When I first found out my good friend Joshua Edwards was creating the nonprofit online speaking club StenoMasters, I was excited. I wrote about it right away. If you read the FAQ, the intention is to keep the dues as low as possible. It’s not a source of personal enrichment. I consider it a community and a chance for us to come together.
In my view, we are headed into a period of time where it will be vital for the stenographic reporter and his or her family to pick up some speaking skills. There are so many forces in life that will demand your silence. A club like StenoMasters is going to give you a safe place to develop your voice so that when the times comes you’ll be ready. Please join me at the inaugural meeting. It’s free! Even if you just go to lurk or observe, you will be helping others find their voice by providing them with that audience that so many of us struggle to speak in front of. If you have the time on October 4, it’s worth it. See the flyer below!
Though I have written very much on this topic, never have I sat down and written something that can be handed to anybody. Today’s the day! This is the context of the stenographer shortage forecasted eight years ago and ongoing debate regarding that. It is my hope that having this out there lets court reporters share this instead of having to painstakingly debate the merits one discussion at a time. If you’re looking for a career as a stenographic court reporter, check out National Court Reporters A to Z program, Project Steno, and Open Steno. My resource page also has a lot of industry links to help find manufacturers, retailers, and educators.
In the court reporting and captioning industries, there are three modalities, stenographic, voice writing, and digital. Stenographic reporting has a stenographer using a chorded keyboard called a stenotype to write strings of letters that form words, sounds, and statements. Voice writing consists of speaking into an automatic speech recognition system trained to the voice writer. Digital reporting consists of having a person record the testimony, ideally with multitrack or sophisticated equipment, monitor the audio, and annotate it for a transcriber. Some companies, like Verbit, insist that by running audio through an automatic speech recognition system, technology can “improve the human.” There is a fraud being perpetrated on consumers and digital reporters themselves just about every day where they are being told these models are equivalent or even that digital reporting is better. Let’s go deeper.
It’s notcheaper. Where the stenographic reporter works on a per-page basis with a small appearance fee, the digital reporter is paid hourly, typically within the range of $15 to $50 an hour. The cost of the transcript is added to that, which is heavily subsidized off the exploitation of offshore transcribers, who can make as little as $0.84 a page or $0.24 a minute, as I learned in my previously published discussion with one. The companies utilizing digital reporting are trying to cut their transcription costs down to a fourth of what they were, but none of these savings, if any, are being passed to the consumer or courthouse. There have also been past studies that show samey costs for digital and steno. When one factors in the cost of replacing equipment, which likely has a useful life of around four years, the cost for digital can only spiral out of control. We stenographers eat all of our equipment costs. In the event that we were deleted from the field, the lack of competition could only drive those recording equipment costs up further (higher demand for ostensibly the same supply). In addition, reporting companies would have no incentive not to pass those costs to the consumer because there would be zero competition to keep them in check.
Storage is more expensive. This often gets waved away because of the “common sense” mantra that digital storage is CHEAP. But again, this is a cost that is often taken up by the court reporter and would likely transition to the court and consumers. Audio files can be anywhere from 10 to almost 10,000 times larger than our raw stenographic text files. This means that in a worst-case scenario, courts are spending 10,000 times on storage what they would if it was a stenographically reported court. In a best-case scenario, a digitally recorded court could switch to stenographic reporting and bring their storage costs down to about one ten thousandth of what it is today. I arrived at these numbers by comparing hundreds of my raw stenographic notes for 7-hour days to the average recording rates of various formats. Those files are usually in the ballpark of 200 to 400 KB or 28 KB an hour. Something like a an mp3 can be 28 MB an hour. Something like a wav can be 10 MB a minute! To put these numbers into perspective, an MB or megabyte is about 1,000 times larger than a KB or kilobyte. Technology fans point to YouTube and its ability to compress and hold so many videos, to which I have always pointed out that YouTube is a for-profit business, so unless we want to sit through advertisements while waiting for our court cases, maybe they’re not a good model for justice system record storage. We are also assuming that Youtube would share its compression with the government at no additional cost. I have also pointed out that YouTube has existed for less than 17 years. Some courts have record retention requirements that exceed 50. So assuming that the digital model would translate well in perpetuity is shortsighted and a leap of faith. It’s much more likely to provide spiraling costs and force shorter record retention times on courts in the future.
It’s less efficient. By switching to digital reporting, a company is necessarily adding to the number of people required to do a job. Math-wise, theoretically, we were always bound to be 2x to 4x as fast because average typing speed is in the ballpark of 50 words per minute, really fast transcribers get to 100 words per minute, and stenographers are taking down stuff at 225 words per minute. My theory was completely wrong; it requires many more people or much more time. Self-reported, transcribers can take up to six hours to transcribe one hour of audio. According to a Lisa Migliore, as revealed in my PCRA article, the company Verbit even admitted that it would take up to eight transcribers to provide a next-day transcript. Stenography is constantly belittled for its low pass rate. The argument is made that we cannot solve the shortage because of an 80 to 90% dropout rate. But if we’re going to multiply the number of people required by 8 or 9 (someone should man the recorder according to AAERT best practices) then this argument is hollow and an obvious lie. Let’s say you have 10 stenographic reporters. You get 100 students, and 90 percent drop out, you’ve replaced those 10 stenographers. If you need 9 people to replace one stenographer, then we’re already talking about 90 people to replace those 10 stenographers with digital. If you can recruit and train 90 people, why are they not being recruited and trained for stenography? Anybody that says we cannot solve the shortage is saying “we can recruit 90 people, but recruiting 100 is impossible.”
The turnover is comparatively astronomical. Stenographic court reporters stay in the business past retirement age. You can see this from a snapshot of our field’s age about eight years ago, pictured above. The average employee stays about 4 years. The stenographic reporter stays three or four decades. So in addition to requiring about the same number of recruits to fill demand, we know that getting them to stay means getting them into stenographic reporting. Failing to use stenographic reporters means needing those same 90 people I mentioned above every 4 years. Again, assume 10 stenographers retire. We can recruit 100 students who will replace those stenographers, and in 12 years there is a high likelihood they’ll still be in the game. Alternatively, we can recruit and train about 100 digital reporters / transcribers who will stay about four years, and then another 100, and then another 100. So if you’re willing to recruit 300 people over 12 years but not willing to recruit 100 people over the next 2, you’re not thinking logically. 40 years, those same 100 recruits produce those same 10 stenographers. Meanwhile, statistically, one will have needed to recruit and train about 900 digital court reporters and transcribers.
