A Time Traveler may not want to confuse random passers-by by asking them "What Year Is This?", so they'll find a newspaper or other conveniently dated artifact instead. A standard joke has one character using the architecture, the fashions, the technology, and the incidents on TV to come up with a guess at the year, only for someone else to correct them after reading the paper.
Technology Marches On, and while they continue to be printed, it is still to be seen how long newspapers will be available to check this in runs to the future, what with the prevalence of people reading the news on their smartphone on their way to work.
Not to be confused with personal ads, or with Authentication by Newspaper.
- Cowboy Bebop does a somewhat serious take on the joke version of this: In order to demonstrate the extent of her remaining memory after waking from a cold-sleep, Faye identifies a series of slightly futuristic-looking objects on the table next to her. Her lawyer then makes a point of showing her just how far into the future she's been thrown by demonstrating that the items are not a TV, a water pitcher, and a phone but rather a miniature washing machine, a device for washing faces, and a thermometer.
- Kyon uses this method at one point during The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya to figure out what year he is in after using Nagato's escape program. He considers asking What Year Is This?, but swiftly discards the idea after realizing how demented he would look to others and instead heads for a convenience store to check the newspapers.
- Played straight in Hatenkou Yuugi, as this is the way Rahzel finally realized she's been send in the past.
- A more short term version appears in Mahou Sensei Negima!. Chao sends Negi and his friends a week into the future to the point that she has already won the battle. They realize something is up (the massive School Festival has disappeared), but they don't figure out what happened until Yue sees the date on a newspaper. Chisame finds out separately over the internet.
- The protagonist of The Big Lie from Image Comics (a book about the events of 9/11) does this at the start of the story, discovering she has arrived several days earlier than she intended.
- Played with in the Blake and Mortimer book The Time Trap: Mortimer finds himself alone in a post apocalyptic future. He finds an inscription in some ruins reading "2015-2050" and thus believes himself to be in the mid 21st century...until he meets someone else and mentions the date only to be informed he's actually in 5060: the ruins he was in were of a city destroyed in 2075.
- A Donald Duck story had a scam artist turn a newspaper from the 3rd to the 8th with a marker.
- Subverted in a 1993 Dylan Dog storyline, where the eponymous hero wakes up with amnesia in a post-apocalyptic future. It's only near the end of the story that he finds, in the ruins of a library, a collection of (very aged) newspapers running up to 2001, the year civilization ended. Dylan deduces he must be in the early 21st century... Then, not three panels later, he reads on a solar-powered clock it's August 4th, 2560
- In Black Fortunes Harry spots a newspaper in passing and is dismayed to realize that he's back in 1975.
- In Dumbledore's Army, Harry receives visions of two future attacks. A few chapters are spent trying to pinpoint these through newspapers and school assignments.
- Inverted in Out of Time when Kenshin from the revolution ends up time traveling twelve years into the future (during the main series). While Sano has figured out what's going on, Kenshin isn't convinced (and is rather intent on killing Sano, believing he's a spy). Sano's barely able to get him to look at an old discarded newspaper, which wins him over.
- In a variation in With Strings Attached, the four find out that they're in an alternate New York, “New Zork,” in 1954, from a license plate. Given what they did in New York had taken place in 1964, they feel pretty safe in wandering around without fear of being mobbed. That is, until Ringo, lagging behind the others, plucks a newspaper out of the trash and finds to his horror that in this universe, the “Beagles” have just arrived in the city.... Cue the ensuing of hilarity.
- In 50 First Dates, a character with short-term memory loss doesn't know what year it is, until she sees a newspaper. This is the result of her father arranging for hundreds of copies of the newspaper from the day of her accident, to keep her from having to deal with it for as long as possible.
- Marty does this in the first and second Back to the Future movies. Played with in Back to the Future Part II, where the newspaper confirms Marty has the right date, he's just in a different timeline. And then there's a *Click* Hello.
Strickland: So you're the son of a bitch who's been stealing my newspapers!
- A variation occurs in Field of Dreams, where Ray figures out he's walked back into 1979 by checking the registration date on a Minnesota license plate.
- In Idiocracy, Joe (and the viewer) finds out what year he's in by seeing a magazine covernote dated 2505 (which he thinks is a misprint), and then a receipt that confirms the date on the magazine.
- The attempt at newspaper dating in Men in Black 3 doesn't work because the guy in the elevator keeps shifting the date on the paper out of J's line of sight. J finally just asks him What Year Is It?.
