Newspapers: A Brief History, the 5 Ws & Why I LOVE Them

Introduction: In this article, Scott Phillips explains why newspapers’ use of the “5 Ws” is tremendously helpful to genealogists. Scott is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services.

A Brief History of Newspapers

Thank goodness the world of news reporting switched from hand-written Avvisi—which were some of the first hand-written newsletters that appeared in Europe—to the first printed newspaper, or Bao zhi—which was printed in Beijing, China, in about 1582 during the late Ming Dynasty. Ever since their mass production began, newspapers have been a staple of our lives and they are certainly one of the most valuable resources we as genealogists can access, learn from, and utilize in our genealogy research.

The Five Ws of Newspaper Journalism

However, the real reason newspapers are such wonderful and useful resources in genealogy, I believe, goes all the way back to Hermagoras of Temnos, a 1st century BC Greek rhetorician. According to my limited research, this fellow is credited with being the first person to propose the importance of what has now become the mantra of good newspaper reporting: the “5 Ws.” So let me here and now say: thank you, Hermagoras of Temnos, on a job well done!

Still taught today, the 5 Ws of “who, what, where, when and why” remain the gold standard of good journalism.

The more one thinks about it, the more obvious it may become that this mantra fits better than O. J.’s glove when it comes to our family history work. It is also why my family tree is chockablock with information and articles from

My Great Grandfather Was Robbed!

One particularly interesting example of the 5 Ws at work is the article I found on my great grandfather from an 1898 newspaper.

Vicha Held Up, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 24 November 1898
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 November 1898, page 3

As you can see, the very first sentence offers me all 5 Ws by telling me my great grandfather (even giving me his employment for good measure) was robbed for a loss of $1.35 on Forest Street on Tuesday night. There you have all five: Who (Joseph Vicha), What (robbery), Where (on Forest Street), When (Tuesday night) and Why (for $1.35). I love that this old newspaper article has lots of great genealogical information and a nifty snapshot of a day in the life, albeit a bad one, of my great grandfather.

My Cousin’s Home Was Attacked during a Strike

Another example of the 5 Ws being clearly presented, although not in the first sentence of the article, is one I discovered about my cousin in a 1911 newspaper.

Woman Declares Life Is in Danger, Plain Dealer newspaper article 30 September 1911
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 September 1911, page 4

This historical newspaper article describes how my cousin Anna Tussel’s home was attacked during the confrontations over a garment workers’ strike (her house was sprayed with tar, “blackening the windows and doors”). This article provides another snapshot of an ancestor’s life and gives information on her home address at the time, and more.

The use of the 5 Ws can also be a huge help in ruling out similarly-named folks, through the reporting of addresses, middle initials, employment, and more.

My Sister’s Wedding

Plus every so often you can also get a little treat closer to home, as I did when I was working on a branch of my in-laws and a newer article caught my eye. This article from a 1967 newspaper treated me to a nice account of my own sister’s wedding. Given that my brother-in-law and his parents have now all passed away, it was especially nice to get all the information contained in this old newspaper article.

Karen Phillips Married to David Berry, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 June 1967
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 June 1967, page 117

So dig into those newspaper archives and when you find your next great article join me in thanking Hermagoras of Temnos!

17 thoughts on “Newspapers: A Brief History, the 5 Ws & Why I LOVE Them

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Ruth! The only drawback is how much fun I have reading all the articles, the news of the day, looking at the pictures and enjoying the old prices in the advertisements!

      Keep on lookin’!


  1. What a wonderful article about the importance of newspapers. In fact, it’s so good I’m sharing it with my genealogy students by posting the link on my blog and in my syllabus.
    Thank goodness for great newspapers and reporters.

    1. Thank you very much for the kind words, Miriam! I am flattered to be included in your course work as a resource. I just can’t get enough of newspapers and how much they can add to one’s family history, family tree, and genealogy. Cheers to you for teaching and thanks again!

  2. I have NOT found newspapers to be a good source at all for my genealogical research. The reason is that perhaps 90% of all US newspapers are not archived, especially smaller papers which would have been a truly useful source, are not online. I used to subscribe to, but found not one single relevant article, marriage announcement, obit, etc. Also, most papers published in the US for European immigrants (Polish, German, Russian) during much of the last century are also not archived.

    So if your ancestor was a poor European immigrant, and not living in Cleveland or NYC and the like, there’s very little out there in newspapers.

    1. Bob P, I hear you! Certainly not all of my ancestors were ‘news worthy’, but a surprising number were even if only for court cases, obituaries, probate, and an occasional run-in with the wrong end of the law. I have found much about my ancestors from the newspapers at times.

      I must admit I have not used so I am not sure what their coverage is, but I know GenealogyBank has over 6,500 newspapers in their database, over a billion articles, and cover all 50 states. While not every newspaper is here, there sure are a lot of places covered that are smaller than Cleveland and New York. I have family in Northern Minnesota and find many articles from Duluth and the surrounding area when I am working on that line.

      So don’t give up on newspapers would be my advice!

      Thanks for a great comment!

      1. I disagree, newspapers are very useful. So much more is online and more available all the time. If you can’t find any online, try to find someone in the city of your ancestor to do a newspaper search for you. Also check the local societies and libraries. I was lucky to find obits thru both and also found someone to do a search and only paid a tiny fee for him to send me obit copies.

  3. I love the old newspapers. Part of the trick to success is to choose your search parameters wisely. No luck with John Smith? Try that unusual name of one of the survivors/relatives instead. Don’t limit yourself to obits – wedding/engagement articles and the social news of the day (who was visiting who from where) can provide valuable clues. And while you might not find great grandpa’s obit in the city where he died, you just might find it in city/town he used to live in – or the city where he visited his children! Be creative and enjoy what you find – it might just lead you to even more clues. (Also, don’t forget to browse if you have a date. Search engines are not perfect!)