No education culture exists for digital reporting. As pointed out in a past article, when looking at comparable nonprofits, stenographic nonprofits and our education system has about ten times the funding and five times the number of schools. This lack of support on the digital side will allow for companies to dictate best practices to digital reporters and transcribers, and corporate morality is highly questionable. There’s already evidence that cost shifting is being used to kill competition. What happens when we move from a field where there is already guidance on what to do when asked to alter the record to one where an employee is seen as interchangeable and low skill? How much pressure will those poor people be under to change things if they’re making a fourth of what we are? This happens. I’ve been asked to change stuff. Colleagues have been asked to change stuff. Digital reporters and transcribers will be asked to change stuff and they will be under incredible pressure to actually do it. We can stop that by letting them know about steno. As of eight years ago, stenographic court reporting was said to be some 96% of the field. It makes perfect sense for digital reporters to join the majority and become stenographers.
Companies are already showing contempt for their own digital reportersand that will likely only get worse. As I pointed out in a past article, while advertising digital reporters to lawyers, Verbit put out an infographic that stated they were not highly trained. There’s already this misconception that digital reporters are not skilled workers, which will make it easier for them to be exploited, to the aforementioned detriment of the consumer. Even with all of our stenographic institutional knowledge and support systems, companies managed to freeze the value of our rates for over three decades. If companies are successful in pushing the narrative that digital reporting is the future, there’s no reason to believe they won’t freeze the digital rates right where they are and the cycle of exploitation will continue. Think I’m wrong? Stenographic court reporters are already being offered below half of market rate for their services. So there’s a SHORTAGE and companies are doing everything in their power to make stenography look as unappealing as possible. Great way to make the situation worse. If we cannot count on them to not exploit people during a shortage, we cannot count on them. This also heavily incentivizes digital reporters to become stenographers, because there are nonprofits to help set them up with mentors in almost every state. Not so with digital reporting.
Offshoring will put transcribers beyond the reach of our courts. There has been no secret that digital reporting companies are offshoring their work to places like Manila, Kenya, or India. In the stenographic model, if there is a problem with the transcript, the stenographer can be subpoenaed to testify about the stenographic notes he or she took down. In the digital reporting model, the digital reporter may be available to testify as to what he or she can recall, but the transcriber will likely be outside the reach of our law enforcement. Add in the fact that there might be eight transcribers to ask about any one transcript, and we have a major problem. Just from experience, I can tell readers that when you’re listening to hundreds or thousands of proceedings, it all starts to blend in. Without someone contemporaneously taking down stenographic notes at the time of a proceeding, how can one be sure audio has not been tampered with? Audio is easy to edit without any sophisticated tools. Advanced technology like deepfakes and voice cloning will make tampering that much easier. There are already enough fakes in the world that forensic audio analysts are necessary. Taking court reporters out of their role of guardian of the record will only add to the chaos and lead to an era of “to the best of my recollection, that sounds like what happened.” The legal field needs to avoid declaring this modality adequate. People’s lives and livelihoods are on the line and it’s painfully obvious that there’s been no real thought put into shifting from stenography to digital reporting. What good is blockchain-like tracking if you can’t get a hold of everyone involved in the process?
Centralization encourages attacksand successful attacks would be more catastrophic. As I have seen, there are two distinct ways that courts operate. Either they operate on a centralized model where the court controls all the records or a decentralized model where reporters are given limited autonomy to store and edit their records. Some courts run on a hybrid model where they keep the raw stenographic notes in case of a problem but the reporter is responsible for the maintenance of all else. Something like grand juries in New York City would be a centralized model. The district attorneys buy the stenotypes and equipment and all work is done on the office’s intranet, which has limited connectivity with the outside world. Decentralization is more along the lines of having each reporter responsible for maintaining their records. Stenographic court reporting leans toward decentralization, meaning that anyone looking to sabotage court records in bulk would have to hack not only the court’s system but also each individual stenographer. In a centralized model, a system compromised by a steganography attack or some other attack could be wiped or hijacked. Basically malicious pieces of code can be hidden inside images and audio, and court computers can then be used to mine Bitcoin for criminals. Decentralization typically suffers from lighter security but makes it harder for a would-be attacker to get access to everything, especially machines that are not connected to the internet. Centralization typically has amazing security, but once an attacker is in, they have access. In a hybrid court like many of New York’s courts, a gang of criminals would have to break both the decentralized and centralized models to wipe records. Good luck with that! It’s no wonder that the New York courts have told ASSCR President Eric Allen many times “we want stenographic court reporters!” Again, we take on the cost of our equipment and the responsibility of its security independent of the system. This is a working condition we proudly accept because it creates redundancy and reduces the risk of lost records. This problem by itself wouldn’t be a big deal, there’s some risk no matter what, but combined with all else is pretty damning.
Lost audio eats any savings. It is always a bad day when any record goes missing. But again, taking this model from one where the stenographer is responsible for the record and can land themselves in extremely hot water if they do not do what they are supposed to do and trusting an audio-only record is dangerous. As I posited in the Summer 2020 NYSCRA Transcript, just three hours of reconstruction hearing can cost $1,000 in resources. In the best-case scenario where people are following best practices and an audio monitor is present and responsible for the audio, this risk is less. But as I’m about to show you, there’s no comfort there either.
Consumer protections for stenographers are better. I would happily assume those audio monitors take their job as seriously as I do. But considering that digital reporting companies have shown no qualms with offshoring or even posting legal proceeding audio on the internet, it’s time to put this to bed. Proponents of digital court reporting are only going to follow best practices where they are forced to by law. Putting our faith in that is foolish. It’s been over a hundred years since the stenotype was invented and regulations related to our field are still incredibly relaxed in some states, like New York. I’d wager that at this rate it’ll take another hundred years before legislators get around to protecting digital reporting consumers and courts. Consumer choice is the way to win here. If people demand a stenographic reporter every time, we can start focusing on how to improve ourselves rather than having to justify our existence every time somebody with a smartphone goes “I can do your job!”
