There are a slew of New York State Court Reporters Association webinars coming up that you can register for here. I’d like to point out two of them in particular:
How to Stay Relevant in an Industry at Risk of Disruption by Dr. Erika Jacobi. I want to hone in on one line from the flyer, “empower reporters, captioners, and individual business owners to thrive despite adversity.” The more of us that learn to do this, the more of us that can then turn around and share that knowledge or even sell the knowledge through educational events. By attending, you’re basically becoming a part of the first wave of stenographers that will teach the next waves ways to think which will culminate in an ocean of us all armed with the knowledge not just to survive, but to prosper.
Speech Perception, from Spoken Word to Written Text by Culture Point. The data available today says that stenographers are the best there is, but that there is room for improvement. This is part of that improvement. Through academic understanding of linguistics, we can improve how we hear. I’ve spoken to a stenographer with linguistics training about this, and her thoughts were that these types of classes are very important. Again, the first wave of us that learns these concepts can teach the next waves and increase our own personal value and our skills. I know this because I was a ripple sharing what I learned and it landed me on TV. I was on NYSCRA’s board when the first discussions about this workshop were had, and I have a firm belief that the education will help stenographers, both newbies and masters.
NYSCRA has put a lot into this. A press release was drafted and republished to various sites across the web like Daily Ledger, American Tech Today, and The Business Gazette Online. We all have an individual choice to make. Do we take that effort and toss it away, and allow these opportunities to pass unnoticed, or do we take charge of our profession and turn the first wave of stenographers to learn these concepts into a mile-high tsunami?
Recent events have made it very clear that you, reader, are in charge of what happens next in our profession. I hope that you will join me on those webinars and that we will march into the future ready to help others thrive and close the narrow gap in our stenographic linguistics training. I know that together we can make our gold standard shine brighter.
Saturday, January 22, at 4 p.m. EST, a number of professional court reporters and Open Steno advocates will be coming together to discuss our field. In the words of Dineen Squillante, it’s about building a bridge.
This marriage of worlds makes perfect sense. Open Steno is a community of hobbyist stenographers that, as of November 2021, was experiencing unimaginable growth. Thousands have been introduced to machine shorthand stenography because of Open Steno and the Plover program. Professional stenography needs new recruits. Who better to be recruited than people that love stenography so much they are teaching themselves?
If you’re looking to support Open Steno, please tune in on January 22, 2022 at 4 p.m. EST. You can set a reminder and subscribe to LittleChaSiu. To the professionals that follow me, every single time we take another under our wing, we change the future for the better and make a more-prosperous field for all of our students and new reporters.
If you want to check out the Plover Discord chat and become one of its 4,000 members, click here!
The Open Steno community formed years ago. It gave us Plover, a free stenographic translation software, as well as several other projects, such as the StenoMod. In the words of Mirabai Knight, Open Steno’s founder, “steno is going strong…” The community also gave us Steno Arcade, a computer game dedicated to stenography.
As more professionals join the Discord chatroom and community, and assist those teaching themselves, I expect the number of people entering our professional track from Open Steno and other self-paced initiatives to skyrocket. This use of non-traditional self-learners is exactly how computer programmers have addressed much larger shortage concerns. In our field this also means there’s a large pool of recruits unaccounted for by organizations like STTIand US Legal.
Readers that wish to donate to the Open Steno general fund and Mirabai Knight may do so here. Together, we will continue a nationwide recruitment surge, mentor and nourish our self-taught and traditional students and graduates, and pave the way to a future for stenographic court reporters.
In a series of images posted by Michelle M. Kirkpatrick on September 28, 2021, the failure of automatic captions was on full display.
Knowing that people were in need, she stepped up to help and contacted deaf people in the area to let them know what the broadcast said.
It’s very clear how close to danger these people were.
This comes on the heels of reports that digital reporting proponent Verbit was pseudo-cybersquatting on 121 Captions.
