Museums find it difficult to perpetuate the memory of something as intangible as a practice like signing off with a -30-. Teletypes were tangible, like the historic Mergenthaler Linotypes introduced in 1886 to set news one line at a time in molten lead. Linotypes also became dinosaurs with the advent of computers.
Teletypes transmitted "hard" copy at whatever speed the operator at the other end could type. Computers are the SSTs of the news business, upping the news conveyance to speeds of supersonic velocities. Hard copy had to be retyped to be set into type. Computer copy goes directly from monitor to set type with the press of a button.
Associated Press news stories no longer use -30- to designate the end, just a date that the editor sees on the screen but to which the computerized typesetters are blind so that end-of-story designation won't be picked up and printed. Most college journalism classes simply ignore the -30- as an anachronism, like the newsmen perhaps who spent careers typing it at the end of their copy. There is a Web page on the Internet, however, that discusses it at length.
Newspapers before computers had banks of teletypes, the larger the paper the bigger the bank. Then The Associated Press, United Press International and the International News Service, as well as foreign news services such as Reuters, all were gathering and delivering news from the world over. There were state or regional wire services from one or more of those agencies; throw in a couple of stock market reports and teletypes connecting news bureaus or regional offices and you could have a room full of teletypes — all chattering and clattering and ringing at once. Bells sounded to alert editors that a hot new lead on a breaking story somewhere it the world was being moved.
Copy boys would tear off the yellow strips of teletype copy and hurry it to the proper editor, but only after they saw that vital -30- to indicate the story was complete.
It is generally recognized that the old-time telegraphers used the -30- to separate stories and to sign off at the end of a shift. There is vast disagreement, however, over how the practice began.
One plausible story attributes it to Civil War telegraphers, transmitting stories from reporters on site at the various battlegrounds, would end each transmission with an XXX, which translated from Roman numerals to 30.
Another less plausible account comes form John Hellerman, a professional publicist who attributes it to an AP reporter killed during the San Francisco earthquake. He was filing a story when the building collapsed about him and an apparently accidental "30" was the last thing to come across on his transmission. This is stuff of which myths are born.
Other speculations include telegraph operators transmitting the -30- when they took a 30-minute break from their post; early newspaper guild reporters ending their stories with a -30- to emphasize their demand for a living wage of $30 per week; a two-fingered typist working alone in a news room one night when he had a heart attack, his fingers hitting the 3 and 0 keys as he collapsed. The stories are limited only by the old-timers relating them.
Most newspaper historians do agree that the practice was originated by those early news telegraphers. An acquaintance, John E. Stempel, a former journalism professor at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, wrote in 1942, "In its original usage it was the code sign-off for telegraphers. Eventually it came to mean the end of a story …"
And some old-time reporters and editors who grew up writing -30- at the end of their copy find it an easy habit to perpetuate. The Internet reveals this verse about such a set-in-their-ways former editors:
An editor knocked at the Pearly Gates,
His face was scarred and cold:
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to be fold.
"What have you done?" St. Peter asked,
"To gain admission here?"
"I've been an editor, sir," he said,
"For many and many a year."
The Pearly Gates swung open wide,
St. Peter touched the bell —
"Come in," he said, "and choose your harp,
"You've had your share of hell." — Anonymous.
ROBERT V. LIGGETT is the retired managing editor of the Imperial Valley Press and an El Centro resident.