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 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.”
Remember when the world was supposed to end? Computer programs were going to crash. Massive delays could happen. It was the doomsday that never happened about 21 years ago.
It turns out Y2K was a pretty big problem in the computer programming world. Computer memory used to be incredibly limited. To get around this limitation, many programmers designed programs to save dates using fewer numbers. MM/DD/YY was shorter than MM/DD/YYYY. The result of this design was that in the year 2000, many programs could believe it was the year 1900. Booked a flight? Good luck finding your 100-year old reservation in the system. Clocked in at work? You were going to be 100 years late. Had a bank account? They were going to owe you 100 years of interest. Anything where dates and computers were important was in danger.
That danger came and went because programmers went to the media. Programmers whipped up a frenzy of attention to the issue, and the people that pay them took the issue seriously. Millions of dollars were spent to fix old programs, and the result was that Y2K went down in the public’s mind as a hoax or joke.
There are a few things stenographic reporters can mirror here. We too have a looming crisis. Our reporter shortage is well documented. The average age of NCRA membership is 55. For all the reasons listed in the PCRA article, digital reporting and automatic speech recognition is an inadequate replacement for the stenographic court reporter. Indeed, I’ve even “pontificated” that if we fail, it will cause much more severe delays than courts already experience.
We too have people that need to buy in. Court administrations, private attorneys, captioning purchasers, and educators are all examples of people we need to buy in the same way banks, airports, and others bought in and helped stop Y2K. Ultimately, these are the people injured if we fail to recruit more reporters, and the least we can do is let them know. The schools are not going to survive long with the offshoring of the jobs. The rest of them are going to suffer from a quality issue.
We too have seen this coming in advance. For over 7 years we’ve been pushing out initiatives to recruit reporters. NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno have all grown more robust and organized in that time. We still have a good 7 to 10 years before the majority of reporters cross the retirement threshold and reality tells us whether we’ve won or lost. That’s 7 to 10 years to change the outcome if you think we’re losing or keep the lead if you think we’re winning.
Most importantly, we too can win. Programmers were facing an unprecedented issue and worked to fix it. They did not fix everything perfectly; a nuclear weapons plant had a little hiccup after all, but they fixed everything enough that nothing catastrophic happened. They had a choice, and they chose to be leaders. As I told many students on February 2021, we too have a choice. We are not facing an unprecedented issue. We are facing a labor shortage. We don’t have to do this perfectly. As I explained yesterday, the corporations that are trying to bump us out of the field are far from perfect and their arguments are completely hollow. There are so many of us that with even the slightest effort, we will eclipse whatever anti-steno propaganda is put out there. We just have to do it.
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.
About three months ago, after Verbit’s acquisition of VITAC, a well-known captioning provider, I published a strategic overview for captioners and how they can stand up for consumers. Not long ago, a live steno captioner position was posted by VITAC for less than $20 an hour. The position did boast other incentives, such as the potential for health insurance and a 401(k) for full-time captioners. With health insurance being valued by sources like Griffin at $1.52 to $7.42 an hour, it’s fair to say that we can consider a $19.23 hourly rate with benefits a value of about $30 an hour at best and a value of $20.75 at worst.
Stenography is a highly specialized skill. But even other highly specialized skills, like realtime voice writing, were undervalued. The voice captioner posting said $30 hourly at the top, but then in the body of the description, a $17/hr training rate was advertised. It was further advertised that $35,000 could be made in the first year. $35,000 divided by 52 weeks in a year is about $673.08 a week. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, that’s about $16.83/hr — close to half the advertised rate!
I thought, “if a company is going to pay its specialized workforce $20 or $30 an hour, certainly I feel bad for the positions that do not have labor shortages or specialized skills.” Then I came across VITAC’s posting for Sales Engineer I (SE1). An SE1’s job is all about onboarding new clients and responding to requests from Operations and Sales personnel. They’re offered $58,000 to $70,000 annually, the equivalent of $27.88/hr and $33.65/hr assuming the same 40-hour workweek. So VITAC’s apparent strategy is to pay the stenographer that is providing the actual service to the consumer about 60% of what they’re paying the salespeople. But just to make sure they look good, they added a modern stenotype to the website.
