Great news this morning (via the Genealogy Blog
): The New York Times has made large sections of its online archive free. Articles from 1851 to 1923 are in the public domain and available for download, and stories published in the last 20 years are also free. Articles published between 1923 and 1986 are available for a fee.
If you go to the New York Times site, you can enter your search terms in the bar near the top of the page and select whether you want to search articles since 1981 or before 1981. Once you have your results, you can select the Advanced option to limit your search to specific dates. The stories are downloadable as PDF documents. (If you happen across articles that aren't in the free years, they're $4.95 each, or you can get a monthly pass for $7.95 that allows 100 story downloads.)
I went hog wild and found a lot of fascinating articles. You don't have to have New York City roots to find good material. None of my ancestors' names turned up in the search, but I found great articles about the ships my ancestors came over from Europe on. (For example, two months before my great-grandfather arrived, an emergency appendectomy was performed on the S.S. Uranium with the E string from a violin.)
You should also try searching for your hometown, just for fun. I discovered an article about a Wellington, Ohio, dairy magnate's campaign against oleomargarine and "filled cheese" in 1894. After his impassioned speech, he raised $150 for the cause in just a few minutes.
Give the search a try, and leave me a comment about your own good finds!