Even in states with incredible consumer protection, companies that support digital reporting, like US Legal, have argued they’re not bound by those laws because they are not court reporting companies. Yet 70% of their business is court reporting? How much more obvious does it need to get that these companies don’t care what is right or legal? They care only what they can get away with. And they got away with violating the law in the Holly Moose case seemingly because plaintiff had trouble showing damages. The government’s position is clear: “You can violate our laws, claim you’re not providing the service that makes up the bulk of your business, and be as dishonest as you want to be. As long as the wrong person is calling you out on it, it’s just fine by us.” Just to give this some more context, the California licensing board for reporters has a long history of being as anti-court reporter as possible. They refuse to step in and regulate digital court reporters, but their stenographic reporters have some of the most stringent regulations in the country. The licensing board of California is basically tying two arms and a leg behind every stenographic court reporter’s back and stenographic reporters are still winning the race there. This is probably a result of bureaucracy and not some conspiratorial nonsense, but it’s the reality that stenographic reporters are living — governments are quick to come after us and can’t be bothered with enforcing the law against anyone that can afford a legal team. Assuming arguendo that digital proponents’ position that the modality is equivalent to stenography is true for just a moment, it’s almost like here in New York City if we decided it was important to license barbers that use scissors and strictly test them on their skills and knowledge, but having no regulation if they practice as a barber using an automatic shaver/buzzer. Both could mess up your hair pretty bad in the wrong hands. Not too many people would want only one to be under government-granted license. Now throw that same idea down, but instead of hair we are talking about appeal records that could decide whether or not someone goes to jail, gets executed, or loses a million dollars.
Just to be clear for anyone that believes the incompetence of regulatory authorities is overstated or hyperbole, according to the California Regulatory Law Reporter, Spring-Summer 1990, authorities have known about digital reporting, then called electronic reporting, for thirty years. Now they’ve expressly disclaimed their obligation to protect consumers. It’s writ-of-mandamus levels of incompetence. A licensing board so useless that court reporters and consumers would be better off asking the California legislature to dissolve it in its entirety.
Likely financial suffering of companies using digital reporting. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, it was noted that 1 in 4 court reporting companies is not profitable. If the vast majority of the field is stenographic and only companies that can afford to run at a loss are the ones attracting big private equity money, it follows that the unprofitable minority are the ones that are trying to change the field are doing so at a loss. They are able to do this because if they are successful the rates can subsequently be jacked up and those losses can be recouped. This is something that was labeled as anticompetitive decades ago, but go ahead and try to prove such a thing in court — maybe the court will once again decide the plaintiff is missing some obscure element and therefore any and all misbehavior is just fine! This also has a regular-world example. Uber did its best to kill the taxi industry at a loss to itself. Then its prices skyrocketed up 50% or more. Want your court reporting bill to double in the future? Allow these companies to continue to push digital reporting.
Blatant dishonesty of companies that push digital reporting. In addition to my thoughts about worker exploitation and the Holly Moose issue, I’ve tackled more misconceptions in the last five years than anyone should ever care to. Just some examples, VTestify had a calculator on their site that claimed they could save thousands per deposition, which was false. Veritext was trying to train attorneys to allow for digital court reporting in deposition notices before ostensibly throwing its then VP of Sales under the bus for going in the exact direction the company was going. US Legal stuck a bogus equation on JD Supra to make the stenographer shortage seem hopeless. Verbit says whatever makes it look good at the time. This is who we want to entrust the future of legal records to? First there was a question of whether digital reporting was even in use by some of them. That was then thoroughly documented and there was a shift to “we can’t hire stenographic reporters due to shortage” which was a lie because few if any recruitment efforts were made to find stenographers through public directories like NCRA Sourcebook. What kind of excuse is that? How about I walk into court tomorrow and say “I’m really trying, judge, I just can’t get the words.” If these companies cannot figure it out they are useless to the legal profession and should dissolve so that stenographers can meet the needs of their clients. It’s become difficult to wave away the sheer incompetence and failure to assist stenographers as honest mistake. If I give you a flat tire once and apologize, chances are you’ll forgive me. If I do it several times over half a decade, how long are you turning the other cheek? At what point do you turn around and tell me “stop now or I will take action to make you stop”? We have suffered too many flat tires. We are ready to go as far as this needs to go. The law itself recognizes that, in dealing with human affairs, there are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty. Anyone waiting for an admission of dishonesty better stop holding their breath. In many ways, Stenonymous has become the force to make this stop. We were pushed and pushed to a point where the path of least resistance was to punch back with what we’re best at, preserving history. I’m working on a couple of articles about US Legal’s dishonesty in particular. When I’m done with them, I’ll link them here.
Automatic Speech Recognition.
Inherent danger to already-marginalized speakers. When the Testifying While Black study came out, news media slapped court reporters around a bit because we were only 80% accurate when being tested on African American Vernacular English dialect. I slapped back. The study showed we were twice as good as the average person at understanding this dialect and 1.5x as good as lawyers. As the New York State Court Reporters Association told the New York State Unified Court System, use of automatic speech recognition technologies would not threaten access to justice, it would implode it. To do away with stenographic court reporters would be doing away with the people that, with no formal dialect training whatsoever, understand AAVE speakers the most. We are not a monolith, and some of us will always perform better than others, but as I’m about to show you, we outperform computers too.
Doesn’t actually work. Companies like Verbit have backpedaled from their stance that automation is the way to go to saying things like “technology will enhance the human.” They’re convinced having human transcribers clean up ASR output is the way to go. With all the major players having difficulty getting accuracy above 80% in the study “racial disparities in automatic speech recognition,” it’s clear why. There are inherent problems surrounding ASR through machine learning and the constant presence of language drift. It seems highly unlikely that stenographic reporting or captioning could be adequately automated. Have you seen a really good ASR demo? Please consider that just like Peter Molyneux and Project Natal, that demo might be scripted. I demonstrated how easily voice recognition could be faked by faking it myself with my amateur computer coding knowledge. If all the richest companies in the world are having extreme problems with automatic speech recognition and making it consistently perform at high accuracy, it follows that the small fish like Verbit, Otter, or Parrot are not being honest about their capabilities. Some people marvel at the technology today. “I can just dictate this into my phone! We might not need you guys soon, heh, heh, heh.” Yes, the technology has come along wonderfully. Would you like me to have Siri or Alexa transcribe your loved one’s murder trial? No? Oh…
If it cannot be automated, then we are talking about having all the problems inherent to digital reporting.
Some Related Myths
Over the past few days I’ve had it pointed out to me that some of the corporations I’m accusing of being anti-steno send financial support to Project Steno or help with schools. As for the schooling, with half of our industry being in New York, Illinois, Texas, and California, if a school is not training students for those places, it is a drop in the bucket and meaningless compared to the measures being taken to crush us. As for supporting nonprofits, there’s probably a write off there, so it’s not quite as altruistic as one might assume. And then that leads to, “well, it’s a business.” Exactly. Now you get it. It’s a business. It does not care about you, me, my field, this country, or anything else. The only thing that makes it care is when we unequivocally tell it it will cease to exist if it doesn’t start caring now.
How About This?