Of course, having been in the field the last eleven years, I also have some basic familiarity with the rates that captioners and CART providers charge. $20 to $30 for a “live steno captioner” job seemed low to me. Knowing how companies in the court reporting sector have taken advantage of young reporters, I requested information from several service providers in the field with varying degrees of experience in the hopes that I could get solid info out there for young or unknowing captioners. This is what I learned:
Provider A stated that they did not provide broadcast captioning, but did caption telephone calls and Zoom meetings at a rate of “almost $40 an hour” through Innocaption. It was stated that the work was super easy and may even be possible for students to take, though Provider A did mention they usually do not recommend students work. Asked about their understanding of broadcast captioning rates, Provider A stated broadcast captioning was higher. Provider B stated “Even as a brand new CART provider, I never made less than $60 an hour. With one company, after I got my [certification], they bumped me to $65. Another company has always been $65 across the board. The third company has different rates for different jobs. Classes are $60 but if you are doing town halls, harder jobs, it is $75. Fourth Company was a smaller company and [they] paid me $80 per hour, and it was only classes. First company I spoke of is out of Illinois, second is Denver, third is California, fourth is Chicago. And I have never done broadcast captioning. I hope that helps!”
Provider C stated that they performed work for call services that did live captioning and were offered $40 an hour, but they were only taking down one side of a conversation.
Provider D, a 27-year veteran of our field and certified realtime reporter, stated that when they took on captioning work, it was 2014, they had a full-time job, and they did not need to make the same high rates independent contractors usually did. They made $50/hr in 2014 and a 2-hour minimum. That work came to a close. Come 2020, Provider D was again offered $50/hr and attempted to negotiate for $80 because the work was dense and contained a lot of science. The firm “did not know” if they could pay $80, and asked Provider D to come down to $70, which Provider D did with the caveat that they would renegotiate at a later date.
Provider D also received a call from a California-based company and negotiated $100/hr with a 2-hour minimum. The firm paying $100/hr expected no rough draft after events. The firm paying $70/hr required a rough draft. A third firm in Florida offered $80/hr. Provider D stated that the swing was generally between $50/hr to $100/hr and that they would never work for $20/hr because captioning is more than knowing realtime, you have to know how to connect to a multitude of platforms and devices, as well as troubleshoot on the fly.
Provider E wrote “My first response when I read [the $20 rate] was OMG! Yeah, that is SUPER low! So here’s what I know from where I sit in the Pacific Northwest:
There are four levels of captioning that I have ascertained. 1. Broadcast captioning, which is a whole other sphere that requires encoding software and usually above and beyond training to do TV captioning. I don’t really know much about that…” “I don’t know what rates they’re charging, but it has to be higher because the software is not cheap, like a $7k add-on with Eclipse.
2. CART captioning, either in person or remote, through a freelance company or own shingle. This is stuff like government meetings, group conferences, seminars and such, $120-$125/hr with 2-3 hour minimum in my area. We are sometimes requested to bring a projector and/or screen, which adds to rental fees. About half of people charge after hours rates on this. I feel the remote world has let this go a bit. But I know when I go back in person that’ll definitely go back in.
3. Schools. One on one with one student. they are notoriously cheap in my opinion even though they’re being paid by ADA funds, from my understanding. Most commonly in my area $85/hr, 2-hr min. But I’ve negotiated more for after hours and weekend work with one college.
4. There is one company whose name escapes me, probably more, who provide a captioner for phone calls. they only pay $30/hr. I was really bothered by this undercutting of the industry when I found out about the rates folks were accepting. But a reporter I talked to about it said [it’s] mostly sitting there doing nothing because you’re only writing half of the conversation, no transcripts, so super easy work. She considered it easy supplemental income.
That $20 is WAY out of line, especially if that requires continuous writing…”
Provider F wrote “everyone has their baseline. I will do $70 and hide my head, for a friend. But my default is $80 or $85. However, if it’s MY work, my clients, I charge 100 or 125 and pay $80 or $90 or $100 depending on the job…”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $50 in 2014 money is worth $58.08 in June 2021 dollars. $100 in 2014 money is worth $116.15 in June 2021 dollars. Again, for new captioners, this should put into perspective the value of the work and the importance of occasional raises.
