Mysterious symbol “-30-”: how the end of a newspaper story ends the history of newspapers
The shutdown of two of the oldest Canadian newspapers on the last Friday of January, 2016, was accompanied by mystical coincidences. Not only were the newspapers closed on the same day, but they also illustrated their last front pages in the same way – with a mysterious number “30”.
On January 29, 2016, one of Canada’s oldest newspapers, the Guelph Mercury, printed its last issue. The newspaper had been publishing in Guelph since 1867. It was the year the first three provinces united into the Dominion of Canada. Thus, the newspaper was a coeval of the nation. Perhaps that was the reason why its decline (the paper’s, not the nation’s) was so broadly and sorrowfully covered in media circles. And not just in media; the Prime Minister of Canada himself, Justin Trudeau, tweeted, “Canada loses an institution with the shutdown of the @guelphmercury print edition. Sad to see it go”.
“The Guelph Mercury lived for 149 years”, declares the last editorial. 43 mayoral terms passed in Guelph. But the times ended as advertising declined, and subscription fell down. The paper gained only 9,000 subscribers in the city of 115,000, in the last year.
All in all, five reporters, two editors, and 21 other employees left the building. Yes, the paper’s web presence will somehow remain; staying online is a mandatory part of the epitaph for almost every newspaper closure. But it is still an epitaph.
At this point, one would have had nothing more to tell about the closure of the small old Canadian daily, if there hadn’t been such a strange front page illustration in the last print issue.
Furthermore, a striking coincidence happened (really a coincidence, as there has been no agreement). On the very same day, January 29, another of Canada’s oldest papers, the 141-year-old Nanaimo Daily News, also printed its last issue. Guess what was depicted on the front page? The Nanaimo Daily used the very same symbol, “-30-”.
But why “30”? What a mystic number. It would be an interesting task to figure out how many readers could read this allusion and how old these readers must be to understand what this is all about. Meanwhile, Kristen Hare from the Poynter Institute called the final front Guelph Mercury page “pretty much perfect”, having in mind exactly the illustration.
The fact of the matter is that, in the good old times, before computers conquered newsrooms, the sign “-30-” symbolized the completion of a news story. The sign was particularly important for reporting a story on a deadline: seeing this symbol, an editor could realize that a story was ending and it could be sent to the next stage of print production. This is how it worked, becoming a sort of habit for generations of journalists… for bygone generations, obviously.
Now seeming mysterious, the symbol had a yet even more mysterious origin. Actually, nobody knows how it appeared; only hypotheses on it exist, in the old media folklore. One way or another, most of them relate to telegraphs. For example, according to the Western Union “92 Code”, used since 1859 to shorten most common phrases, “30” was a numerical code to symbolize the end of a message (WU originally was a telegraph company). Another version attributes the origin of this ending symbol to Morse code, where it means “I have no more to send”.
There is another version, according to which letters to an East India company used to be ended by sign “80”, which meant “farewell” in Bengali. Gradually, the link to Bengali faded away, the sign was distorted, but the meaning has remained. There are stories narrating that post offices used to close at 3 o’clock, or that telegraph messages were limited by the length of 30 characters… A pretty popular theory suggests that, during the Civil War, telegraphists used to end messages with the combination of three X’s: XXX, which was later mistakenly perceived as the Roman numeral for “30”. There also were rumors that journalists in a now forgotten newspaper pressured their boss to raise their week wage up to 30 bucks by ending all their stories with “-30-“. Whether or not they succeeded has remained unknown, but the original labour action allegedly somehow launched the use of the ending symbol throughout the entire industry. There is even a kind of “campfire story”: one telegraph operator with the personal code “30” held his shift for 30 hours in a row, to wire the news, after which he collapsed on his machine, dead, hitting the last two keys, which were, of course, 3 and 0.
Whatever it was, it obviously came from the times when wire and paper were the prevalent media vehicles. “I don’t suppose any reporter under 50 has used it,” said 84-year-old reporter Peter Binzen from the Philadelphia Inquirer, in the American Journal Review in 2007, nine years ago. So now, there is hardly anybody under 60 who has ever used it. That means that most likely nobody from today’s practicing journalists has ever put this sign on a script. Moreover, the majority of the guild is unlikely even familiar with the very idea of the sign of completion “-30-”.
Becoming more and more rare in use, the ending symbol “-30-” causes curious incidents. In 2007, The New York Times published a piece about the shooting of two police officers, which reported in the end that the trial for the case was scheduled to begin by Feb. 30. Just in case, I want to remind the readers that the month of February numbers 28, well, maximum 29 days. It’s easy to figure out how the error appeared, right? The journalist ended their story with the word “Feb.” and the symbol “-30-”, but the editor most likely was too young to capture the meaning of “-30-”, and wasn’t captious enough to recall the number of days in February. Later, the NYT added a juice correction to the article, completing it with “-30-”, of course.
After ceasing to mark the end of a newspaper story, the symbol “-30-” has come to mark the end of the history of newspapers. For instance, a journalist from Chicago, Charles Madigan, published in 2007 the book about the extinction of newspapers, titled -30-: The Collapse of the Great American Newspaper. And now, two of the oldest Canadian newspapers, whose reporters decades ago, no doubt, used to use “-30-”, have ended their history with this symbol: “-30-”.
Have you ever seen the symbol “-30-” in use?
Post Scriptum: The Baghdad bureau of the Guelph Mercury
A year after, J-Source published an interview with Phil Andrews, the last editors of the Guelph Mercury. Here is how the editor answered the question about newspaper’s service to the local comunity.
“- How did you see the paper’s role in the community?
– … We sent someone to Africa because Guelph was connected to a really miraculous fundraising effort that had no corporate backing and it raised a million dollars for a clinic to combat HIV/AIDS in Lesotho. After they hit a million bucks, I sent a guy to Lesotho to chronicle what sort of impact $1 million made. When Cardinal Thomas Collins was appointed Cardinal we sent someone to the Vatican to observe it….”
Such was a role of the local newspaper in the small town, as seen by the editor. Not surprisingly, it was closed. So, this is about the “Baghdad bureau” again, as Clay Shirky put it:
“For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads…
The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.” Clay Shirky: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (2008)