This is something I’ve thought about a bit. But it might help some of us cope and come up with solutions. A lot of it is personal perception based off stuff that’s happened over the years and conversations I’ve had, but I wouldn’t write it here if I didn’t believe it to be true.
For a long time, machine shorthand (stenotype) stenography was on top. Nobody could touch it, and that alone kept us “great.” Having minimal competition made us soft. In economic terms, the bigger you grow in a market, the harder it is to continue that growth, and we were the market. We arguably still are, but it’s hard to say because so much of the market is in private hands and misinformation is rampant.
Big money comes in, and it opens its Veritexts and US Legals. The big boxes would come in, tell reporters they have so much work, and get some reporters to work for just a little bit less. This game had varying levels of success dependent upon the state. Here in New York, it was particularly bad. Our freelancers make a whole lot less than people that live in states with a lower cost of living. Meanwhile, on the client side, big box could buy their way in with gifts to law firms and lockout deals with insurers. I’ve seen some estimates that say as much as 70% of litigation is insurance funded, so if you control that, you control the market. That’s also why small businesses have such a hard time growing. They’re literally picking up the scraps the big boxes do not care about. This all creates a market crash. People are asking reporters to work for less and less to keep competitive. Small court reporting shops take a beating (and then, years later, big box gets to buy out the survivors for cheap.)
That sets the stage for where we were when I came to this field. Nobody was talking about it except the schools. If you asked a school, it was the best thing in the world, court reporting sells itself. You’ll make so much money. The fact was you COULD make that money, but it was not a reality for what I suspect is a silent, overworked majority. I can only point to stories I heard from down south of a certain agency owner stiffing reporters on their bills and then declaring bankruptcy. If that kind of stuff was being pulled on veterans of the field, what was being done to newbies? Fewer people spoke about stories like that then, and people like me that tried to talk about the issues we were having were often ostracized. To this day, I remember being told that if I didn’t like what I was making I should just do something else. A lot of people I knew did go on and do something else. We lost people because we were too afraid of our own issues. We were too obsessed with proclaiming we were the best to actually make ourselves the best.
Oh, and as it happened, the schools started getting in trouble for misleading claims. Telling students they could graduate in two years when the average was five (program-dependent) and things like that. The for-profit sten-ed system was being attacked, and schools started closing, likely realizing their days of milking people with big promises were drawing to a close. A lot of good actually came from that, because we started to talk about the education more honestly, and some of us even started talking about how we improve the pass rate. But bad came from it, because digital’s big indictment of modern steno is “there are fewer schools than there once were.” Of course there are, you jackelopes, you’re literally siphoning away the money that created the demand for those schools.
Coincidentally, it’s around this time period that Jim Cudahy, then the Executive Director of the National Court Reporters Association, got the shortage forecasted via the Ducker Report that I love to poke holes in. Assuming good faith, he was trying to get us to do something about our retirement cliff. Assuming bad faith, there was, again, around that time period, a faction within NCRA trying to push digital as a solution, a “plan B,” so maybe that faction and big money already had a plan. We can’t know for sure, but I have suspicions.
What we do know is that a confluence of events and circumstances were driving down the demand for schools, stenographers, and small businesses. But conventional wisdom at the time was “realtime is the future, everyone should go realtime.” The NCRA was into that because a whole heap of its power is derived from certifications and if everyone is realtime it’ll mean a lot more certifications. The software vendors were into that because they could sell support and keep reporters on the hook through monthly/yearly contracts, which was important, because the new generation of exploited, “tech-savvy” reporters like me weren’t buying support contracts. The agencies were into it because creating a higher supply of realtime reporters would lower the price of realtime reporting, economics 101. Basically everybody was getting paid to tell reporters realtime is the future, and reporters believed it wholeheartedly. We didn’t know that they’d just turn around and start calling any technology realtime in order to satisfy their endless greed.
Schools closing, new generation of steno reporters not buying support, actual retirements occurring — digital became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Digital reporters are easier to manipulate and control. Agencies like that. There are like a hundred stenography groups on Facebook and yet we still have people disconnected from the field. What hope do digitals have? They literally have to come onto our forums to get their questions answered. Digital’s weak community means it’ll be harder for them to resell their equipment to each other. The turnover is probably pretty high too. Manufacturers and training programs like that. Meanwhile, our determination not to be erased as a culture and society of excellence means more engagement with NCRA, so it would be weird if NCRA didn’t like that too.
I mean, what a world, where everybody with wealth and power is economically incentivized to push on our jobs. But it seems like that’s what it boils down to. And worse, we’re still barraged with “realtime is the future” so that the realtime reporters don’t get together and fund a marketing campaign that would knock the socks off the people attacking their income. Pacified by a divide-and-conquer strategy anybody who looks can see from a mile away. “No, no, no, your job is safe, we promise. You are special. More special than them.”
I’m not too discouraged though. I’m planting nuggets all around the internet to dissuade people from going digital. I’m pretty sure the corporate ninnies have started copying the strategy to push people away from steno. I think overall the campaign to inform digitals as to the true state of the field is going well. I still view our position as one of strength. After all, the STTI Bloc has to run from the truth. I can stand firm and tell the same old story because it’s mathematical. They simply cannot have a shortage as large as the one they claimed we had without massive national cascading cancellations every single day for the last half decade. Good luck proving that in court.
But perhaps there’s something to be said for solutions. If I’m right and this is all being done due to perceived economic incentives, then we have two clear paths to reverse it. 1) Create economic incentives to use steno. 2) Disincentivize digital use. I’ve explained before that a lot of my activity is geared toward number two. People are pretty smart. You tell them something fishy is up, and in the best case scenario they join steno, but even if it just makes them opt out of court reporting completely, it’s one less person that big box has to fill “the gap.” More dollars spent recruiting = eventually they figure out it’s not such a winner.
Whatever the case, perhaps it will help put things into perspective for people. This is not some big evil conspiracy to end stenographers. It’s all about the money. It’s all about them controlling a market to extract the most money from that market. Each of us are players in the market, and our actions will shape what happens. As I’ve always said, if the situation was hopeless and your jobs were about to be redundant, the big corps wouldn’t bother trying to convince you of anything. They’d pave over you. Instead they’ve resorted to trickery, lies, “persuasion,” manipulation — because if they can get you to give up, it’s a free win.
Make the path of least resistance steno and then they’ll all be forced to go steno. I wrote earlier this year about how companies know how we think and that the best strategy is to be unpredictable. Well, now we know how they think. It’s myopic. It’s “a dollar today is better than a dollar tomorrow.” It’s a devotion to the dollar. That’s a big weakness. Because when you don’t want to lose money, you’ll let people like me walk all over you just to avoid a lawsuit. They’re terrified people like you will boycott. They’re terrified that people like you will follow Protect Your Record Project’s example and start talking with their clients. They count on your self-limiting civility to help cut down this field and steal away the futures of the students we mentor.
But I see something different from even two years ago. I see reporters talking about the issues with unprecedented fire and commitment to each other. It’s no longer lone voices or pockets of talent like NCRA Strong. Now everybody’s part of the solution. Maybe we could get to a point where we could crowdfund a sten-tech company. Maybe we could crowdfund a national training program like digital’s BlueLedge and get in with all the schools they’ve muscled in with. Maybe we could crowdfund a “cooperative big box.” Maybe we could try it my way and go scorched earth on everybody that doesn’t fall in line with the science. The possibilities are endless if we start pooling money, talent, and connections. It’s harder than having a big sack of money, but it’s still feasible.
It’s something special to come away from our neutrality to fight for ourselves for a change…