Have you ever purchased a subscription to an online newspaper database and not found anything on your ancestor? What if you were advised first to check to see if the newspaper you needed was there first? In genealogical research, you look for resources in a certain time period and place instead of just searching for names. This principle keeps you from making purchases before checking resources that are contained within that resource. The information below will keep you from being stumped by newspaper databases.
The first step is to figure out if issues of the newspaper that you need even exist. If the newspaper has been digitized, it probably existed before somewhere in a public or private library. Go to Chronicling America US Newspaper Directory, 1690 to Present, and look up the newspapers that exist in the area. If this does not match your time period, you need to contact the library in that area to learn the tiles of the newspapers.
If no newspaper exists, check the newspapers available in the areas close by. Keep in mind that there could be several different newspapers that existed during the lifetime of your ancestor. Check them all to learn more.
Do not stop at just the obituary either. For example, if your ancestor was a Republican during Reconstruction and a newspaper was published by people who held the same views, you would want to research that paper. If there was a newspaper that held opposing views, your ancestor may have been one to really shake things up. Check that paper too. Search the digitized newspapers from 1836-1922 available for free at Chronicling America after you learn the name of the newspaper you need.
If you do not see the newspaper at Chronicling America or if you saw that it is on microfilm at a library, go to the library's website. Look for an obituary index. Many libraries have already created an index of obituaries from their local newspaper. Some have made that index available online, and you can order the obituary from them.
If you do not see an obituary index on the website, look for newspapers on microfilm listed in the genealogy or research section of the library website, or contact the library. They will be happy to pull your ancestor's obituary on microfilm if you have the exact death date. All of this takes less time than searching online databases for the right newspaper, but if the newspaper is online, you have access to a lot more than your ancestor's obituary.
Once you learn about the existing newspaper, you can search online newspaper databases to find which one has it. Here is an article on FamilySearch Wiki that lists databases you can try first. Go to each site, and search the locality to see if the area you are researching is covered. Search for the name of the newspaper among those results. Following this process will ensure that you do not buy a subscription from a company that does not offer the newspaper that you need.