Debate and reason are vital to the health of our field. Confronting uncomfortable truths has been nothing but victory after victory. Let’s keep on the road of information dispersal and advocacy. Most people will support us if they are armed with the facts and circumstances. We’re at a tipping point, and the way that the cards fall depends largely on how hard we blow. Learned something new? Pass this along and help increase consumer critical thinking so that they catch this stuff before it gets to this point. See a flaw in my reason? Point it out. Worst that happens is I abandon a weak position for a stronger one.
I should say that this is all omitting the possibility that something is inaudible on a recording or that a recording goes missing. Careful consideration will have to be given to who is responsible and to what extent when things don’t work right if the country is to adopt a full digital model. Stuff happens even to the best of us. The benefit of the stenographer is that he or she can alert parties as soon as there’s an equipment issue. In a world of full automation, which is where digital proponents clearly want to go, parties would get to find out about problems whenever they ordered the transcript, which could be days, months, or years after a proceeding.
The National Court Reporters Association opened registration for written knowledge tests on September 1, 2021. In an effort to help reporters succeed, the New York State Court Reporters Association is holding several review sessions, each corresponding to a different part of the RPR WKT. On September 12, a technology and innovation review will be held. On September 19, an industry practices review will be held. On September 26, a professionalism and ethics review will be held. Registration links below!
I am going to be working on a much larger article about certification and my journey from believing certification was worthless to believing that it is necessary. But this can’t wait. In brief, certification is necessary because it forces us to engage with each other in the form of classes and CEUs. That engagement creates a community. That community helps us keep each other informed and avoid being taken advantage of. If you have any doubts about whether you should sign up for your WKT, just remember that the more you know, the more you can share with your fellow reporter, and the better all of us become. I have a feeling that NYSCRA’s illustrious current President, Joshua Edwards, and its indefatigable incoming President, Dominick Tursi, would agree with me on that one.
You can also sign up for NYSCRA’s voluntary RCR test pioneered by the founder of DALCO reporting, Debra Levinson, CSR-RMR-CRR-CRI-RCR. Read more below and register here!
Yesterday I noted the racial disparities in automatic speech recognition study and how modern ASR did worse than the estimates provided in an old patent. I also noted humans are built to get better at just about anything they do. I just so happen to think about this court reporting and automatic speech recognition stuff a lot. It finally hit me why automatic speech recognition has made little real progress in the last 20 years: Language drift. The way that people speak and write English tends to change over time. Great example? I’m a gamer but I’m not entrenched in gamer culture. When someone about six years younger than me said “I’m getting bodied,” I had almost no clue what he was talking about. He was getting beat up by the other team! If you took a look at the video I linked, it explains how words and nomenclature changed drastically in English. Early English, to me, sounded much more French than anything we know today. If you go back only about 650 years, you reach a point where you are unlikely to understand the English language. Giraffes used to be camelopards. “Verily” used to be a word that people used. Even worse, there was no electricity to charge our stenotypes yet. To the chagrin of English purists, language drift appears inevitable. But this is also why we need real people studying and mastering English. It gives the rest of us a fighting chance. That’s why a computer program could never do for court reporting what Margie Wakeman Wells did. The computer would only regurgitate the same rules again and again, never reviewing or assessing new information unless a real person told it to.
What does that have to do with automatic speech recognition and court reporting? Our verbal and written languages are changing over time. That’s why literally now means figuratively, literally! ASR is based off of machine learning. It’s unlikely to ever perfect English because English is ever evolving and never perfect. Let’s say a company compiles enough data and creates an algorithm so perfect that it can accurately understand every single one of the billions of speakers on the planet today. Every single day after that moment, the speech patterns would change just a little bit and would be unrecognizable to the system someday. Of course, there is not a single country or corporation on the planet allocating enough money or personnel to gather that much data in the first place!
As a secondary matter, a system trained to understand all English dialects is inherently less likely to work than a system trained to understand only standard English as far as I know. I’ve written extensively about how bad ASR was with AAVE, as low as 25%. If we train a system for AAVE and data suited for that, there is a high likelihood that it would have worse accuracy for standard speakers. Gain ground on one type of speaker and lose ground on the other. The main way to compensate for that would be to have a trained operator use a specific voice profile to select the speaker. Guess what? That’s voice writing, something our industry figured out two decades ago.
This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to train and be at the top of our game. But my thoughts on AI are shifting from what they were. I used to believe there was some small possibility we would be replaced. I am coming to a place where I do not see us as replaceable under the current model of ASR without a trained operator in every seat. If we’re going to do that, stenography is the way to go!
Thank you to recent donors. My PayPal is open to receive donations for those that wish to contribute to the cost of running the blog. If you don’t want to give something for “nothing,” I also designed a Sad Iron Stenographer mug on Zazzle. The cheaper one, I will make about $0.90 for every sale. The more expensive one, I will make about $10 for every sale. They are both identical mugs, so buy whichever you find to be more appropriate. Nothing will make your Mondays happier than the sad iron stenographer, I guarantee* it.
The main talking point of some industry hacks, is that we have a low pass rate for stenographic court reporting, about 10 to 20%, and therefore we cannot solve the stenography shortage by recruiting because recruitment will “never” keep up with demand. This is extrapolated from the information that was provided in the Court Reporting Industry Outlook 2013-2014 by Ducker Worldwide. As stated in the beginning of the report, the way that this forecast was created was by interviewing about 120 people from in and around our field, as well as some proprietary data analysis by Ducker.
My main strategy, up to now, has been to explain why these people are extrapolating incorrectly or making bad arguments. I’ve made counter arguments that suggest the shortage is best solved through stenographic reporting that put theirs to shame and have not been refuted. I’ve unapologetically named names on the corporations that are trying to bump us out because this matters to me. This is my field. This is what I want to do. This is where I can help society the most. If they are successful in changing the minds of reporters and consumers, my job is likely to be eliminated someday or the pay is likely to be substantially reduced. People will suffer greater inaccuracies in their court records because ASR is 25 to 80% accurate and non-stenographers transcribe English dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) at a rate half as accurate as court reporters. To me, there is no greater dishonor than to do well and lift the ladder up while others are trying to climb. Not only are companies attempting to lift the ladder, they are indifferent to the fact that they would hurt people in the process.
I tried to be diplomatic about it for four years. I tried to convince colleagues and companies in a more polite, erudite manner. I made a very open warning that if they did not make companies where we were the standard, we would build them. We’re building. Look at the lawyers who started Steno. They put us in the name of their company. Not to mention Steno Captions LLC, a company that not only put Steno in the name, but gave me solid data that helped me show our field that VITAC was offering a disgustingly low amount of money. I’m not prescient, but I just told you that I love my field. I know my field. Humans are literally built to be this way; we get better and more knowledgeable at anything we do a lot. Now I have another open warning: Change direction or we will figuratively burn pathetic digital reporting businesses to the ground. It clearly isn’t as scalable or logistically feasible as it was thought to be and digital proponents look like clowns to anyone paying attention.
