The Mystery of -30-

A few years ago, at a small barbecue on a snowy April afternoon, some of the students and faculty advisers of The Lumberjack gathered to commemorate the death of our newspaper. For 97 years, The Lumberjack had printed in some form as an independent, student-run newspaper. In the Fall of 2010, The Lumberjack was going to be officially absorbed by the university. Facing the end of an era, we were presented with small, gold pins, bearing the name of the university and the paper…and the number 30.

Thirty (often flanked by en or em dashes) has had a long and illustrious history in the world of newsprint. Before the advent of word processors, newspapers were typeset by hand and the symbol “-30-” was used to let the typesetters know they had reached the end of a news story. When computers took over the job, the traditional sign-off faded into obscurity.

The origins of -30- are shrouded in mystery and steeped in newsroom folklore. No one really knows when the term came into use, but theories and tall-tales abound. One story states that it comes from shorthand based on Roman numerals — with the end of a sentence represented by X, the end of a paragraph by XX and the end of the story by XXX (later written as the number 30). Another says that the term originated during the Civil War, when a correspondent telegraphed a story to his editor. At the end, he indicated how long his story was — 30 words. A third story tells of a telegraph operator who transmitted a breaking news story non-stop for 30 hours before dying at his post and hitting two keys — a three and a zero — as he finally collapsed.

Over the years, -30- has become part of the journalism mythology. Far from being four random keystrokes, -30- has come to represent “the end.” There are unconfirmed rumors that particularly dedicated journalists would have it carved on their tombstones. For the 50 or so writers and editors of The Lumberjack, it signified the end of an era. Pinning it to the lapel of my jacket was a way to recall the glory days and remind myself that all good things must end.

Loyal readers of my blog have probably noticed that I always append “— 30 —” to the end of my posts. Now, you can probably guess why. I do it as a small tribute to the writers who came before me and to ground myself in the tradition of journalistic excellence I hope to channel in my own work. Everything ends, but I think -30- will live on as the ultimate understated conclusion.

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— 30 —

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