (or even an area within a town) might have its own column, with a correspondent hired to submit “news” items to the paper.
  • The “news” these correspondents submitted might be about a local murder, or it might state who came to visit Mrs. So and So Sunday afternoon. Sometimes the correspondents were paid by the line or column inch (so you can understand why they wanted to get lots of “news”), sometimes they received a free subscription for their work. If you are looking for “tidbits” about a person who lived after 1860, it will be worth your time to check the local paper. Even if you don’t find a mention of the person you are researching, you will get a feel for the time and everyday life in that time period. Just looking at the ads alone will show you what people were wearing, how they were traveling, what they were buying (or wishing they could buy!) and what they were doing for entertainment. And if who came to visit Mrs. So and So on Sunday afternoon turns out to be someone you are researching, it will feel like you struck gold!
  • Often local libraries or historical societies will have copies of old newspapers, either in large bound books, or on microfilm, or in digital form. Your state library probably has microfilm copies of almost every single newspaper published in your state, and some might have them in digital form.
  • There are several companies online that charge you to be able to search their online newspaper collections, and then you can copy down the information, copy and paste it (sometimes), or order a copy (for an additional charge) of the article you would like. Some state historical societies have newspaper searches that are totally free. Sometimes if you email a library, a librarian or a volunteer will be willing to look up a specific item in old newspapers for you, especially if you have a particular date to tell them.


  1. Where is our town’s news?

Look for where the town news column is located in the old newspapers. Students will notice that, just like today, editors usually tried to keep to a layout that was the same from day to day or week to week, so the readers would feel comfortable in finding what they wanted. If you have more than one issue, see if the town news keeps a familiar location from issue to issue. Notice that sometimes the newspaper had catchy names for different town’s news, for example: “Glover Gleanings”.

  1. “I see by the paper…”

“I see by the paper” was a phase people used to say to each other to start a conversation about something they had read in the paper and wanted to discuss. Have each student or team of student find an interesting news item they want to share. They will notice all sorts of other interesting things, (like ads, headline stories, or notices) that they may want to share. Students may notice and comment on the differences in what was printed in old newspapers compared with what might be found in a newspaper today; if they don’t bring it up, prompt them to discuss this.

  1. Then and Now: How is this historic newspaper different from our newspaper today?

Working in teams, have students compile a list of 5 ways the historic newspaper differ/are the same  between today’s local newspaper. As students share their lists, compile a list on the board or large paper.  (Things you might note: number of columns per page, layouts, dimensions of paper, use of pictures, language and phrases used, location of advertisements, sections, classifieds, sports coverage, local news, illustrations, photographs, price, font size, number of pages, type of news reported, themes, comics and editorials.)

  1. Let the search begin!

Now that students have had an experience with looking at an old newspaper, have them decide what dates they will search for to try and find out information about the person the class is studying, and why they chose that time period to search. (In our pilot class work, that person was Amanda Colburn Farnham Felch, the Civil War nurse who grew up in West Glover. We never did find any mention of her in the old bound volume we had, but the students really enjoyed finding and reading the Glover news column in these papers.

  1. Online searching

Now that you have searched in an actual old paper, move on to an online newspaper search. Working in teams, students used two different online newspaper archives, looking for any information about the class research person, Amanda. They took notes in their notebooks about information they found. (We did have success finding Amanda information in our online search!)

  1. Sharing what you found

Students shared the information they had found.


  • Do a readability check on passages from an old/current newspaper: how does the readability level compare?
  • Students take a news story from a current paper and rewrite it as if it had appeared in a historic paper. What would the local town news correspondent have said about it in her column?
  • The hometown news correspondents were largely women. Have students research who is writing news for our newspapers today, mostly men or mostly women, or is it equal? How has newspaper writer’s income changed over time? What qualifications would you need today if you wanted to become a newspaper reporter? Survey the staff of your local newspaper.
  • Invite your local editor in to talk about newspapers and how the local newspaper is doing. Many newspapers have lost so much business that they have had to shut down. Why? How is your local paper doing?
  • Why did personal local news items stop being printed? One man in Glover, VT being interviewed about growing up in the 1930s-1940s said, “That [the phone] was our newspaper.” What did he mean by that? Could that have anything to do with the decline of personal local news items being printed in the paper? What else might have contributed to the change?
  • “.. today [‘s newspaper] is today’s news. Tomorrow [it] will be yesterday’s news. But maybe ten years, fifteen or twenty years from now, thirty years from now, it will be the history of this town.”1 These were the words of a local newspaper editor. Are newspapers a good research tool for studying history?
  • What is “news”? The news that got printed depended a great deal on the correspondent and how well he or she covered the community…sometimes she just reported on her own relatives and friends. Some correspondents commented freely on the news, some seemed to enjoy writing about scandal, others stuck just to the facts.
  • Can you believe everything you read? What is the truth, a speech someone makes, or the letters to the editors that dispute what the speaker said in the speech? How do readers evaluate what is true/not true when reading a newspaper?
  • Have newspapers changed much over the years? One editor wrote in 1985 that if you pulled newspapers at random from the past 100 years, “you could put down the front page and you can demonstrate that news is the same. There is a war going on some place; there is political turmoil some place; the selectmen are involved with parking.” 2 Do you agree? Would his comment still be true today?




Headline Vermont, produced by Vermont Public Television, 2010; available for viewing online at http://video.vpt.org/video/

Newspapers for Genealogists Power Point presentation available on line at GenealogyBank (Roots Tech, 2012)

1, 2 “Newspapers as Historical Resources” by Norman Runnion, editor of the Brattleboro Reformer in Teaching Vermont’s Heritage: A Sourcebook, compiled by Duffy & Doyle, (Johnson State College, Johnson, VT , 1985)

Oral interview with Robert Perron and his sister Jackie Perron Kennison by Wayne H. Alexander, video tape, on March 3, 1991 in Glover, VT.  Glover Historical Society, Glover, VT.