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 that big change, 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 family history work.
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 W’s”. So let me here and now say, thank you, Hermagoras of Temnos on a job well done!
Still taught today, The 5 W’s of “who, what, where, when and why” remain as the gold standard of good journalism and as a result good newspaper reporting.
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 GenalogyBank.com.
One particularly interesting example of the 5 W’s at work is in the article I found on my great grandfather in the Plain Dealer published in Cleveland, Ohio on November 24, 1898 with the headline “Vicha held up”. As you can see the very first sentence offers me all 5 W’s 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. I love that it has lots of great information and a nifty snapshot of a day in the life, albeit a bad one, of my great grandfather.
Another example, although not in the first sentence of the article, is one I discovered titled “Woman Declares Life is in Danger” and published again in Cleveland, Ohio but on September 30, 1911 in the Plain Dealer. This article describes how my cousin’s home was tarred due to her membership in a Union and her participation in a garment workers strike. Nicely, it provides another snapshot of the life of this ancestor and provides information on her home address at the time and more.
The use of the 5 W’s can also be a huge help in ruling out similarly named folks, through the reporting of addresses, middle initials, employment, and more.
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 one from June 18, 1967, in the Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) again, that 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 article.
So dig into those newspapers and when you find your next great article join me in thanking Hermagoras of Temnos.
So leave a comment and tell me ….. how do you use newspapers in your genealogy work?