Given all the data released on Stenonymous as of posting, it is clear that digital and ASR solutions are inadequate for captioning. The dishonesty and blatant disregard for standard industry practices from Verbit in particular has been contemptible. The stenographic captioner has the best value out of all available methods. People interested in joining the profession and ensuring access for all should check out NCRA A to Z,Project Steno, or Open Steno. Despite claims by the STTI that there is an equivalency in modalities, it’s been shown that digital and non-voice writing ASR solutions would harm African American Vernacular English speakers. In the words of one ex-digital reporter, they were simply not paid enough to care. Luckily, spam filters continue to place STTI promotional material where it belongs.
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.
With the news that Verbit has bought VITAC, there was some concern on steno social media. For a quick history on Verbit, it’s a company that claimed 99 percent accuracy in its series A funding. In its series B funding it was admitted that their technology would not replace the human. Succinctly, Verbit is a transcription company where its transcribers are assisted by machine learning voice recognition. Of course, this all has the side effect of demoralizing stenographers who sometimes think “wow, the technology really can do my job” because nobody has the time to be a walking encyclopedia.
But this idea that Verbit, a company started in 2016, figured out some super secret knowledge is not realistic. To put voice recognition into perspective, it’s estimated to be a market worth many billions of dollars. Microsoft is seeking to buy Nuance, the maker of Dragon, for about $20 billion. Microsoft has reportedly posted revenue over $40 billion and profit of over $15 billion. Verbit, by comparison, has raised “over $100 million” in investor money. It reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow. Another company that reports revenue in the millions and positive cash flow? VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts. As described in a previous post, VIQ Solutions has reported millions in revenue and a positive cash flow since 2016. What’s missing? The income. Since 2016, the company hasn’t been profitable.
Obviously, things can turn around, companies can go long periods of time without making a profit, bounce back, and be profitable. Companies can also go bankrupt and dissolve a la Circuit City or be restructured like JCPenney. The point is not to disparage companies on their financials, but to give stenographic captioners real perspective on the information they’re reading. So, when you see this blurb here, what comes to mind?
Hint. What’s not being mentioned? Profit. While this is not conclusive, the lack of any mention of profit tells me the cash flow and revenue is fine, but there are no big profits as of yet. Cash flow can come from many things, including investors, asset sales, and borrowing money. Most of us probably make in the ballpark of $50,000 to $100,000. Reading that a company raised $60 million, ostensibly to cut in on your job, can be pretty disheartening. Not so once you see that they’re a tiny fraction of the overall picture and that players far bigger than them have not taken your job despite working on the technology for decades.
Moreover, we have a consumer protection crisis on our hands. At least one study in 2020 showed that automatic speech recognition can be 25 to 80 percent accurate depending on who’s speaking. There are many caption advocates out there, such as Meryl Evans, trying to raise awareness on the importance of caption quality. The messaging is very clear: automatic captions are crap (autocraptions), they are often worse than having no captions, and a single wrong word can cause great confusion for someone relying on the captions. Just go see what people on Twitter are saying about #autocraptions. “#NoMoreCraptions. Thank you content creators that do not rely on them!”
This isn’t something I’m making up. Anybody in any kind of captioning or transcription business agrees a human is required. Just check out Cielo24’s captioning guide and accuracy table.
If someone’s talking about an accuracy level of 95 percent or better, they’re talking about human-verified captions. If you, captioner, were not worried about Rev taking away your job with its alleged 50,000 transcribers, then you should not throw in the towel because of Verbit and its alleged 30,000 transcribers. We do not know how much of that is overlap. We do not know how much of that is “this transcriber transcribed for us once and is therefore part of our ‘team.'” We do not know how well transcription skills will fit into the fix-garbage-AI-transcription model. The low pay and mistreatment that comes with “working for” these types of companies is going to drive people away. Think of all the experiences you’ve had to get you to your skill level today. Would you have gotten there with lower compensation, or would you have simply moved on to something easier?