Thank you for your question about our company. StenoCaptions LLC is proud to be a minority woman-owned business. Our team of independent contractor captioners earn between $100-120 per hour depending on their qualifications and length of time in the field. As our website discloses, we charge $140 per hour for most jobs. This means that our captioners, who are the people doing the difficult and demanding work of providing live accurate Communication Access Real-time Translation, net between 70-86% of what we bill. StenoCaptions LLC is proud to support our highly trained, highly reliable stenographic captioners.
We are happy to be quoted on your blog. Let us know if you have any further questions.
Sincerely, Wendy Baquerizo and Joshua Edwards Co-owners StenoCaptions LLC StenoCaptions.com”
As of writing, there is little doubt in my mind that the rates being offered by VITAC, and I suppose by extension Verbit, are well below what could be considered a market rate no matter which market in the United States we examine. Again, in the best-case scenario of a $30/hr value, they are paying 40% less than Provider D, whose full-time job was not captioning, made in 2014! A company like Steno Captions is literally paying six times as much to their providers. This has some troubling implications. Verbit’s entire model, as I understand it, is automatic speech recognition transcription coupled with a human transcriber. Verbit claims on its site that after 8 hours it can provide ADA-compliant material at 99% accuracy, at least that’s how I understand their infographic. They also make the claim of 95% accuracy with an 8 to 12-second delay.
We have to deal with the hard fact that, in its series A funding, Verbit made the claim that its “adaptive speech recognition tech” could generate detailed transcriptions with over 99 percent accuracy at record speeds. In its series B funding, Verbit, through CEO Livne, said it would not take the human transcriber out of its workflow. Now it’s apparent that Verbit regards “record speeds” as 8 hours. We have to deal with the hard fact that, when studied by people at Stanford, an entire host of automatic speech recognition products from companies far larger than Verbit had accuracy levels that were 25 to 80 percent dependent on who was speaking.
There’s just no good reason to believe that Verbit consistently has the capabilities that it says it has. This is all part of the claim game that I demonstrated earlier this year. In the video I just linked, I tell six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth in fifteen seconds. I challenged my readers to think about how long it would take to prove the truth or falsity of each claim. I have to make the same challenge here. Verbit’s website boasts that they are trusted by “400+ organizations,” but when one flips through the organization list, one sees about 16 organizations. Even if one wanted to spend the time and energy to fact check the claim of being trusted by 400 organizations, one could not do so. Why bring it up? Because stenographers need to be aware that a lot of the “intimidating” information out there falls apart when given any sort of investigation. Likewise, there are entities out there that will try to convince young captioners that their skill is not worth very much. I’m publishing this information today to counter that.
Perhaps the low pay wouldn’t bother me, but it goes directly against digital recording’s main talking point of “we need to record it because there are not enough stenographers to meet demand.”
Maybe the shortage of stenographic court reporters and captioners is exacerbated by companies like this coming in and offering pay that’s nowhere near the market rate. There’s no innovation involved. It’s a shameless war on workers. It doesn’t take a particularly bright person to say “gee, there would be more money for the company if only we could reduce the labor costs.” It also doesn’t take a particularly bright person to point out to captioners that they cannot accept this if they want a healthy field. We’re going to need the entrepreneurial individuals among us to consider jumping in, setting up shop, and competing. We’re going to need captioners to demand the pay they deserve. So if you come across an inexperienced reporter getting told they’re only worth $20/hr, please share this with them and be a major part of pushing back.
Addendum: I realized after my initial draft that the $20 an hour could be a full-time job. Assuming 7 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, that’s a salary of about $36,400, below the national average, and well below what I started working for as a court reporter around $70,000 a year. So even looking at it from the standpoint and potential of “more hours for less pay” I am unimpressed and captioners should be too.
