All across America, offices have been carelessly casting one of the most valuable resources they have, and an irreplaceable service for their customers: employees like Joe Sovacool.
Joe hadn't been cast aside by his office – The Charlotte Observer – although like most workplaces I know of, it too has greatly reduced the pool of workers who do what Joe did so well for something like 30 years until his death Thursday night, from cancer, at age 53.
In "The real Weather Guy," Observer blogger and weather geek Steve Lyttle nailed it in describing Joe's value to the newsroom, just as Tommy Tomlinson, in "Observer, Sovacool," nailed the description of Joe's determinedly quirky personality.
Joe Sovacool, like many other unheralded-outside-the-newsroom staffers – too many to name here – was smart, informed and discreetly nosy enough to know when to shield writers and editors from calls, when to send calls through and when to just listen politely to a raving nutjob caller and say, "I'll be sure to deliver your message." Which he would, though sometimes with a sardonic quip or a droll expression.
Voice mail does not shield America's workers from nutjob callers nor can it cut through the ramblings of a disturbed reader who does, indeed, have a useful news tip. Those annoying voice mail menus that so many businesses have adopted do not know that, after a bit of gentle inquiry, a caller who thinks he wants Reporter X will be better served by Editor Y.
Nor does a voicemail menu know that when you leave a message for Reporter Z, said reporter won't get it for three weeks because she is on a honeymoon and the message is too important to languish. Yeah, yeah, we're all supposed to change our voicemail greetings but here in the reality-based community an alert receptionist is far more dependable (and hence, cost-effective to the organization) than depending on dozens of reporters and editors remembering to change voicemail and out-of-office assistance settings.
The U.S. workplace of today seems not to understand that people can do things machines can't and will, over time, more than make up the difference between the cost of buying and servicing a machine (and the attendant need for IT support) and a paycheck and benefits. People know things that make the place hum and that avert errors. They are things as different as knowing the difference between Iredell, the county, and Airedale, the terrier (around here, a lot of folks pronounce them the same) and knowing how to change toner cartridges and where to get them. They are things like how to sweet-talk a mulish copy machine and whom you call when the machine wheezes its last, and who else in the newsroom needs to know the machine is on strike, and the most efficient way to get that word out.
They are things like recognizing when a caller is volcanically peeved at being transferred all over kingdom come, and understanding the caller needs to talk to a competent human being who'll deal with whatever the problem is, even if the problem involves a wet newspaper or a screwed-up ad and you're not in the part of the company that delivers papers or composes ads.
They are things like knowing who's who in town, so when you spot a significant name on the daily list of obituaries you can tell an editor. If Joe were working today, he'd have been sure to tell an editor that one of the names on that list had worked for 30 years at The Observer and had a lot of friends, and maybe needs a headed obit.
And he'd have been right.