Each October for the past eight years, students in Louise Reynolds' Introduction to Journalism class at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, have been offered extra credit if they can solve one of journalism's lingering mysteries: Why did reporters for years end their stories by writing "-30-"?
"Journalism is so full of funny phrases and traditions," Reynolds says. "I wanted the kids to know there was a long tradition behind each of these terms and style rules and know that it didn't come out of nowhere."
The use of the symbol was once so prevalent that it made its way into Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, which says 30 is "a sign of completion." But the tradition of using it to cap off a piece of sprightly copy dropped off considerably when the computer replaced the typewriter — the what? — in America's newsrooms. So it's a term whose meaning is lost on many younger journalists.
The venerable "-30-" caused some mischief in late July at the New York Times when a reporter typed it at the end of his article about the shooting of two police officers in Brooklyn. The published version of the story said that a trial was scheduled for February 30, which doesn't occur even in the leapest of leap years. Said a subsequent Times correction: "The error occurred when an editor saw the symbol '-30-' typed at the bottom of the reporter's article and combined it with the last word, 'February.'"
So where did the term originate? Some say the mark began during a time when stories were submitted via telegraph, with "-30-" denoting "the end" in Morse code. Another theory suggests that the first telegraphed news story had 30 words. Others claim the "-30-" comes from a time when stories were written in longhand — X marked the end of a sentence, XX the end of a paragraph and XXX meant the end of a story. The Roman numerals XXX translate to 30.
But these are hardly the only explanations, theories and guesses for the rise of "-30-". It is rumored that a letter to an East India company ended with "80," a figure meaning "farewell" in Bengali. The symbol supposedly was misread, changed to 30 and took root. Some say the mark comes from the fact that press offices closed at 3 o'clock. And there's the theory that 30 was the code for a telegraph operator who stayed at his post during a breaking news story until his death 30 hours later — versions of that story even include that the unfortunate operator hit two keys on his machine when he collapsed. Which ones? That's right, 3 and 0.
Julie Williams, a professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, says the guessing game over "-30-" has taken on a life of its own, in part because the ambiguity leaves it open to a wide array of interpretations. "Because it's so obviously not intuitive, you can't tell what it means," she says. "I think people were anxious to come up with explanations for it."
Or maybe "-30-" is just another way for journalists to suggest that theirs is cooler than other professions. "I'm not sure that it's any more of a mystery than a lot of other things," says Linda Steiner, who teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. "I think journalists have always liked to create odd or weird names for things that they do or conventions that they have."
For most, the origin of "-30-" is less important than what it represents, a remnant of a bygone era when shouts of "copy" echoed through the newsroom and computers seemed the stuff of science fiction.
"It was just what one did. I don't know the origin or what I was told," says Peter Binzen, 84, a longtime reporter, editor and columnist at the Philadelphia Bulletin and Philadelphia Inquirer. "I don't suppose any reporter under 50 has used it."
Don Harrison, 79, editor of Milestones, a monthly newspaper published by the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, and a former Philadelphia newsman, says that "-30-", as well as "#" and "end it," were essential for writing stories on deadline. "You had to use something when you were typing because you would write two or three paragraphs on deadline," Harrison says. "Then the copyboy would pick it up and send it to the composing room. It was necessary [to have] some way to say, 'This is it, it's over... Put a head on it and put it in the next day's paper.'"
Stephen Dixon, a former professor at Johns Hopkins University, even titled his 1999 book "30" to acknowledge the thematic endings the main character (who happens to be a former newsman) experiences throughout the novel. His publisher added the subtitle "Pieces of a Novel" because he worried that nobody in the Internet era would understand the book's title. Perhaps the publisher was on to something — Dixon ended up writing a letter to the editor complaining about a book review that seemed to totally miss the meaning of the novel's title and its relationship to the theme of endings in the book.
Chicago newsman Charles Madigan not so cheerily named his new book, a selection of essays about the decline of the newspaper business, "-30-: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper."
So even though it's an anachronism, "-30-" continues to make its presence felt. After not using the symbol for years, Binzen even chose to end his 56-year newspaper career in 2005 with a farewell column that concluded with, what else, "-30-".
Kogan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former AJR editorial assistant. She thought 30 was just another number before embarking on this assignment.