A series of 2019 predictions by Gartner were reported on by Venture Beat on June 28, 2021. As explained in a priorpost, “AI”, or machine learning, relies on datasets and algorithms. If the data is imperfect or incomplete, a computer has a chance of giving bad output. If the algorithm that tells the computer what to do with the data is imperfect, the computer has a chance of giving bad output. It’s easy to point to anecdotal cases where “AI” makes a bad call. There have been reports of discrimination in facial recognition technology, driverless cars killing people, or Amazon’s algorithm deciding to fire drivers that are doing their job. I’ve seen plenty of data on the failings of overhyped technology and commercial ASR. What I hadn’t seen prior to today was somebody willing to put a number on the percentage of AI solutions that succeed. Today, we have that number, and it’s an abysmal 15%.
Perhaps this will not come as a surprise to my readers, considering prior reports that automatic speech recognition (ASR), an example of machine learning, is only 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. But it will certainly come as a surprise to investors and companies that are dumping money into these technologies. Now there’s a hard number to consider. And that 15% itself is misleading. It’s a snapshot of the total number of implementations, not just ASR. ASR comprises a percentage of the total number of implementations out there. And it’s so bad that some blogs are starting to claim word error rate isn’t really that important.
That 15% is also misleading in that it’s talking about solutions that are implemented successfully. It is not talking about implementations that provide a positive return on investment (ROI). So imagine having to go to investors and say “our AI product was implemented with 100% success, but there’s still no money in this.”
The Venture Beat article goes on to describe several ways to make AI implementation a success, and I think it’s worth examining them briefly here.
Customizing a solution for each environment. No doubt that modeling a solution for every single business individually is bound to make that solution more successful, but it’s also going to take more staff and money. This would be almost like every court reporting company having their own personal software development staff to build their own CaseCAT or Eclipse. Why don’t they do that? It’s hopelessly expensive.
Using a robust and scalable platform. The word robust doesn’t really mean anything in this context. Scalability is tied to modular design — the ability to swap out parts of the program that don’t work for specific situations. For this, you need somebody bright and forward thinking. They have to have the capability to design something that can be modified to handle situations they may not even be aware exist. With the average software engineer commanding in the ballpark of $90,000 a year and the best of them making over $1 million a year, it’s hopelessly expensive.
Staying on course once in production. This involves reevaluating and sticking with something that may appear to be dysfunctional. This would be almost like the court reporter coming to the job, botching the transcript, and the client going “yes, I think I’ll use that guy again so that I can get a fuller picture of my operational needs.” It’s a customer service nightmare.
Adding new AI use cases over time. Piggybacking on number 3, who is going to want to continue to use AI solutions to patch what the first solution fails to address? This is basically asking businesspeople to trust that it will all work out while they burn money and spend lots of time putting out the fire. It’s a customer service nightmare.
I really respect Venture Beat trying to keep positive about AI in business, even if it’s a hopelessly expensive customer service nightmare.
With some mirth, I have to point out to those in the field that believe the stenographer shortage is an insurmountable problem that we now know machine learning in the business world has a failure rate that’s right up there with stenographic education’s failure rate. Beyond the potential of exploiting digital reporters or stealing investor money, what makes this path preferable to the one that has worked for the last hundred years? As I wrote a week ago, the competition is going to wise up. Stenographic court reporters are the sustainable business model in this field, and to continue to pretend otherwise is nothing short of fraud.
I had an e-mail exchange recently with a New York stenographic court reporter that began taking private clients. With the understanding their identity would remain anonymous, they gave me good insight into how it has increased their profit. I have presented plenty of academic theory on how low our page rates are here in New York and the importance of copies. Today I get to bring reporters a real-world example of just how much a little risk can increase your bottom line. Check out our Q&A below!
Q. How long have you been reporting? A. I’ve been reporting for 10 1/2 years.
Q. We’ve had multiple discussions now where you’ve disclosed you’ve taken up private clients. How is that going for you? A. So far it’s a success. I work with my clients 1-2 times a week, which I expected. They aren’t big firms, so I didn’t expect constant work. In March and September they gave me 15 jobs. One thing I hear people express concern about is collecting money for copies. That is, of course, a concern, and I have had to lean on law firms. But I can say that so far no law firm has stiffed me. And while some have been a little slow to respond, all have. So, fortunately, I haven’t had to chase anyone for payment yet. The best thing is the vastly increased copy rates, which makes this work a whole lot more enjoyable 😉.