In this country, the elements for defamation are that plaintiff must prove defendant published a false statement of fact to a third party that causes damage to plaintiff. It’s been years of publishing information and not a single company has threatened to sue. That’s a clear indicator to me that I am accurate or real close in just about everything I publish, including that big companies may well be facing financial trouble. Sooner or later, the majority of reporters are going to work out that I am publishing truth. They will, as I have, work out that millions of dollars don’t mean much if these companies don’t have a good business model. By trying to force us out of the market, companies are giving themselves 27,000 competitors, a move that should make shareholders physically ill. No longer will we accept the false narrative that “there’s nothing they can do.” They’re bright people. Insist that they figure it out and see how fast they figure it out. Tell them to stop throwing up their little social media posts or reporter corners and calling that support while they put advertisement dollars and training effort down on digital. Nobody who thinks about the situation for more than a minute or two believes that they’re using digital because they can’t find stenographers. We have a national database of stenographers that goes underutilized. How do I know it’s underutilized? Easy. When I was a young reporter, I got inundated with emails from agencies that found me on Sourcebook. Today, after about four years of blogging, out of all the garbage-like companies that were pushing garbage-like product, namely US Legal, Planet Depos, and Veritext, I have received maybe one email looking for reporters, if that. Other companies are writing me and looking for stenographers. We certainly don’t see any recruitment campaigns as we do with digital. One email in four years? Nothing they can do? How about working with the very established industry that they’re operating in instead of trying to outsmart it? Tipping points are hard. Not getting fully behind stenographers is going to be much, much harder for businesses. Look at the news. Watson didn’t work out. Automation is looking less likely every day. Even the poster child for automation, Elon Musk, is having a rough time making good on his big tech promises. What hope does anyone with less fame or money have? We’re not even playing particularly rough and digital proponents can’t make it work. What happens to big firms when reporters start poaching clients, publishing invoices, publishing client lists, and creating marketing firms that could eclipse the annual marketing budget of any court reporting firm in the country? Again, this is not prescience, it’s observation. I am one guy with a blog. I have about as much money as the bear that wasn’t a bear. If I am able to poke holes and publish things that professional news organizations miss, just imagine what any person reading this is capable of, let alone many thousands of court reporters. That TikTok I posted Monday said it best: Do not fuck with stenographers.
In addition to changing the strategy from diplomacy to Hell March 2, I have to now point out the inherent flaws of relying on Ducker’s 2013 information in 2021. The industry outlook is eight years old at this point. Stenographers had a choice in 2013, go big or go home. After that time, NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno all went big. Plenty of other reporters did too. Kim Xavier began Stenovator Pathway Solutions. Allison Hall set up programs and initiatives to get students in schools and help them find their way, and most recently received an award from the Oklahoma judiciary. Katiana Walton started training people under StenoKey. Shaunise Day started Confessions of a Stenographer. Protect Your Record Project set up strategies to help educate consumers against the pushing of inferior digital reporting products. NCRA Strong created resources for members to help educate consumers. So many people did so many things that I regret ending the list there. The recruitment and content creation efforts of stenographers didn’t double or triple, it exploded exponentially into a runaway train that only keeps accelerating and will only go faster now. Ducker’s top reason for low enrollment was that stenography was relatively unknown. That just isn’t going to be the case anymore. The median age of reporters in 2013 was 51 according to page eight of the report. Today, NCRA statistics state the median age of reporters is 55. It has been eight years. Without any activity whatsoever, the median age should have been 59. We can already see the results of our work.
Another “problem” with relying on the forecast or cherry-picking data from it is that focusing directly on the shortage ignores all the nuance and the actual messaging of the report. Let’s go through the report together and see just how much it supported the conclusion that stenographic court reporters were needed. Check out page six, where they published the segmentation of court reporters to voice writers.
Voice writing is actually a decent product. Yet voice writers still were only 4% of the field. For about five years companies stood silent. When they had the slightest hiccup in scheduling, 2018, they went digital because “stenographers take too long to train and have too high of a failure rate.” If that were true, perhaps they would have built the voice writing side of their business, since it was already far more established as a modality than digital reporting. It is far more likely that some companies’ ultimate goal is to offshore the work, a disastrous result for our justice system in America due to the fact that offshore transcribers will be beyond the subpoena power of local and state courts. Even if it is not the goal, it is the logical consequence of moving reporter transcription from the front end to the back end and taking us away from public view. What school would open to fill a job that nobody sees or knows about?
The number of reporters entering and retiring is touted by know-nothing companies like US Legal as the reason the stenographer shortage cannot be solved by recruiting more reporters. Recently they put out that we have an annual shrinkage of 920, and I explained why, even assuming that was true, they were wrong. The equation they presented would eventually lead to negative stenographers, which is impossible if there are 200 new entrants a year. Ducker also explains why they’re wrong. At the worst of our decline, when the study was commissioned, we had an estimated 1,500 entrants coming into the field from 2013 to 2018, about 300 a year. Are we really to believe that with all of the effort going into training court reporters and bringing attention to the field that the number of annual new entrants fell between now and then?
In addition to Ducker’s forecast with regard to the actual number of opportunities, there was data about violent crime which led to them to believe the demand for criminal court reporters would go up. According to them, it was trending up at that moment.
But when we look at sites like Statista, we see that the violent crime did rise for about three years as predicted by Ducker. Then it started falling again. It is hard to say, given the events of 2020 and 2021, where that per capita violent crime rate is going to go in the years to come. But what we can see with clarity is that Ducker’s information became outdated on violent crime as quickly as 2016. That leads us to the question: What other information might be outdated that we simply do not know about?
The next few pages of the Ducker Report focus on the demand for stenographic court reporters. It’s probably the single greatest marketing piece of its time for us. We needed people, and the forecast told us that. Page 13 of the report gave us some striking infographics that let us know California and the west coast were going to have the hardest time with meeting the demand.
