How the 5 Ws & FAV(orites) in Newspapers Can Help Genealogists

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how he adds his own personal touch to the “5 Ws” (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of newspaper journalism to enliven his family history research.

Recently I wrote here on the blog about how much I love the 5 Ws (Who, What, When, Where & Why) of good, high-quality newspaper reporting for my genealogy and family history work. There is little better than finding an interesting article in one of the thousands of newspapers that contains your ancestor’s name, and then topping that off by finding that the reporter adhered to the newspaperwoman/man’s mantra of the 5 Ws. Most decidedly, to me, it just doesn’t get much better than this! However, since none of us genealogy-crazy folks ever leave something well enough alone, I like to add my own FAVs to the 5 Ws. Now, while I know this won’t win me a Pulitzer or anything, my FAVs do help my family search efforts.

My FAV(orites) are this: Fun, Adventure, and Value.

First, FUN: One of my key precepts as a genealogist is that we must always keep the fun in our work. If we hope to attract the interest of others to genealogy and family history, one of the easiest ways to do this is by making it fun! Whenever I am doing genealogy research in newspapers I am reminded that my father always began his day, every day, with the funny pages of the newspaper. Although a businessman through-and-through, he said the news and business of the day could wait while he started his day with a smile and a chuckle. I have wonderful memories of my dad in his crisp white shirt and tie, coffee mug in hand, and seeing his eyes sparkling as he laughed at the funnies. So it is from these vivid memories that I keep the fun in my genealogy in a variety of ways. One of which is that whenever I am searching old newspapers I make sure to check the funnies.

If nothing else I enjoy seeing how some of my favorites have changed over the years, like good old Dagwood Bumstead of the “Blondie” comic; I found this example in a 1938 newspaper. That day’s comic featured a coal-fired furnace (like my grandparents’ home had), old-fashioned telephone switchboard (which I recall from my old hometown), and much more all in one comic. Times like this give me what I call “a minute vacation” and the fun refreshes me for the work ahead.

"Blondie" comic strip, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper 11 December 1938
Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 11 December 1938, page 115

Second, ADVENTURE: I also love discovering in old newspaper articles the adventures that our ancestors had. As a matter of fact, just two days ago I was beginning my genealogy research on the Fortelka family branch in our family tree when I discovered Frank Fortelka aka “The Bohemian Cyclone”!

Pugilism: The Cyclone Will Fight, Plain Dealer newspaper article 11 April 1895
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 April 1895, page 3

Not only did I get to follow The Cyclone’s career as a boxer, but also his career after that when he became a member of the “thin blue line” as a police officer for the city of Cleveland, Ohio. I also learned that The Cyclone was known to use his fisticuffs abilities against ne’re-do-wells in that city, often being reported to take on groups of twenty or more, successfully subdue them, and bring them to justice—with only his fists! Wow, talk about a real-life adventure and superhero! Then I got treated to his photograph, along with his wife’s picture for good measure, in a 1947 newspaper article about the golden wedding anniversary of The Bohemian Cyclone and his wife.

Ex-Boxer and Wife Married 50 Years, Plain Dealer  newspaper article 26 October 1947
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 26 October 1947, page 16

Third, VALUE: Another of my mantras in my genealogy work is to capture the persona, not just the data, of my ancestors. I believe that nothing adds more value to my family tree quite like the insight into the real persona of my ancestors that I gain from newspaper articles. I find great value in newspapers’ photographs, in-depth information, stories, and articles on the times my ancestors lived, and much, much more. The last time I looked at my family tree I found that I have more than 320 newspaper articles attached to the profiles of my family members and ancestors! Now that is what I call adding value. Of course, while I love the value these impart to me, I am even more thrilled when their value is realized by others.

For instance, whenever I get to share a newly discovered newspaper account about one of our ancestors with my 93-year-old Mother I get to see the happiness in her eyes and hear the excitement in her voice. Now that, my friends, is adding real value!

photo of Scott Phillips' mother
From the author’s collection

So tell me—what do you add to the 5 Ws in newspaper journalism as you work on your family tree?

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4 thoughts on “How the 5 Ws & FAV(orites) in Newspapers Can Help Genealogists

  1. I find it as simple as adding photos and anything from the newspaper, even if it isn’t pleasant. As soon as you have a face to look at, the story already changes and comes into focus. The newspapers can add a lot of dimensionas well when you’re lucky enough to find something.

    I have found some of the most important things I can do to make sure that my work is quality with some of the choicest finds are to look everywhere, never assume that one anyone else has researched is true until you see hard evidence, and always find a way to give back and help out with someone else’s work.Whether it be through indexing records or preserving cemeteries, or offering to teach others without expecting anything in return–I have found that my greatest breakthroughs have always come after I have helped someone else.

    1. Heather,

      You are SO right about the pictures! After searching for many, many years I finally found the first ever image of my great grandfather and OH what a joy to be able to ‘look him in the eyes’ as I continue my research!

      I also agree with helping out and paying it forward. Karma can be a wonderful thing in this work! Truly wonderful!

      Happy searching!

  2. My most treasured finds during my years of genealogy research are photos. I won’t use the word ‘discoveries’ because in most cases, I ‘found’ the pictures thanks to the generosity of other genealogy researchers who already had them. A benefit of talking to these researchers is hearing my interpretation of our family history from their perspective. They may have been directly related to, known personally, or spent time with these people, creating a more accurate mental picture.

    1. Great observations, Christine! I agree that one of the most wonderful aspects of genealogy is the generally collaborative nature of so many of us! It is delightful to get help and support from so many ‘new’ friends!

      I also wholeheartedly agree that photos are a DREAM! Few things can make me break into my ‘genealogy happy dance’ faster than finding a great photo. One reason I love the newspapers so much!

      Thanks for reading and good searching!


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