Q. Did anybody give you permission to do this or did you just start doing it? A. No one gave me permission. I took it upon myself. It’s all about developing a relationship with the attorney. I should say mostly. A law firm that has used one agency for many years and is happy with the service will not likely change. But still, without developing the relationship, it is unlikely that they will try to work with you. It can take a while, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I probably worked with my first client four or five times, but we got along very well. I brought up the possibility of his working with me at a time when there was little pressure. I definitely did not bring it up while on a job for someone else. I took a chance and it worked. He said yes. There are other factors that induced him to switch to me. We worked out a good financial arrangement which benefited his law firm, too.
Q. What are your feelings on poaching? A. By poaching, do you mean taking clients? When we use that term, it makes this sound like you’re doing something wrong if you take a client. This is common practice in all industries. Most of the client the agencies have, they probably acquired through “poaching.” The only thing to avoid is unethical practices. As I said, I would never broach the subject while on a job for someone else. And of course don’t lie.
Q. The audience is going to want to know some hard numbers. What kind of differences are you seeing in take-home pay? A. I turned in a job 131 pages long, including the [word index], and got two copies. Total take-home was roughly $1200. That was for a med mal case that might have gone two hours . And by the way, I do not charge high rates. So with a different client with the same factors, the total could have been considerably more. This is not the only one.
Q. Wow. That’s like $9 a page. You charge your clients $9 a page in New York? A. [No], my rate is closer to 4. Again, this is a relatively low rate. But the real profit is in the copy rate. That’s where you’ll make the money. (Just a side note, not one law firm has contested my copy rates. Hopefully that will never be an issue. I’m saying this for those who are concerned about collecting the payment.) So I don’t mind if the law firm wants to negotiate a rate down a little, not too much, as long as I’m aware I can keep the copy rate. On that 131-page job, nearly $800 of my pay was from the copy rate! Keep this in mind, remember this, we’re in business providing a service for law firms. So a) be gracious and patient in dealing with the law firms; b) be open to negotiate rates, just as long as you keep in mind where you’re really earning your money from.
Q. Isn’t it a challenge getting them to pay you? A. Sure. But I’ll take this challenge over the challenge of trying to make money when agencies are charging 4 dollars a page per copy and they’re giving, so generously, 40 cents a copy. Exactly what was said there. No more needs to be said. We have to strive upwards. I accept the challenge of collecting over the challenge of squeezing small incremental rate increases.
Q. Isn’t the cost of printing eating into your money? A. Not really. I had a $1,200 job the other day. When it was all said and done, I paid $90 to have it printed up. How come reporters are willing to blow a third of their money on scopists but not willing to even consider seeking their own clients and spending 10 percent on printing? Compare the costs to that of most industries. The cost here is very small in comparison to that in most fields.
Q. Anything else you’d like to tell reporters generally or New York reporters? A. Look, if someone does want to go out on their own, it’s understandable. For years, I said I would. I made halfhearted attempts, but didn’t really follow up. Even when I got my first client, I almost didn’t expect the attorney to take it seriously. But now that I see the huge difference in what I can earn per job, it’s motivated me to try and get more clients. I will say to those who want to try and do it on their own, just try it. Don’t be afraid of being blackballed by other agencies. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to bother with putting transcripts together. First of all, it takes maybe 10 minutes. That’s it!
Second, it’s a great experience in motivating yourself to be an even better reporter, because you don’t want to turn in an error-filled transcript to your own client! You will be so much more careful and your notes will be so much better! I know because I’ve improved significantly just in the three months since I picked up my first client. If you’re so inclined to strike out on your own, I urge you to trust yourself and go and do it. Develop those relationships. Make business cards. Give them to everyone you know who knows attorneys. It can take time, so don’t get frustrated. Eventually you’ll get a first client. Not every job is big payday, but you will have some jobs where you will see double and maybe even more than what you would’ve earned if it was work for an agency.
In my view, this speaks for itself. Taking private clients can double your money. Collecting can become problematic, but the alternative of allowing certain agencies to continue to push substandard means of reporting on consumers is not a good one.
