1736-1765: The Colonial Period
1766-1779: The Revolutionary Era
The Dormant Period
1930-2002: Modern Times
If there is nothing as fragile as news, the fragility of newspapers themselves runs a close second. Hundreds of newspapers have begun with great ambition, only to merge with others or fold from bankruptcy.
With that knowledge, William Parks might be the most astonished person of all to learn that his Virginia Gazette survives intact nearly 270 years after he published the first four-page edition on Aug. 6, 1736.
The Gazette encountered its own hard times and ceased publication several times, notably during the 1800s, and the number of years of publication totals closer to 210. But in 1986 the Gazette marked its 250th birthday as the oldest newspaper in America published on a non-daily basis. Until it
expanded to twice-a-week publication in June 1984, the moniker was simpler: Americas oldest weekly.
Newspapers were a long time coming to colonial Virginia. English law precluded any printing by the colonists for years after Jamestown was founded in 1607. The royal governors did not allow any printing until 1690, and even then printers were governed by royal instructions which required a license and the governors permission.
One of those governors, Sir William Berkeley, put it bluntly. "I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the
best government. God keep us from both."
An enterprising fellow tried anyway.
In 1682, a printer named William Nuthead arrived at Jamestown, then the capital. He set up his press and began to publish the acts of the recently adjourned Assembly. He also printed several other papers about which nothing is known.
Nuthead was called before the governor and the council, where he was ordered to stop the presses "until the signification of his Majesties pleasure shall be known therein." Within months that "pleasure" was known when a royal order was issued that "no person be permitted to use any press for printing upon any occasion whatsoever."
With that definitive ruling, Nuthead packed up and returned to his native Maryland. Printing was nonexistent in the colony for nearly 50 years thereafter.
Government policy eventually eased and a more tolerant attitude prevailed. In 1730 William Parks moved from Annapolis to Virginias new capital, Williamsburg, to open a branch office. Parks had only three years earlier founded Marylands first newspaper, The Maryland Gazette.
Parks was an eminent printer. Before arriving in Maryland he operated printing shops in three locations of his native England Ludlow, Hereford and Reading.
An accomplished printer of job work and newspapers, it is a wonder that Parks waited six years before publishing his first Virginia Gazette. Perhaps like virtually every other colonial printer he wanted to build a base of printing operations on which to found the paper.
Its possible the trial of John Peter Zenger in 1735 had an influence on Parks. Zenger was the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal who was charted with seditious libel for his disrespect in print of the Crown. A jury freed Zenger and "There were huzzahs in the hall," according to one report.
If Parks was struck by Zengers zeal, he did not reflect it in print. His own sheet was devoid of outright political criticism, and journalism historian Edwin Emery does not list Parks among the top ten leaders of the pre-Revolutionary press.