The rest of the report focuses on state projections. Some states were projected to have a surplus. This means that any state with a surplus could theoretically lose reporters to states with shortage problems and still be fine. This is likely what occurred in 2020 when depositions moved online. The fact that depositions moved online and companies continued to push digital is another clear indication that this was never about the shortage. It was about messaging. Signal to reporters that their job is over and get them repeating that news over and over under the mantra of “nothing else we can do but go digital.” Let me pull a word from Stacey Raikes’s amazing JCR article: Hogwash. It was a sweet lie to ride on. It’s over now. And make no mistake that it is a lie so blatantly obvious that I predicted it would occur back in February, writing “there will be a strong push from certain entities to say there aren’t enough of us. That will happen regardless of the truth.” Let’s repeat this: Stenographic reporting is here to stay. There is a place for every single one of our students as long as they work hard and do good work.
So was Ducker Worldwide wrong? Not by my assessment. They made an accurate forecast based off accurate data that existed when the industry outlook was written. That said, as an industry, we need to stop letting others tell us what the report said, really look at it, and encourage colleagues to look at it. It was a message that stenographers were needed. The shortage was not ever impossible to solve. That was a lie propagated by STTI that the corporations picked up when they saw a chance at pushing our educated and highly trained workforce out so that they could exploit digital reporters. Offshore transcribers are also being exploited, with some of them being paid as little as $0.80 a page or $0.24 a minute. The only way that we get pushed out is if we let it happen. I began documenting these events years ago with hope that we would not. Don’t let me down.
An awesome Reddit user pointed out that the way I describe the median age here does not account for retiring reporters and assumes none retired out. To that, I would have to partially agree, but also point out that Ducker conceded that many reporters stay past the retirement age, as shown in purple below. The number of reporters that reached retirement age in the last 8 years was not the retirement cliff we have been anticipating. The next ten years is the retirement cliff. So I see it as I do because the reporters that were not yet retirement age as of the Ducker Report are likely to still be with us in large numbers, with some exceptions, such as our very recently retired and beloved Dominick Tursi. Given the substantial increase in stenographic reporter recruitment in the last 8 years, the logical conclusion is that the reporters staying past retirement age are bringing the median age up. There is no doubt that we need to continue our recruitment efforts, but we should no longer be swayed by the arguments that the situation is “impossible.”
Stenographers are no strangers to social media. We’ve had students like Isabelle Lumsden get thousands of eyes on our stenotypes. We have amazing content from accounts like Stenoholics. More recently, I got to see a video from the TikTok letsgetfries. The video starts with our hero mentioning that she’s been on jury duty for two weeks. The most important thing she’s learned? Stenographers have the wildest energy of anyone she has ever met in her life! Don’t fuck with them. Maybe she’d make a good court reporter, she got our hand and eye thing down already!
I bring this up for the entertainment value, but also as a reminder that strategically social media is our battleground. There are companies out there right now, like US Legal, that are claiming the stenographer shortage cannot be solved by training more stenographers. It’s a blatant lie dressed up like industry news to fool industry insiders and outsiders. Meanwhile, we know from the Open Steno 2021 Survey that about two thirds of people coming into contact with steno, at least in that community, are coming into contact with it thanks to the Internet. So we’ve got to out-presence them, recruit people, and steer our students clear of dishonest companies.
And make no mistake that I am calling US Legal dishonest. In their article they note 1,120 retirees a year and 200 new reporters. An annual shrinkage of 920 reporters, giving the impression that this is an annual gap that never ends and only gets larger. But that’s not how these numbers work. First of all, they’re extrapolated from the Ducker Report, which was a forecast based off 120 interviews and some proprietary data analysis, not a future-telling machine. As more and more reporters retire out, the retirees would decrease each year. Anybody with a second-grade math level can figure out their math is wrong because a shrinkage of 920 annually means there would be zero reporters in 30ish years. That’s not actually possible if you’re getting 200 new reporters a year. The equivalent would be me going on JD Supra and saying the CEO of US Legal gets two brain cells a year and loses ten, therefore his company will probably be bankrupt in ten years. Doesn’t matter if it’s true, it just sounds good. I don’t begrudge people for where they work, but as a company, no matter how great any individual employee might be, they’ve got to be among the most dishonest, toxic, harmful companies in our industry. You know that scene in Star Wars where Luke tells Kylo “amazing, every word of what you just said was wrong”? That’s how I feel. Reporters get some cognitive dissonance here because US Legal does have nice people working for them, but that doesn’t change how I feel about the entity itself. It’s like Theranos. I’m sure nice people worked there, but the entire operation was a big joke that should never have happened.
Letsgetfries, I don’t know if you’ll ever happen across this, but let’s just say we’re so used to being treated like potted plants that whenever anybody says anything nice about us, we boost them big time. From getting Stanley Sakai’s article featured on Medium last year or sharing John Belcher’s deposition strategies. You’re no different. As of late last week we had shared you over a thousand times! Hope you had a great experience with jury duty! If you know anybody who’d like to join our field, please let them know about NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, or Open Steno. For the record, our crazy energy is mostly thanks to everyone saying they can replace us and failing for the last half decade. We’re working it out. Thanks again!
A student recently explained to me that they had to create a drill for set of briefs they wanted to learn. In my view, the best way to do this would be creating a repetitive dictation of the brief(s) a person wants to drill, marking that for dictation, and then practicing at some kind of speed. I know minimal computer coding, and have made tools to try to help students and educators cut down on busywork in the past, but because my coding knowledge is so limited, I’ve never quite mastered it enough to make it easy for people, and consequently, the tools I’ve designed go underused.
I plan to continue to do research and make a real effort to make these tools accessible, but in the meantime, I have a workaround that anyone can do from their computer in five easy steps.
Step 1: Get the code. Go to my Dropbox, highlight the code text, right click it, and copy it. You can also use CTRL+C when things are highlighted to copy them. Don’t waste your time reading this image, it’s just demonstrative.
Step 2: Paste the code into this person’s website. Note that when you open the site, they have some code there already. Just paste right over that or even delete it.
Step 3: Once you have pasted the code in, go to line 5. There should be a line that says “possible.” Inside those brackets, you put whatever terms you want to show up in your drill. In order to make this work, every phrase or word you want must be surrounded by quotation marks and separated by commas. In the example below, I show what it would look like if you wanted to drill red, yellow, and green.
Step 4: Once you have set up the words you want to appear in the drill, click the green “run code” button on the bottom right. A black box will pop up. If it says program start, the program is working. If it talks about an error, something went wrong. If it says program complete, it’s all done.
Step 5: After approximately one minute, the program will finish. You will have a file called Drill.txt on the left side of the screen. You can copy your drill into Todd Olivas’s slasher to help you mark it for dictation. If you need help dictating, see what I’ve written about that here.
I know that this is not ideal, but it is a fast and easy way to get long lists of words without having to painstakingly write and copy them multiple times. I really hope it helps. Special thanks to the student that gave me the idea.
