We may think of newspapers as sources of objective reporting on current events, but they are so much more complex! Newspapers record historical events, but they do so in a way that reflects the concerns, opinions, and debates of their communities, which may be local, national, or international. Furthermore, a newspaper is also a business, a platform for advertisements, and a commodity for sale. Thus, while we can rely on newspapers to relay the latest news of its time and place, that news is a filtered version of everything that happened, framed in such a way to meet both the goals of the paper as a business and to capture the attention and interest of a target audience of readers.
When interpreting newspapers, consider the following:
This method of newspaper analysis is adapted from:
Let's test our skills by analyzing the following front page of a historical Florida newspaper.
Here is the front page of the Morning Tribune, a newspaper published in Tampa, Florida, from June 4, 1898. FSU Libraries provides access to historical issues of this newspaper to current FSU students, faculty, and staff through our subscription to ProQuest Historical Newspapers: U.S. Southeast Collection.
Click the image to open a PDF that allows you to zoom in on the image. The PDF is also full-text searchable.
Try to answer each question for yourself about the social context, format, and content of this newspaper page before clicking each question to reveal my interpretation.
Next we take a closer look at selected articles on this page for further analysis.
Newspapers are organized by their place of publication, so the best way to find them is by city, state, or country. For newspapers in the United States, the Library of Congress's Chronicling America is the best resource to discover the newspapers that were published across the country. As we saw with the Morning Tribune in Tampa, name changes were very common. The Library of Congress records each name change as a separate entry, but the description of each paper usually includes a note on the previous or succeeding titles.
You can also discover newspapers by searching the library catalog. Combine the city, state or country you need along with the keyword "Newspapers" and you should get a list of available newspapers, both on microfilm and digital. Look for the dates of publication to determine which newspapers will cover the time period you need.
Keep in mind that newspaper coverage about Florida doesn't have to be published in Florida. In fact, there were very few Florida newspapers until the mid-nineteenth century. Consider looking in other important newspapers of the time for mentions of Florida. For example, during the colonial period, you might find important coverage of Florida in the newspapers of Charleston, South Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; London, England; or in major population centers of the Caribbean like Cuba or Jamaica.
Digitized newspapers are spread out across multiple databases, some of which FSU Libraries pays for, others are made available for free. Sometimes even the same newspaper title can be split among two or more databases, with older dates in one resource and newer dates in another! Pay attention to the newspaper titles and date ranges provided by the following databases.
It is important to recognize that newspapers are not public services; they are businesses that sell their product and provide advertisers with access to a target audience. Throughout American history, that audience has consisted mostly of white, middle- and upper-class readers. As a result, members of marginalized groups often maintained their own newspapers to provide news and advertising to their communities. There have been many such newspapers in Florida, catering to Black, Latinx, Jewish, and other reading communities. The Seminole Tribe of Florida also maintains a newspaper, the Seminole Tribune, published in Hollywood, Florida.