Three historical anniversaries made national news last summer — the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, the 50th of the moon landing by Apollo 12 in July, and the 50th of Woodstock in August. I was able to find a local angle for each one, and write and sell a story about each to local newspapers. My three 1969 anniversary stories are the latest in a long list of such stories I wrote and sold over the last five years. The three are in addition to many more I had written when I was a full time writer for a weekly local community newspaper.
I lost that job after a corporate takeover in 2014. At the time, the 25th anniversary of the local minor league baseball franchise created in 1989 was in the news. I knew each city had minor league teams in the past. As a baseball history buff, I researched the teams that played their last seasons in 1954 and ’55, and sold stories on their histories and last seasons to the respective dailies in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. I even tracked down and interviewed a former player from each team. Retrosheet.org and baseball-reference.com are dynamite for baseball research. At retrosheet, you will find historical minor league teams by state and town dating back to the 19th century, and a database of minor league players.
During my research, I stumbled on a story about Elmira beating out Wilkes-Barre for a league pennant with a monumental late season win streak. I sold that one to the Elmira Daily on the 100th anniversary of the pennant.
Anniversaries became a theme for me beyond baseball. The tenth, 25th, 75th, 100th and 150th anniversaries of such events as municipality incorporations, church foundings, multi-generational family businesses, industrial and mine accidents, train crashes, spectacular fires and other tragedies, as well as construction projects, especially bridges, are starter ideas. They worked for me.
Digital newspaper archives are the best source for researching anniversary stories. Three archive websites I use a lot are the library of congress at loc.gov, newspaperarchive.com, and my favorite, newspapers.com. The Library of Congress site is free but the others require paid subscriptions.
At newspapers.com, you can search by keywords or browse. Let’s say you learn a local Little League is having an 60th anniversary in 2020. The three sites I mentioned, and others, will let you search by town, subject, and/or date. You might find a local paper that no longer exists. A search of the words “little league” will get a lot of hits. Narrow by the year to 1960. You’re likely to find stories about public meetings, appointment of board members, and opening day. Go to the current Little League officers. They may have hard copy archives. Note the names in newspaper stories. You might find many of the people involved are still living. Interviewing a witness to history with a sharp memory, and maybe a family scrapbook, is the best research, and will increase your chances of a sale.
Hone in with search terms. For example, a broad search of your subject may reveal an involved person with an unusual name. Search that name. Follow the trails of stories wherever they take you. Churches, cemeteries, schools, and local historical societies can yield fascinating tales.
Don’t neglect big stories. I’ve done stories on the local reactions to the ends of the World Wars. A tip: 2020 is the anniversary of the beginning of prohibition.
Finding markets for your anniversary stories is a challenge. A state historical magazine might bite but local newspapers offer a better chance. Their small staffs are busy with municipal news and high school sports, and an editor might welcome a story about the undefeated 1965 Rams.
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Jack Smiles is a former full time newspaper sports and feature writer a currently a feature correspondent for Times Shamrock Communications and a freelancer. He is the author of “Ee-Yah”: The Life and Times of Hughie Jennings, Baseball Hall of Famer; Big Ed Walsh: The Life and Times of a Spitballing Hall of Famer; and Bucky Harris: A Biography of Baseball’s Boy Wonder, published by McFarland. He lives in Wyoming, Pennsylvania with his wife Diane. They have a daughter Sadie who works as Correspondent Specialist in the office of the governor of Pennsylvania.
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