Addendum: Shortly after releasing this post I changed the code and Dropbox link to a much faster version of the program. It avoids repeating the same word twice and works in one second instead of fifty. The only drawback is that if you only put one item in your word list, the program will run forever without giving you an error message. Please put at least two items in the list.
Additionally, after sharing what I was working on with the Open Steno community, Joshua Grams created an HTML file that is much easier to use. Just download it and double click to open it in your browser. It does not randomize the words, but it does repeat whatever you type into it as many times as you ask it to.
I’ve been writing this blog to help people look at the issues in our field differently and realize that they, as individuals, can change outcomes. Many of us struggle with fear and anxiety, whether it’s about a boss, a work situation, a life situation, or even the simple act of speaking up for ourselves. This blog is about bringing comfort through knowledge and often points out there’s always a way forward.
Here is a way forward for our future public speakers. Years ago, one of my best friends, NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards, asked me to attend a Toastmasters meeting. Toastmasters is a public speaking club. It helps people overcome their fear of speaking or enhance the skills they already have through practice. Toward the start of a meeting they had “table topics,” improvised scenarios for randomly-chosen guests to speak about. As luck had it, the very first time I attended I was chosen to talk about what I would do to sell clothing irons to people. I stood up, said I would lose my job, and launched deeper into an explanation about how I would sell those irons that only my Facebook friends can see because Facebook does not want me to touch the privacy settings on that one.
At the conclusion of the meeting they asked “will you come back?” My response? “No, I enjoy my debilitating fear of public speaking.” I did come back a time or two and always listened to what Joshua had to say with great interest. He went on to become President of that Toastmasters chapter, participate in at least one regional contest, and sharpen his already-formidable speaking skills.
Now he’s setting up StenoMasters, an online speaking club. A Facebook group and page will be made soon. This will be geared toward stenographers, but it is not going to be exclusively stenographers, so if you have friends or family that want to jump into public speaking with you, have them check it out. There are many amazing options to learn about speaking and presenting. Because StenoMasters is going to be a nonprofit club, I assume it will be the most value for your dollar in public speaking practice, and I am very happy to share it with my audience. When enrollment opens, I hope to be the very first member to sign up.
We have a big messaging issue in steno. As more of us cross the threshold from voiceless to voices for the voiceless, our messaging and entire field will improve. Again, this is a life skill that will help you in all your personal and professional endeavors. I hope you’ll join me in joining StenoMasters.
After releasing the article on how a New York reporter doubled their money by taking private clients, I was hit with a scenario. “Chris, I went to get private clients, but they showed me invoices they were getting, and they were lower than what I get from my agency! How does anybody make money in this city?” Subsequently I came across an article regarding Veritext’s lawsuit with US Adjustment Corp., and from that lawsuit I was able to get a whole lot of old invoices.
At a glance, most of the invoices seem to be between $3.40 and $3.95, and this is indeed competitive with the rates given to reporters for O+2 work, which usually lands somewhere between $3.25 and $4.25 with no upcharges. For non-NY readers, your O+1 is our O+2. The witness’s attorney customarily gets their copy without charge. For those of you that would like to peruse 200 pages of invoices, enjoy. The rest of you, keep reading.
Just in case anybody missed it, at least one of these invoices is listed at the Cutting Edge Deposition office, a one-star digital reporting outfit. So there’s at least circumstantial evidence that Veritext was linked to or had a relationship with digital reporting services as early as 2015. Note also that there’s basically no difference between the price listed at the digital firm’s office and any other invoice. As old studies have shown, digital reporting is not cheaper.
Obviously, these are all over half a decade old and may not reflect current market rates. Obviously whatever rates USAC was getting were probably discounted for the bulk work in the same way Diamond gave the Law Department great rates. The point stands that companies are finding a way to charge less than the reporter is making. How is that possible?
1. Cost shifting via copies. 2. Zombie behavior.
Cost shifting? Cost shifting, in this context, is when one party underpays for a service or product, and the cost of that service or product is recovered from another party who is overpaying.
Again, using New York City’s market as an example, an agency could pay a reporter $3.25, $4.25, or whatever rate was agreed upon. The reporter generally makes the majority of that O+2. Where the agencies get their money is typically the copies. Let’s say you send Johnny on a deposition for $4.25 a page, but you give your client a sweet $3.95 rate because they have so much bulk work. A loss, right? Only if the job is an O+2. There’s no statutory cap on copies here that I know of, and copy rates are notoriously bad in New York City, between 25 cents and 50 cents, so a single copy of more than $0.55/page means profit for the company on that job. Just to put this into perspective, I’ve reviewed a Veritext email from the Midwest region that had copy rates in the $3.80 (regular) to $4.80 (expedite) ballpark. The copy rate for officials in New York, who also collect a salary in addition to their pages, has been hovering around a dollar for the last couple of decades. The idea that private sector is not charging more for that is pretty naive. So assuming an original of 3.95/page, a copy sale of 3.80/page, and a payment to Johnny of 4.50/page, the agency is pulling in $7.75/page in revenue. That’s nearly 42% of the money for them for what is essentially a finder’s fee. It also complicates things for Johnny, who can’t promise clients $3.95 unless he’s willing to take a pay cut and gamble on getting copies.
It goes beyond that with what’s called a sliding scale. The sliding scale awards the client, and sometimes the copy purchasers, with a discount dependent on the number of copies sold. Because the reporters are not fighting for their copies, companies have a lot of wiggle room. They can put $8 on a copy invoice. If a lawyer pays it, then they’ve just made $8 a page under the client’s assumption that “court reporters are so expensive.” If the lawyer complains, they can cut that rate down to $4 or $2, tell the lawyer they’re such a great client and getting such a great deal, pay the 25 cents to the reporter, and walk away with significant amounts of money. Think about it this way: Let’s send Sally on an O+6 for a rocking $5.25 a page, original and 4 copy sales at Johnny’s same rates. The agency can charge 2 bucks a page to everyone, walk away with $10 a page, and again make about what Sally is making despite it being Sally that’s doing 99% of the work because binding transcripts really isn’t hard. Again, Sally is stuck in a situation where working on her own might actually make her less money unless and until copy sales come into play. If Sally can’t survive the short-term pay cut, she doesn’t make it to the big bucks that are keeping agency rents paid, and she’s more likely to accept whatever rate the agency wants instead of the best rate her skill can command. And that $5.25 is generous, because prior to the court reporter shortage getting bad, some companies, like Diamond, didn’t even bother to pay all of their reporters copies. So a company like Diamond as it was would’ve been making 60% of the money from the job before factoring in the proofreading fee that some reporters were asked or told to pay.