A reader asked how many copies were charged in the above example. Our anonymous respondent said “2 copies. Keep in mind I give a discount to my client when I have copies. I also only charge 3/copy. I’m pretty sure many agencies, if not all, are charging more.” For more context on this model, it is called a sliding scale. Companies will often decrease the cost to their client when copies are sold so as to be giving them a page rate that cannot be undercut. After all, why would a reporter offer someone $2.60 a page when they could work for an agency for around $4.00? But in New York this continues to hide the value of copies from the working reporter, who up until recently were accepting as little as $0.00 to $0.25 on a copy.
A close friend sent me a Bill Maher clip from a while back. Obviously, Maher has his political leanings, but after he gets done with flaunting those, he makes a decent point. He describes the over-engineering of society and gives some pretty striking examples. His preferred vape’s newest model has no mouthpiece despite being something you put in your mouth. Car handles are replaced with buttons in some cars despite no efficiency gains. He describes a situation where his rental car asked him if he’d like to open the trunk while going 60 miles an hour. The point is clear, change for the sake of change is not always worthwhile or efficient. Indeed, change for the sake of change can be very dangerous.
This is connected to the exaggerated claims of salespeople that I’ve written about extensively, especially as it relates to voice recognition. I described it several posts ago as the claim game. Anybody can say anything. Anybody can make their business seem like the new, hot thing. Take this blog post by Kaplan Leaman & Wolfe from about a year ago. It reads nicely, and it sounds innovative. It mentions a flat-rate fee, affordable per-page price structure, a design to significantly reduce legal expenses. At the point in 2020 the post was written, everybody was doing remote stuff. Pretty much everybody’s got a per-page price structure. Anybody can claim their service is affordable or reduces expenses. It’s called puffery and it’s an ordinary part of business.
Where it gets messy, and where I’ve tried to educate reporters, is some advertisements are easier to spot than others. If Burger King says they’ve got the best burger, most everyone knows that’s puffery and sales. Things get harder with technology. How do you prove or disprove whether someone has made a technological breakthrough without a comprehensive understanding of the science and concepts at work? Not all reporters understand the concept of machine learning. Even those of us that have researched quite a lot can’t possibly know everything there is to know. This leaves a gap for tech sellers to come in and try to fool consumers into buying services that may not suit their needs using the hype train.
This also leaves reporters playing a catch-up game of learning about these systems so they can help their clients navigate claims and discern fact from fiction. For example, the truism that technology is improving every day. We look around ourselves and marvel at this magical modern world. But I’ve taken the pretty hard stance that certain technologies, namely voice recognition and associated technologies, are not improving every day. Give it speech it’s used to and it’ll do fine. Give it speech that’s just a little off from what it’s trained for and it’ll turn “would you raise your right hand” into “it’s rage right hand.”
But surely reinventing the wheel and all these claims of being BETTER aren’t BAD for business, right? If puffery is normal then a little bit of stretching the truth won’t hurt anybody! But we already see that’s not the case. Take Maher’s example. One little glitch on the highway and you could have dead motorists. Take the fact that 25 percent of court reporting companies may be unprofitable; court reporting has been around a long time, it’s likely the losers are the ones trying to switch it up too much too fast. Take vTestify’s massive switch from boasting about providing inexpensive court reporting services to providing an online platform for the legal industry. Take Verbit’s claims in its series A funding of 99 percent accuracy and its subsequent announcement that it will use human transcribers after all, and the very real possibility that it is, despite all its funding, not profitable.
Exaggerated claims serve only as a cliff from which these companies have a chance to walk off of or step back from. The competition is going to wise up. The consumers are going to wise up. I can only hope that a lot of these tech companies realize this, wise up, and start putting their resources behind actually improving our technology. It’s a lot easier to compete in a field with maybe seven players like Stenograph or Advantage than it is to beat out thousands upon thousands of independent contractors and hundreds of reporting firms, many with their own clients and connections. It’s frighteningly easy to see there’s a more lucrative path than over-engineering what stenographic court reporters have made simple, and I can only hope that business owners realize this before walking investors’ money off that cliff.