- In Time After Time, after H. G. Wells demonstrates his time-machine to his skeptical 20th Century girlfriend by taking her a few days into the future, she confirms that his time-machine works when she sees a newspaper dated a few days later. She then reads about her own murder on the front page. Earlier in the movie, when he arrives in 1979, he already knows when he is, but makes use of a newspaper to find out where he is (apparently not having realized he'd traveled from London to San Francisco).
- Variation in Animorphs: Jake, while trapped in a post-apocalyptic New York City, tries to determine when humanity lost by the dates in a bombed-out magazine stand.
- Around the World in 80 Days has what might be considered a non-time-travel aversion, in that Phileas Fogg apparently never checks the date on a newspaper after crossing the Pacific. Had he done so he would have realised that he had gained a day after crossing the International Date Line.
- Robert A. Heinlein:
- Time Enough for Love. Lazarus Long travels back in time and reads a newspaper to learn the current date: August 1, 1916. This is about three years earlier than he intended to arrive, since he'd planned to skip World War I.
- Toward the end of Methuselah's Children, the characters have returned to Earth in their stolen starship, but don't want to land until they know how much time has passed since they fled an oppressive government. One of the characters, Andy Libby, determines the approximate date by examining the relative positions of the planets in the Solar System. (75 years have passed.)
- This appears whenever Bobby arrives on First Earth (Earth in the year 1937) in The Pendragon Adventure.
- The limited-run school stories anthology Spooky has a lot of its stories featuring this trope, mainly because people ended up in the past a lot.
- Played with in To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. The main character needs to find out the exact date he landed in order to correctly fulfill his Set Right What Once Went Wrong mission. He finds a newspaper, but doesn't realize that it's several days old...
- Connie Willis does this again in Blackout. A time traveler finds half a newspaper and tries to use it to figure out the date. First it turns out to be the half that doesn't have the date printed on it, so he has to use his knowledge of history to correlate the stories in the paper with the date. After he manages to figure it out, he starts talking to people, and through a series of conversational missteps realizes that the paper is again several days older than he thought it was.
- Subverted in a 1997 episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun. Dick, who already thinks he's losing his mind, is in a doctor's waiting room filled with, of course, old magazines. After rifling through them, he panics, declaring "Oh my god, it's 1994!"
- Angel. After spending sixteen years in a hell dimension, Holtz looks at a newspaper to see what year it is and is shocked to find that only days have passed since he left.
- This shows up in the Charmed episode "That '70s Episode", when the protagonists time-travel back to the 1970s.
- Doctor Who:
- In "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", the TARDIS crew discover they are in 2164 (or later) from a calendar in an abandoned warehouse.
- "The Chase" sees a variant of this trope. Ian & Barbara find out they’re (near enough) home by checking the windscreen of the nearest parked car to find its tax disc expires on New Year’s Eve 1965. (This is referenced in An Adventure in Space and Time when the audience is shown that it is 1966 by displaying a car's tax disc.)
- In "The Enemy of the World", Jamie finds out he's in 2018 by looking at the expiration date of the tax disc on the helicopter that's just picked him up.
- In "The Unquiet Dead", the Doctor uses a paper to determine that they are not, in fact, in 1860 Naples, but rather 1869 Cardiff. Rose doesn't care until she hears that last bit. "Right..."
- In "Rise of the Cybermen", the TARDIS crashes and Mickey uses this method to determine that they have landed in modern London; it then transpires that they've passed into a parallel universe by accident.
- Also used in "Daleks in Manhattan", where the Doctor attempts to work out the date from how complete the Empire State Building is, whilst Martha picks up a newspaper from a bench behind them.
- In "Human Nature", a teacher called John Smith wakes up from a strange dream in which he's a doctor caught up in adventures in the far-flung future of 2007. His maid, who just happens to resemble his companion in that dream, assures him that it's 1913 and hands over the daily paper as proof.
- Kathy Nightingale does this in "Blink", though it's as much to convince her that she time-travelled at all as to determine the date.
- In "The Unicorn and the Wasp", the Doctor figures out what year it is by other clues, but the exact date turns out to be important.
- Another take on this trope is the Doctor (who has Seen It All) telling the date from the technology around him, e.g. in "Kill the Moon".
Courtney: This isn't the Moon. Where are we?
The Doctor: On a recycled space shuttle. 2049, judging by that prototype version of the Bennett oscillator.
- This trope is how the protagonists of FlashForward (2009) find out that the eponymous flash forwards are supposed to show the future. As well as in its modern incarnation, Journeyman.
