“She shot him! Right in the middle of the street!” That exclamation unintentionally—and perhaps rather loudly—escaped my mouth one day while researching a patron’s family member. My public library coworkers were instantly intrigued, and a new legion of newspaper searchers was born. Newspapers provide a vital look into the past for the people of the present. Since time machines do not (yet?) exist, daily papers are our best tool for taking the names and dates attached to our ancestors and making them flesh.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, genealogy has gotten even more popular. Suddenly homebound people have more time to explore the recesses of the past. Fascinated by pictures dug out of old scrapbooks and names unearthed from records, they need some way to find out more information about their newly discovered family members. Even the Wall Street Journal has noticed this surge (wsj.com/articles/covid-coronavirus-lockdown-genealogy-family-tree-history-ancestry-11594659103; subscription required to read the entire article)
Genealogy depends heavily on newspaper research to peel back the many layers of what makes up a life. From the births, deaths, marriages, and divorces to the awards and achievements, arrests, accidents, graduations, and other milestones, newspapers often chronicled it all for voracious readers. Modern researchers need access to those articles to understand their lineages and the times in which their ancestors lived. Not surprisingly, companies have monetized that access. Two of the largest digitized historical newspaper databases, available both to libraries and individuals at a relatively inexpensive subscription rate, are Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchive.com.
Newspapers.com claims to be the largest online newspaper archive. Its homepage announces that it adds millions of newspaper pages each month, with a total currently sitting at more than 629 million digital pages. While the homepage says that the site contains more than 20,000 papers, the page dedicated to those papers had the number at just more than 18,500 as of the end of 2020. The database is marketed to historians, genealogists, researchers, and teachers, seemingly at all research skill levels.
The website is owned and operated by Ancestry.com LLC, which was acquired for $4.7 billion in August 2020 by the private equity firm Blackstone Group (blackstone.com). Newspapers.com debuted in 2012 as a part of the Ancestry platform that subscribers can add for an additional monthly, semiannual, or yearly fee. Subscribers can choose to subscribe only to the newspaper platform and not to Ancestry itself.
There are two different subscription tiers to the database: Basic and Publisher Extra. (See the Price Comparison table below.) The Basic subscription is the cheaper option and offers access to more than 189 million pages. However, what the platform does not tell the user up front is that these papers are all older, with access cut off in 1922, or, in some rarer occasions, 1963. The Basic plan only offers newspaper images that are already out of copyright.
To access newer papers, from 1922 or 1963 up through the previous month of the current year, users must pay for the Publisher Extra subscription, which was introduced in 2016 (blog.newspapers.com/introducing-publisher-extra). This subscription, at more than twice the price of Basic, offers access to everything the lower-tier plan does with the addition of 439 million more pages that are licensed from publishers who own the current copyright.
To make these papers available, the company must convince publishers and libraries to send them copies, often microfilm. Newspapers.com offers to digitize them for free in exchange for gaining free access to the digital copies by the publishers or libraries.
The layout of the site is user-friendly and aesthetically appealing. The homepage that shows for those not yet subscribing makes clear that the site is owned by Ancestry—the branding creates name recognition. Searchers are not overwhelmed by too many buttons or options. Navigation for search, browse, papers, and clippings is located at the top of the page, with a search box in the center.
Researchers can search for information by location, date, paper, or keyword. They can then narrow their search with the advanced search by combining these elements together. If the advanced search is missed, which it easily can be if you are not specifically looking for it or are not familiar with similar search engines, it is still relatively easy to narrow results with the items on the left of the search results page that indicate geographic location by list and map, newspaper titles and numbers of hits for each one, and date by decade or year. You can also hide marriages and obituaries.
Launched in 1999, NewspaperArchive.com is the older of the two databases. It is owned by Heritage Microfilm, Inc., based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The company’s mission is to be the leading provider of historical newspapers. Available papers span 1607 to almost the present and encompass more than 15,000 titles. Newspapers are digitized from all 50 states and 28 countries outside of the U.S. It claims to add 2.5 million pages per month, on par with the addition rate of Newspapers.com.
The price of subscription is very similar to that of Newspapers.com, though there are no tiers of access. Users can choose to pay monthly, biannually, or annually for different savings levels. However, no matter the length of subscription time, users get immediate access to all materials in the collection.
The site, redesigned in December 2020, now features bold contrasting colors and a prominent basic and advanced search. Though the site is not explicit about who its intended users are, given the types of information highlighted on the homepage, it seems its marketing appeal is focused on genealogists and family history researchers. The homepage indicates that newspapers are a source of information about births, deaths, marriages, divorces, arrests, murders, and reunions, which is the type of content that would most often appeal to amateur researchers; however, all of this information, along with access to it, is also crucial for professional historians.
