Flipping through channels last weekend I happened across the original Superman Movie (the one released in 1978 starring Christopher Reeve). The scene in the movie was of a bustling newsroom for a fictitious newspaper. As Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) prepared a news story, the camera followed the newspaper’s authoritarian editor as he stormed around the newsroom barking orders at writers and demanding coffee from a lowly copyboy.
As a classic work of cinema, Superman offers many interesting elements, but the thing that most interested me was this single moment: when the newsroom editor demanded coffee from the copyboy.
Although you could say that it was the copyboy’s job, as a paid employee of the newspaper, to get coffee for the boss – I would argue that this exchange was a largely non-monetary transaction. The reason the copyboy was happy to perform such mundane tasks (e.g. get coffee), was not because he got paid 5 cents per hour – but rather because doing these tasks give him the opportunity to maybe one day be the boss. Part of the copyboy’s total compensation was the chance that in 30 years, he would get to march around the newsroom barking orders and demanding coffee.
There is one big assumption here though – for the copyboy to get his end of the bargain, in 30 years (in the year 2008) the newspaper must still exist.
Considering the present state of the newspaper industry – I suspect that if the copyboy had been able to look into the coffee pot like a magic-ball and see 30 years into the future he would have thrown the coffee on the floor and quit his job.
“Paying your dues” is generally considered a good thing – but just ask any former copyboy who dreamt of being a newspaper editor – (or any former autoworker who dreamt of getting a pension) and you will learn that even in the most unlikely places, wherever there is reward, there is risk.