- That was a key element of a two-part Faked Rip Van Winkle ploy in the first Mission: Impossible series. After escaping the futuristic hospital he had woken up in, the mark goes to the first newspaper booth he sees (right in front of the hospital) and "discovers" that he hasn't been out that long... but still a day longer than he really was.
- In the 1981 Afterschool Special My Mother was Never a Kid Victoria Martin, after getting into an argument with her mother, seemingly travels through time during a subway trip, and meets her mother as a teenager she only confirms her travel by finding a newspaper dated 1944. She comes to realize that she and her mother are very much the same. In the end we find out it was all just a dream.
- An episode of The Outer Limits (1995) has a variation. A group think they have been transported to an alien planet, but gradually figure out they are in the distant future. A look at the expiration date of a discarded candy bar wrapper confirms this. (By no means accurate, but close enough for their purposes).
- Played with in Red Dwarf, "Backwards" - the date on the newspaper was 3991, but by that point Kryten had realized that everything was backwards, so the actual year was 1993.
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spectre of the Gun", Captain Kirk finds a copy of the Tombstone Epitaph dated October 26th, 1881. On YouTube here, starting at 5:30.note
- In the episode "In The Beginning", Dean realizes he's been sent back in time by the angel Castiel when he goes into a diner and sees the date on the newspaper of the man next to him (who happens to be his father). He also does it when he is raised from the dead in "Lazarus Rising" due to time flowing much slower in Hell than on Earth.
- When carried forward to a Bad Future where Croatoan virus has swept over the Earth, Dean reads the date on a government warning sign announcing the area he's in is a hot zone. Zachariah (the angel who sent him there) later turns up to read the newspaper to him, just to ram home what a Crapsack World it is.
- After traveling forward in time from 1958, Henry Winchester (Dean's grandfather) reads the registration on the Impala. "2013? My god! I guess the Mayans were wrong."
- The season 3 epsisode of Teen Wolf, "Motel California" has a cold open that shows a flashback to 1975, when an Argent relative checked into the featured motel of the episode and killed himself before transforming into a werewolf.
- Newspapers and the dates they display are a recurring theme of this episode, tempting the audience to believe that this episode and the motel itself may actually feature a connection to time-travel and bringing to the table the possibility that Lydia's powers give her the ability to sense death throughout all of time (evidenced by the fact that she heard 2 deaths in the room next door, when the deaths occurred prior to the group's arrival at the motel).
- In TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, Cortez picks up a photo of the Big Bad. The Mission Control proposes a complex scheme to determine when/where to send Cortez to, regarding the building heights and designs. Cortez waits through the speech, then reads out the date, time and place from the back of the photo.
- Deliberately subverted in The Lost Crown: A Ghost-Hunting Adventure, because newspapers only say what day of which month it is, not the year. Other documents that do suggest dates by year are wildly contradictory (e.g. a book given as a signed gift in the 1950s, yet published in 1978).
- In Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, Layton first realizes how far into the future he is when he finds a newspaper and realizes that the date is 10 years into the future.
- In Fairy Fencer F, in at least two of the three alternate timelines, the party discovers that they've traveled in time thanks to this. Humorously, in the Goddess timeline, Fang has no idea what Eryn is trying to convey when she shows him the newspaper at first, thinking she just dredged up an old copy of the newspaper from somewhere.
- In Batman: The Brave and the Bold's universe-jumping adventure, Batman discovers that he's traveled into the future as well as across universes from a newspaper.
- Courage the Cowardly Dog: In "One Thousand Years of Courage", Courage and his family end up in a world ruled by sentient bananas, and when Courage points out the date on a newspaper, they realize they've been flung a thousand years into the future.
- G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero also does it to confirm they haven't time-traveled, with the same result, in their universe-jumping adventure in the original series.
- Justice League did this to confirm that they hadn't time traveled when they went to an alternate universe containing the Justice Guild, and Unlimited did it in "The Once and Future Thing, Part One: Weird Western Tales".
- On the Looney Tunes short "The Old, Grey Hare", Elmer is sent to the far-off year of 2000 AD, which he figures out from a conveniently placed newspaper. He also learns that, among other things, television has been replaced by smellovision.
Carl Stalling sez, "It will never work!"
- In the episode "Agent Doof" of Phineas and Ferb, Candace attempts to use this to convince her Mom that Phineas and Ferb were turned into babies when the pictures she sends are mistaken for old, scrounged-up baby photos.
- In X-Men, when Bishop time-travels he simply picks up a newspaper and reads the date off the front page.