Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Execution of Small Town Newspapers

If your part of the world is like ours, less ink and paper is being published that has any resemblance of the community that existed in small town newspapers of days gone by. Electronic media is probably the main culprit but coupled with corporate greed (need?) to ever increase the bottom line, their demise has been assured.

Scene18 Newspaper organizations are laying off employees, reducing the number of pages in print by half and are becoming generic given that here only seems to be ten or so newspaper journalists remaining in the world. Everything on the page seems to come from a common pool of articles created by one or two news organizations. Pool all the daily and weekly articles together and the price per word goes down when you shop from the same trough.

Today, we rarely read about weddings, golden anniversaries, missionaries and who visited whom. Instead, the news organizations have created “Community Posts” sections on their websites. These sections were supposed to replace the hard copy weekly publications that we’ve loved for generations, but alas, they are nothing more than headline grabbers from the normal paper sprinkled with an occasional community concert, play or scout activity notice.

Gone are the papers we loved for generations. Gone are the informative articles that were like manna to genealogists.

Looking back through my own research, almost all of the ‘knowledge’ about the lives and personalities of my ancestors came from small town papers. At first glance, I thought that their surviving letters and notes probably had the edge, but on closer inspection of my files, it quickly became apparent that my memory was wrong.

I love touching my collection of letters and notes because my ancestors touched and created them. That alone has a big impact on how I perceive them as data mines and probably biased my thoughts that they provided the majority of the personality facts about my ancestors. In truth, most of my knowledge about them came from the thousands upon thousands of small town newspaper clippings in my files.

My mother was a perpetual newspaper article clipper with a determined focus on any that contained information about family and friends, near and far. A few years before her passing, she asked what I wanted from her estate. The answer was easy. Her genealogy and the newspaper clippings. In my opinion, nothing else had value by comparison. The clippings were significant additions to my own family history research documentation. The smell of the clippings has gifted the atmosphere in my office and genealogy library rooms in our home with the patina of old newsprint and documents. The hard core genealogists among us know that we’d rather smell that scent than the most expensive French perfume.

Knowing that the pages of the small town papers were dripping with much more information than mom had collected, I called the editor of the small town papers in our area a couple of years ago hoping to wrangle access to their storage library. With some vehemence, he related that the new owners, a national chain of mid-sized newspaper titles across the country, had ordered all of the old papers be trashed. Gone were the 100 plus years of the American Fork Citizen, the Pleasant Grove Review, the Lehi Free Press. “Trash the 'd___’d” things right now while we watch. We need the room for other things”. He was still as sick at heart as I now felt.

I argued the act was a capital crime in my book - that I’d have stored them myself - that I’d have digitized them for posterity out of my own pocket. How could anyone be so blatantly stupid to destroy them? Pound for pound, page for page, the small town newspapers contained the richest content in that medium for a genealogist. Now the old brittle yellow pages have turned to compost at the local land fill.

Small town newspapers of old will never be recreated in the modern world. Our times are too full of identity thieves, privacy laws, and the sons of Satan who feed on society through theft and deception. A current day recreation of the folksy articles in the old papers would be too inviting to these miscreants. We already have to guard homes during funeral services for family members because the bad guys know that the family will be gone at a set time and date. What would they do with the details found in stories of days-gone-by in a current day setting?

Fortunately, not all of the old papers have been lost. Many colleges and other entities are digitizing some of the old papers and making them available to us through the web, libraries and other similar venues. If you haven’t taken the time to find them and explore their content rich pages in your own ancestral quest, today would be a good day to do so. Don’t just read these words and nod in agreement. Dive in and find the genealogical Gold that awaits you in their pages.

In an earlier post I wrote about making the ‘Essence of New Mown Hay”. I wish someone would create the scent of yellowed old newsprint. A puff or two during our electronic forays into the old papers would add the aroma required to enhance the research experience. Add a weathered old page or two of a current day newspaper for texture, turn the lights low and clutter your office. Ahhh…. the cozy feel of researching old newspapers like it used to be in “the good old days”.


Paul Jeffko said...


Our company, SmallTownPapers, is currently digitizing 30 million pages of small town newspaper content back to the 1800s. We are scanning over 300 small town newspaper titles from 48 states.

Our collection of historical archives (about 2.5 million pages) is available on (subscription). About one million pages are also available on Google News Archive search (free, but difficult to browse).,1846411&dq=

Our complete collection to date, including current editions, is now being added to (subscription).

Visitors to our site ( can access the currently published edition free (about 8 weeks after publication).

Thanks for your great article!