The darker side of the sliding scale is when companies ask reporters to change their layout or give a discount on multiple copy sales/realtime hookups. There is typically zero guarantee that they are passing on those savings to clients. Think about that the next time you send a job in your preferred layout and an agency asks you to cram it into a new one that widens the margins or changes the page count. The N word can be your friend sometimes. I knew a realtimer who was asked to slide their rate back because of all the parties ordering. Acquiescence meant losing half their money on that job, but failing to acquiesce might’ve meant the entire job being given to someone else. They used the N word, got the job, and made lots of money. Reporters win when they stand up for themselves.
Zombie Behavior? Brains… Several articles ago I explained the concept of zombie companies. Companies can make money through loans and investors, keeping cash flow positive while losing money and/or earning no profit. Zombies can also be defined as companies that are just barely making their debt obligations. 1 in 5 companies examined by Bloomberg were zombies. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, 1 in 4 court reporting companies was said to be not profitable. Those that were not profitable lost an average of 10% of their revenue a year. These companies can basically use their investor money to hire people and give customers great discounts. If they obtain large enough market share and run competitors into the ground, they can then jack up their prices monopoly style.
This isn’t a fantasy-land scenario. It’s what Uber did. It gave great discounts and even occasionally gave drivers incentives. It killed the taxi industry as best it could, made itself a fixture in people’s lives, and jacked up the rates while claiming a shortage. Meanwhile, the business model is losing billions of dollars a year. Honestly, I’m more concerned with the cost shifting than I am with the zombies. If companies can’t make money exploiting the “driving” skill, companies are doomed when it comes to a specialized skill like legal reporting. This is a simple calculation. About 80% of America drives and about 0.01% of America court reports. It’s about supply and demand. To me, that says that reporting zombie firms are about 8,000 times less likely to be profitable than Uber, a company which despite ubiquity and billions lost has not managed to turn a profit. But the danger of zombies is evident: They can take up significant market share, impact market rates, and bankrupt other service providers for decades before the money runs out. Again, look at what they did to the medallions. A high of $1 million in sales went as low as $140,000 in recent years, likely thanks to companies that do not even have a sustainable model.
What do we do? Hope. I’ve been told “what? That’s business! You hate business? They’re not doing anything wrong!” Legally they are probably not doing anything wrong in New York. I’ll concede that much until I have real evidence to the contrary. But morally it’s pretty clear this is wrong. Why are the page rates such a shell game? Why is everything so hidden instead of the yesteryear commission split that reporters made? Why aren’t young reporters being taught the value of the copy and their work? It’s easy to control ignorant people and conclude a lot of companies want reporters to be ignorant so that the companies can continue to leech off of the work of reporters. So to address the morality question, ask yourself how you would feel about me if my mantra was “I need you to be dumb so I can profit off your work.” That would be pretty evil, right? How about if I reduced standard turnaround times so you were always too busy with work to think about the situation and whether you were getting a fair deal? Let’s say I wasn’t evil and circumstances just lined up perfectly for me to profit off your ignorance, and I let it happen. Am I a “good person” yet? Am I “not doing anything wrong?” Sometimes it seems we have this bizarre notion that anything goes in business except standing up and saying “no, this is wrong, I won’t cooperate with this.” I’m still in the process of vetting the following, but I was told by a colleague that reporting companies here in New York City brought on salespeople, the salespeople saw the money to be made in this field, started creating their own companies, killed the union, and from there our rates literally stagnated for about 30 years. In my younger years I was literally told “if you don’t like the way it is, leave.” A good four people that I knew in or around my graduating class of 2010 did leave. It’s been an incredible decade and we are now at the point where people are talking about this stuff pretty freely instead of telling newbies they’re the problem and that they should leave. As I see it, hope and communication are winning us many battles.
I can’t say with certainty where the tolerance to everything that keeps reporter rates down comes from Perhaps it’s all exacerbated by antitrust concerns and the fact that our associations cannot engage in anticompetitive behavior such as group boycotts. Perhaps we see they are silenced, so we mimic that silence. NCRA, for example, could never legally denounce Veritext, US Legal, or Planet Depos in the same way I’m allowed to. Maybe that tolerance is linked to survivorship bias. “I was successful and therefore anyone who is not successful must not be trying hard enough.” Maybe that tolerance is linked to expectations and the Pygmalion effect. “There’s nothing I can do, so I won’t try to change anything, and therefore nothing changes, validating my belief that there was nothing I could do.”
There’s no end to the list of “maybes,” but there is a profound power in spreading knowledge. With knowledge on how the court reporting firms are making their money, everyone from the grizzled four-decade reporter to the newbie graduate can compete. That’s a pretty scary thought for anybody who’s been making money off of reporter ignorance. That’s a scary thought for reporting companies that can’t even make a profit in the current climate. But for the people that actually do the work in this field and the reporter-owned companies, it provides real opportunity. Not so entrepreneurial? You’ve seen now hundreds of invoices and just how much money is in this field. It’s time to ask for your fair share. A typical finder’s fee is something between 5% and 35%. Why should you give up 95% on a copy?
Entrepreneurial? Try subcontracting your O+2 out to your non-entrepreneurial colleagues and grabbing those copy jobs. It may be frightening to lose money on any one job, but if you lose $100 on one job and make $1,000 on another, you put more in your pocket, and as I just showed you, it works out mathematically. You can pay your colleagues well and still make boatloads of money. If you’d like to be added to the list of agencies I compiled so that New York reporters can find you, let me know.
There’s no cheap fix. Industry health is a lot like personal health. Took me a long time to get heavy. It was about a decade of decline until I peaked at 290 pounds. It also took a long time and a lot of reporter apathy to get from the golden age 80s to the nightmare of a field I stepped into where rates were lower in 2010 than they were in 1991. Those of you who saw me at NCRA 2021 saw I’m a lot closer to 240 now and headed in a somewhat healthier direction. Without some communication from people that loved me, I probably would’ve remained hopeless and just kept gaining the weight. Similarly we can rehabilitate this field and make the working reporter’s wallet a lot healthier on average, but it’s going to take consistent effort to get word out to the newbies. The long-term consequence of an informed field is probably more stable pricing for consumers, the people we’re doing all this for to begin with, and I can’t see a single drawback.
Addendum: As pointed out in a comment below, I neglected to point out that agencies also create a word index or concordance index and charge for those pages. Some firms charge a reduced rate and others charge a full rate. In my past experience, no firm paid the reporter for the index. Since it’s a practice that relates so closely to this topic, I am adding it here.