TAKING NOTES FROM NEWSPAPERSCopyright 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University
Newspaper articles are a useful source for things that occurred in the recent past. They carry dates and often come pre-sorted by topic: local and national news, sports, business, opinion, and so on. Newspapers probably present a wider variety of information than any other single printed source, and in some cases a newspaper account may be the only source that survives. As a bonus for computer users: printed newspapers can be scanned, unlike handwritten documents or oral accounts which must be typed manually into a computer.
Newspaper articles have drawbacks, however. Newspapers present the news from a specific point of view, usually that of the publisher who decides what gets published, so the selection of topics is limited. Deadlines force reporters to work fast, so their accounts usually contain only first impressions and minimal research. Some times, they contain errors as well, so it is essential to find a second source for critical information that you use in a research paper. But newspapers provide a good way to learn about the major concerns of a given audience at a specific moment in time. Advertisements also offer a variety of information about what people bought and sold.
At West Chester University, you have access to several newspapers -- the Daily Local News of West Chester, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the University's Quad -- on microfilm, plus the New York Times in a searchable on-line database available through the WCU library web site. In addition, the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) has an extensive "newspaper clippings file" containing articles pasted onto large file cards organized by location, topic and date.
Taking notes on a newspaper "run" (meaning a sequence of consecutive issues) is not difficult, but it requires self- discipline. There is a tendency to become distracted by articles that you find interesting, and while that is not harmful, it may take up more time that you can afford. To take notes on newspapers efficiently, you must decide beforehand what you are looking for and then make quick decisions about each article as you go along. Some articles will warrant detailed notes, while others will need only a line or two to describe what they cover. The rest may be safely omitted.
The content of newspaper notes is no different than that of notes on any other type of source. They must contain all of the information required for a reference note or bibliography. Naturally, they should contain information about the content of the article, but they should also contain something that shows how the article is relevant. For example, the following illustration shows an article from the CCHS clippings file (left) and notes on the article (right).
The top line of the notes features the date in YYYY/MM/DD (year/month/day) order (to make it easy to sort a group of notes chronologically) plus some keywords (in red). Below that is the reference note -- without a title or author in this case, since that was trimmed off when the article was clipped from the newspaper. Finally, there are notes on the content of the article: mostly a summary, but also a short quotation.
The content of notes on an article seems like it should be pretty cut-and-dried, but because different scholars have different research interests, the same article might yield different notes. For instance, I took notes on the above article in support of research on working conditions on the railroad, so the notes focus on things that workers encountered in their job and hazards that they faced. For someone who is researching the development of modern management techniques, their notes on the same article might read: "In 1900, freight shipments that were not picked up could remain at the West Chester station for as long as two years." A researcher who was interested in the public's perceptions of the railroad might write: "Newspaper reporters treated the railroad station as a source of amusement, excitement and even danger, by writing about such things as an unclaimed container of explosive gunpowder."
Every so often, you might find a long article that is
entirely relevant to your research. In that case, it might be
quicker to make a photocopy of the article, scan it, and then
proofread the resulting text, rather than copy the entire article
over by hand and then type your handwritten notes into the
When taking notes on articles in a single issue of a newspaper, it is imperative that you keep track of the date and page number of the article. (If the article is carried over to another page, you only need to record the page on which it begins.) If you are looking at the original newspaper on microfilm, rather than a clipping from the CCHS file, there will always be a title and almost always an author -- write them down so that you can provide a complete reference note if you need to refer to the article in your research paper.
No matter what you do, this kind of work will be slow going, but there are some ways to speed up the process. First, think about what it is you are looking for and determine whether there are any sections of the newspaper where it is more or less likely to appear. For instance, if you are researching the changing roles of women in professional sports during the Sixties, you should focus on the sports section and the opinion section (to see if there are editorials or letters to the editor about sports), and you can skip the classified advertisements and the religious news. Don't skip the front page or local news completely -- they may have stories about local or national sports figures -- but you will probably be able to tell from the headlines on those pages if you need to read any of the news articles.
After you have taken notes and typed them up in the format shown in the above illustration, you need to put them all into a single file. Sort them into chronological order (i.e. from oldest to newest) and separate them with something that does not appear anywhere else in your notes (like a HARD-PAGE or a line of dashes). Add a "title page" at the beginning of the file which explains what the file contains and what sources were used to create it (i.e. CCHS clippings file "Paxton, W."; Daily Local News June 12 to August 30, 1912; Terkel's Hard Times, etc.). If more than one person contributed notes to the file, include their names as well.
The illustration to the right shows notes on several articles that have been combined into a single file and separated by a short line of dashes, plus a "title page" to show how the data was collected. The indents are not strictly encessary -- I used them to make it easier to see each set of notes.
NOTES on Pennsylvania Railroad operations
Collected by Jim Jones
The PRR wreck trains were stationed at Parkesburg and Paoli. (This is a story about a ten-car derailment at Hope's tower near Pomeroy, involving engine No. 138.)
"Tickets for Commuters" in Daily Local News (March 1, 1900), from the CCHS clippings file: "Transportation, Pennsylvania Railroad."
The approximately 75 people from West Chester who use monthly commuter tickets lined up to buy their tickets on the first day of the month, creating a long delay as the ticket agent marked their name and destination on the tickets to two days before the beginning of the month.
1900/03/07 neighbors, modernization
Daily Local News (March 7, 1900), from the CCHS clippings file: "Transportation, Pennsylvania Railroad."
A new Bell Telephone booth was placed in the waiting room of the West Chester PRR train station at Market Street yesterday, and this morning at 4am, Louis Wagner made the first call.