April 7, 2016

Tips for Newspaper Research

by Natasha Hollenbach, Digital Services Technician

A New Resource

Announcements celebrating the availability of the new online resource Montana Newspapers have been circulating the past couple of weeks.  Between this resource and Chronicling America, now over 600,000 pages of Montana newspapers are available digitally to all.  As wonderful as that number is, it’s only about 8% of published newspapers in Montana.  While ideally anyone doing newspaper research would have the time and ability to come to the Montana Historical Society, we know that digital collections are the primary resource for many.  Given that, I thought I’d introduce you to a few ideas on how to avoid the pitfalls of searching online newspapers. 


Problems with People

There are many reasons why individuals appear in newspapers.  Some of them are good: travel, community involvement, school activities, married, or proved up for a homestead.  Some are bad: unusual accident, involved in criminal activity as victim or perpetrator, failed to pay taxes, or died.  In other words, not everyone will appear in the newspaper even if they lived in a small community.  Maybe they just led a nice quiet, uncontroversial life.

For those who do appear in newspapers, it’s important to remember that newspapers are created by people.  Reporters spelled names as they heard them, so when searching for individuals consider other spellings or how it could have been misheard.  Were they known by their middle name or initials?  Lastly, when you find mention of a person matching the name you’re looking for, check the details.  Are they from the area you think they lived in?  Are other people, especially family members, mentioned in the article?  Chances are there are multiple people with a given name so the person you find might not be the person you’re looking for. Last year I did a post about A.J. King who lived in Kalispell, but when searching I discovered that there was another A.J. King who lived in Missoula.

The AJ King I was looking for
The Great Falls Tribune
August 1, 1919
Not the AJ King I was looking for
The Daily Missoulian
December 27, 1914

One last consideration for names concerns how newspapers were put together.  Early newspapers were set one letter at a time and the finished article had to fit in a given space, so often names were shortened.  William became Wm., just as Joseph became Jos.  Last names starting with Mc or Mac were sometimes shortened to M’.  The software powering both of these interfaces is very literal.  It searches for exactly what you type into the search box.  For example if you search for MacDonald, any newspaper article which spelled it M’Donald won’t be in your results list. 

Remember When: Events

Often event names are assigned retrospectively.  For example during the Panic of 1893 no one used that phrase in their reporting.  Other times it’s a matter of differing perspectives.  We had a student in the Research Center last summer researching the Marias Massacre.  She reported that she had been using Chronicling America (which was gratifying), but she hadn’t found any coverage of it in the available Montana papers (which was concerning).  After trying multiple search terms, I discovered that the reason she hadn’t found anything was because the Montana papers didn’t consider it a massacre.  Instead I found their coverage by searching for Colonel Baker.

The New Northwest (Deer Lodge)
April 8, 1870
Choosing Your Search Terms
The biggest challenge is determining the correct terminology for your search.  Technological, social and transportation changes all had significant influence over the terms used in newspapers to describe what was happening.  Advertisements are perhaps the clearest way to see these shifts.  To meet this challenge, background reading on the time period or topic will usually provide terms that can be used for your newspaper search.  Another valuable resource is the Index to Advertisers in Montana Newspapers. Created by one of our awesome volunteers, the index includes the store, the people associated with it, the newspaper, city, date of ad, type of products, and the text of the ad. At this time it includes the Yellowstone Journal (1882-1891) and The New Northwest (1869-1885), but the index is an expanding work in progress.

The New Northwest (Deer Lodge)
Nov. 11, 1869
The New Northwest (Deer Lodge)
March 4, 1881


Newspapers are often called the first draft of history.  That’s a good description when reading historic newspaper articles.  However, when searching for articles, I think of them more as a time portal back to the week of publication.  In order to get the most out of the newspapers, you have to put yourself into the minds of those who created the content.  How would they have described the world around them?  How did the current events affect them?  What were their biases and worldview?  What questions were they trying to answer?  Sometimes a name is all you need for a successful search, but you really realize what an amazing resource the newspapers are when you search with these questions in mind.