    1. Merllene, You make some great points! I once found an obituary in a newspaper several counties away from where my ancestor lived and died, but the only newspaper to report his death was in the town he visited when he sold cattle from time-to-time!

      Also remember to use that magic * wildcard to help with spelling craziness and the like.

      I’ll only add, too, that once you find one obit, don’t stop! I have found obituaries written in different towns that hold differing information, all of which can be very helpful.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Sometimes it pays not to be too specific in your search.

    In newspaper research, I find it pays to research articles using only the last name . This turns up articles about relatives I had not yet identified or articles about known relatives that have a misreported first name.

    For some reason or other my father’s first name (Roger) was misreported in the city directory as Damase. When our apartment was destroyed by fire, the reporter must have obtained my father’s name from the city directory, not my parents. The reporter said the fire started in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Damase Peloquin. Had I been researching only for the specific name Roger Peloquin, this article would not have been delivered as a result of my search.

    And yes, it wasn’t in the newspaper of the city where we lived, because they have not yet released their microfilm to an on-line database. But, it was found in the newspaper of nearby Springfield, Massachusetts.

    So, if you haven’t found what you want in a specific search, make a more general search and expand your horizon.

  5. I often use only the location and last name and no dates when searching the newspapers. It is surprising how often articles on other family members have come up. Fortunately for me, many of my ancestors lived in Philadelphia which has a lot of newspapers archived. Hopefully many of the smaller town papers will be archived in the future, not everyone was from the city.

    1. Good point, Phyllis.

      I, too, have often found articles that were ‘out of date’ based on an ancestor’s lifetime. Someone might have been reminiscing or a journalist doing some background.

      It is great fun to see more and more newspapers from all over America being added to the databases, especially at GenealogyBank. I see they have even added some German language papers and I hear a rumor that some of the old Czech newspapers are coming sometime too!

      It would be fun to see how they scan all of these wonderful resources, eh?

      Thanks for reading and good searching!

  6. Right you are, Cecile!

    As the famous architect Mies van der Rohe said ‘less is more’ and while it sure worked beautifully for his skyscrapers, it also can work beautifully for us in our searches!

    My biggest brick wall, my great grandfather Joseph K. Vicha, has been found under Vicha (and many spelling permutations), Joseph, Joe, J.K. John (never knew why on this one article), and Anna’s husband, Joe.

    You are certainly right!

    Keep on keepin’ on, good luck, and thanks for reading!

  7. How do you ask info from a newspaper for the 1770’s and later if you don’t know if there were any for where they lived. We have ggg grandparents that were supposedly born in Raleigh, Wake Co., NC in 1775 and 1787 respectively. They are a brick wall for our whole family and some have been looking for over 30 years. The problem is probably because of the many changes in county lines and even state lines or there may not have even been any newspapers for that time. Please help!!!!

    1. Hi Sherry, You have some great questions and I have to admit I do not have all the answers, but I’ll try! First, I do know that the first newspaper in North Carolina was published around 1751, so there might be newspapers from Wade County in the 1770s. The following site has some good information on North Carolina newspapers if you haven’t seen it:

      Plus the State Archives might be able to help

      Oh and Wake County GenSoc if you haven’t as well

      You may well know all these already, but JIC!

      I have made some queries with colleagues in North Carolina and will post here when I get responses.

      Keep up the good search and good luck!


  8. Scott, enjoyed this article and all the comments from the different bloggers. I have been searching a large JONES family that settled in Virginia and moved on down to Georgia. There are a lot of brick walls but I am enjoying reading the old newspapers and read a lot of articles not even related to my family because I find such interesting stories. Of course, this slows down the search for all my other ancestors as I am searching both maternal and paternal sides of my family. I love also reading articles on more recent family members who have also passed on and who they visited, marriages, engagements and even an article on a second cousin that is still living and who has stayed in touch with me from our teenage years. The articles was about his 16th birthday party and listed names of those attended. My father was an only child but I got to know a lot of his aunts, cousins, 2nd cousins, etc. It started with my tagging along with my grandparents to visit their families, reunions and funerals. I loved them all and kept trying to represent my Daddy’ s side of the family as long as I was able to attend. My paternal parents and grandparents always lived together. Just wish now I had asked more questions and wrote down information but never realized I would be tracing all my family. I had to draw on my memory from all the stories I heard growing up. My grandfather was from a family with 12 children from a first family and the second marriage with a young wife younger than some of his older children and 6 more living children. Of course, names I heard them called were not always the names listed on the census records but were nicknames. Some of the older ones, I still have not figured out but certainly enjoy searching and oh so happy when I figure something out. Thanks for listening. I am 77 but this keeps my mind occupied and with something to do to occupy my time.


    1. Phyllis,

      Thank you for the kind word and reading along! I have to agree that genealogy is a GREAT hobby! Congratulations on keeping it going strong at 77! My mom is 93 and doing the same …. great to see! I, too, spent a lot of time growing up going to family gatherings, funerals, etc. and I think that got me hooked, but good! Plus I looked for years for my Aunt Polly only to finally discover in an old letter stuck in a book that her name was actually Jane! Found her right away then!

      You probably know this blog, but it has lots of Jones information.

      If you haven’t seen mine at check it out too.

      I have the same ‘weakness’ you do when it comes to the newspapers! I love the news, advertisements, and even the old advice columns — oh and I have found some great recipes too! You are right … it makes the going slower, but OH all the more fun!

      Keep up the great work and I hope to keep hearing from you in future articles!


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