Using Newspapers in Historical Research
Newspaper articles provide valuable information about both current and past events. They can be particularly effective in placing events within the context of their times.
As with information from other sources, it is important to verify information recorded in newspaper articles because: "hard news" items, or current news and events, may be more accurate than editorial columns. Some newspaper editors or columnists have a particular slant that colours their interpretation of events; an error made in one article may be repeated without question in later articles; or paid announcements are submitted to newspapers for publication—these advertisements obviously are trying to modify your behaviour.
When reading newspapers for research, it is useful to consider: 1. What are you looking at: an article, editorial, business column, announcement, obituary or advertisement. 2. In what section of the paper is the article located? 3. Who wrote the article? 4. Is the newspaper's political stance relevant? 5. What were the sources of information for the article?
Let's take a look at an article from a 1911 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin:
Caption: The Great Western Garment Co., Ltd. Edmonton Bulletin, Anniversary Edition, 1911, p. 120. Credit: City of Edmonton Archives.
Question: What you are looking at? Answer: An article, although it may be a type of "infomercial", something GWG paid to have included in the newspaper.
Question: What section of the paper is the article in? Answer: This article appeared in a special Anniversary Edition, so its tone is celebratory.
Question: Who wrote the article? Answer: There is no by-line, so we do not know.
Question: Is the newspaper's political stance relevant? Answer: The Edmonton Bulletin was founded by Frank Oliver, a Liberal politician and federal minister, but the article appears to be objective.
Question: What were the sources of information for the article? Answer: No one is quoted in the article, but it appears that much of the information came directly from the company (e.g., objectives, trademark).
The article provides a glowing account of the first year of operation of the Great Western Garment Company; this was typical of boosterism from the period. It provides useful information such as a list of the key people involved in the company, what it produces, and how it has grown. The facts are accurate, but they may have been embellished.
Working with Existing Newspapers
If you need information about a research topic, you could send a letter to the editor or a press release to publicize what you are looking for, or you could contact a specific columnist who you think might write an article about your research; they are often looking for story ideas. You never know what might turn up.
Newspapers have their own libraries, or "morgues" where they keep clipping files and photographs. Sometimes they will do research for you or, if you are very lucky, let you do the searching yourself. Unfortunately, most newspapers are no longer independently owned, and local papers do not always have as much freedom to determine the use of their material as they once did.
Where to Find Old Newspapers
Local newspapers are usually available on microfilm in the public library. If your library does not have microfilm, or does not have the particular newspaper you are looking for, you can borrow it through an inter-library loan. Some libraries, archives and museums keep original copies of their local newspapers. Unfortunately, these copies are usually not indexed, and it may take a long time to find relevant articles unless you are looking for particular dates.
Selected provincial and municipal archives maintain newspaper clipping-files related to local history. Some have indexed local newspapers to make them easier to search.
There are also a number of sources for newspapers online:
Our Future/Our Past: The Alberta Heritage digitization project: http://www.ourfutureourpast.ca. You can search by location and date to find the newspapers you are looking for. These cover the early history of the GWG, from 1911 to the mid-1930s.
Most newspaper websites display current articles for only 30 to 60 days, so they may be of limited use. The Globe & Mail is one exception; its website archives articles from 2000 to the present. Digitized copies of the Globe & Mail dating from January 1844 to December 2003 are available through some public libraries, but you need a library card to access the database. University libraries are also a good source of newspaper databases.
When digitized newspaper articles are found online, they are often viewed separately from the newspaper in which they first appeared. Because of this, they are less informative than an actual newspaper. For example, it is impossible to identify relationships between other articles on the page which might be of significance. Sometimes photographs are left out, so important information may be missing. However, digital articles are easy to access and search, so they can save you a lot of time.