Of all the developments on the world wide web, none has captured my imagination more than a site called Newspaperarchive. For a relatively nominal sum, I've purchased access to an ever-growing collection of historic newspapers from across the world, though most are U.S. publications. The coverage on a state-by-state basis is spotty, but the collection overall covers a vast period, and the news wires (Associated Press, United Press International, etc.) are all represented. If you're interested in a popular criminal case, your family genealogy, the events that took place on your birthday, the Titanic disaster, or what have you, you'll have to sign up yourself.
Also for the microfilm-impaired, other sites on the internet offer access to historic newspapers, though none even come close to offering the breadth of selections available on Newspaperarchive. The Washington Post has a searchable archive that charges on a per-article basis as does the New York Times. The Oklahoman and the Toronto Star offer cheap day passes. The Hartford Courant has an on-line archive that goes back to 1764; articles are available for $3.95 each. Several state historical organizations are starting to digitize some newspapers, notably Colorado, though the coverage is still spotty in most cases. Proquest, which is basically only available to university students, also has a searchable archive of several historic newspapers: The New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and others. But if you're not a university student, you're out of luck: Proquest wanted well over $1,000 from me for a year-long subscription. Unless my lucky numbers come up, Proquest will forever remain on my Christmas list.
Of course, there's always Lexis-Nexis, but it is also outrageously expensive and its newspaper collection only goes back a couple of decades, and having once been a slave of this evil corporate conglomerate for the longest year of my life, I cannot in good faith recommend its employment.
To my great joy, I recently learned that the U.S. government is finally doing something worthwhile with my tax dollars. It was recently announced that in 2006, the Library of Congress will unveil a free searchable historic newspaper database. I haven't been able to find out what titles it will offer, and it might be hard to match the ease of use of the Newspaperarchive site. When I found out more information, I'll happily share it. In the meantime, nothing delights me more than killing an afternoon on Newspaperarchive running searches like "bloody murder" and "awful crime" to see what pops up.