Newspapers can be very useful in tracking down that elusive ancestor and adding the “color” you won’t find in vital records. You’ll find more than just obituaries – lots more. The society pages are full of descriptions of engagement parties, weddings and even simple social events. The legal notices and business notices are also quite useful. I found several notices announcing sailings with my great-great grandfather identified as the ship’s captain.
The place to start is Chronicling America – a newspaper digitization project of the Library of Congress. It costs you nothing and new content is added regularly. You’ll find subscription archives at NewspaperArchives and GenealogyBank. Both offer free trial periods, and it’s always a good idea to make sure there are newspapers from the areas you’re researching before you commit to a paid subscription.
Some newspapers – like the New York Times or New Orleans’ Times-Picayune – have been around long enough to have a significant archive of their own. Check them out and see if you can’t take advantage of a “day pass” or some other short-term option.
Newspapers are fascinating and you’ll find lots of things to distract you while you’re searching. If you’re time’s limited, make sure to develop a plan before you begin to help you stay focused.