NewspaperArchive.com has two slightly different versions of the same product, depending on where access originates. The personal subscription site looks a bit different from the institutional access site, such as you would see if logging in via your library card. The features are generally the same, but the layouts are somewhat modified on each site. In addition, in order to save clippings when using the institutional version, you must set up a free account. Unfortunately, the site does not prompt users to make an account; therefore, if this fact is not known, clippings that are not immediately downloaded onto a local computer are lost.
The site has a name indexing feature and prominently links to an obituary search, although its efficiency is lackluster. Regular searches can be performed by location, date, publication, or keyword. The site has a fantastic advanced search tool.
Both websites feature a large number of newspapers, but they are distributed across different states. A comparison table showing, as of January 2021, the number of papers for each site’s top states appears below in alphabetical order.
Searching on Newspapers.com is not as intuitive as it is on NewspaperArchive.com, where advanced elements are spelled out in common language and displayed prominently in the early stages of the search process. Both sites allow the use of quotation marks for keeping phrases intact, but the advanced search on NewspaperArchive.com makes it simple for researchers unfamiliar with Boolean operators to use them without even knowing it. For example, the search boxes on NewspaperArchive.com include those for first and last name, with all the words, with the exact phrase (replicating the use of quotation marks), with at least one word, and without the words. For ease of navigation and the best specificity in search, the NewspaperArchive.com layout is the better option.
Both sites feature obituary searches and obituary results, since often genealogists and family history researchers rely on these types of written records to give clues about people’s lives. However, neither site does a great job of making the tool particularly useful. In multiple attempts to search for an obituary I knew existed, neither site could locate it via the NewspaperArchive.com obituary search or the Newspapers.com obituary tab. Upon performing a normal keyword search and going through the results, the obituary was located. However, it never did show up specifically on the results marketed as “obituaries” in either database.
A feature of Newspapers.com that outperforms NewspaperArchive.com is its highlighting. When a search result is clicked, the keywords are highlighted on both platforms. However, Newspapers.com zooms in on the appropriate article and takes the user’s eyes straight to the information source. NewspaperArchive.com takes longer to load and forces the user to manually zoom in on the article of interest.
Newspapers.com also includes the date of the paper at the top of the digitized image and allows the user to click the date to navigate to other nearby editions without replicating the entire search.
Digital clipping is available on both platforms, and each has unique strengths and weaknesses. On Newspapers.com, articles of interest are sometimes pre-selected for easy clipping because they have been previously clipped by another user. When the clipping is clicked, you can see the username of the account who originally clipped the article and when they did so, adding an interactive element to the research and making it possible for you to potentially connect. NewspaperArchive.com has a pen clipping tool that makes it easy to select only the parts of the page the user wants to save. The only option when cropping a clipping on Newspapers.com is a simple rectangle, which results in the inclusion of extraneous material in your clip. NewspaperArchive.com also has a section called the Treasure Box, where users can make folders to organize clippings, which is a slightly more useful format than the basic clipping tools on its competitor’s site.
Both databases allow users to control the brightness and contrast of digital images, search for other terms within a page, share results to social media, email, or save as a PDF or PNG file. The social element of newspaper search is enhanced on Newspapers.com by it being a part of the larger Ancestry world. Connected users can view each other’s clippings and easily send them to one another, expanding and layering their family trees together with research from the written record.
How to Choose
Before deciding to subscribe to either database, it is crucial to determine if the site actually has the paper title and editions you are most interested in searching. Furthermore, just because the site says it has the newspaper does not mean it has the years you want or the editions you need. Without subscribing, it is possible to click through the newspaper titles on each site and see specifically which years and editions are accessible. Just because one database has the paper you need does not mean the other will.
For example, because all of my research work is centered in Titusville, Pa., I need access to the Titusville Herald, which was created in 1865 and is still in production. Both databases count this paper among their thousands of titles. However, NewspaperArchive.com is the database I rely on more often because it provides every year of the paper from 1865 through 2017, with only a rare issue missing here or there. Newspapers.com has only 70 years of the paper across that same time period, leaving 83 years of content unavailable, and this is not counting the individual months and issues missing from each year it does have.
Ensuring that the papers you want and need are available on the site you choose is crucial to money well spent. If you need an obituary from 1966 and the site has 1965 and 1967, it is completely useless.
Acquiring access to historic newspaper publications is a critical component of complex genealogy and family history research. Some libraries provide access to the database that has more locally important papers, so checking with the public library near you is a great place to start. If your library does not have an institutional subscription, a personal subscription can open doors to a trove of information and leads for future searches. Millions of pages of digitized history are available online for perusing, making it easier than ever to grow the leaves on your family tree.