Verbit’s doing exceptionally well in its presentation. It makes claims that would cost quite a bit of time and/or money to disprove, and the results of any such investigation would be questioned by whoever it did not favor. It’s a very old game of making claims faster than they can be disproven and watching the fact checkers give you more press as they attempt to parse what’s true, partially true, and totally false. This doesn’t happen just in the captioning arena, it happens in legal reporting too.
This seems like a terrifying list of capabilities. But, again, this is an old game. Watch how easy it is.
It took me 15 seconds to say six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth. Many of you have known me for years. What was what? How long will it take you to figure out what was what? How long would it take you to prove to another person what’s true and what’s false? This is, in part, why it is easier for falsehoods to spread than the truth. This is why in court and in science, the person making a claim has to prove their claim. We have no such luxury in the business world. As an example, many years ago in the gaming industry Peter Molyneux got up on stage and demo’d Milo. He said it was real tech. Here was this dynamically interactive virtual boy who’d be able to understand gamers and their actions. We watched it with our own eyes. It was so cool. It was BS. It was very likely scripted. There was no such technology and there is no such technology today, over eleven years later. Do you think Peter, Microsoft, or anybody got in trouble for that? Nope. In fact, years later, he claimed “it was real, honest.”
Here’s the point: Legal reporters and captioners are going to be facing off with these claims for an indeterminate amount of time. These folks are going to be marketing to your clients hard. And I just showed you via the gaming industry that there are zero consequences for lying and that anything that is lied about can just be brushed up with another lie. There will be, more or less, two choices for every single one of you.
Compete / Advocate. Start companies. Ally with deaf advocates.
Watch it happen.
I have basically dedicated Stenonymous to providing facts, figures, and ways that stenographers can come out of the “sky is falling” mindset. But I’m one guy. I’m an official in New York. Science says there’s a good chance what we expect to happen will happen and that’s why I fight like hell to get all of you to expect us to win. That’s also why these companies repeat year after year that they’re going to automate away the jobs even when there’s zero merit or demand for an idea. You now see that companies can operate without making any profit, companies can lie, much bigger companies haven’t muscled in on your job, and that the giant Microsoft presumably looked at Verbit, looked at Nuance, and chose Nuance.
I’m not a neo-luddite. If the technology is that good, let it be that good. Let my job vanish. Fire me tomorrow. But facts are facts, and the fact is that tech sellers take the excellent work of brilliant programmers and say the tech is ready for prime time way before it is. They never bother to mention the drawbacks. Self-driving cars and trucks are on the way, don’t worry about whether it kills someone. Robots can do all these wonderful things, forget that injuries are up where they’re in heaviest use. Solar Roadways were going to solve the world’s energy problems but couldn’t generate any energy or be driven on. In our field, lives and important stakeholders are in danger. What happens when there’s a hurricane on the way and the AI captioning tells deaf people to drive towards danger?
Again, two choices, and I’m hoping stenographic captioners don’t watch it happen.
As a stenographic court reporter, I have been amazed by the strides in technology. Around 2016, I, like many of you, saw the first claims that speech recognition was as good as human ears. Automation seemed inevitable, and a few of my most beloved colleagues believed there was not a future for our amazing students. In 2019, the Testifying While Black study was published in the Language Journal, and while the study and its pilot studies showed that court reporters were twice as good at understanding the AAVE dialect as your average person, even though we have no training whatsoever in that dialect, the news media focused on the fact that we certify at 95 percent and yet only had 80 percent accuracy in the study. Some of the people involved with that study, namely Taylor Jones and Christopher Hall, introduced Culture Point, just one provider that could help make that 80 percent so much higher. In 2020, a study from Stanford showed that automatic speech recognition had a word error rate of 19 percent for “white” speakers, 35 percent for “black” speakers, and “worse” for speakers with a high dialect density. How much worse?
75 percent word error rate in a study done three or four years after the first claim that automatic speech recognition had 94 percent accuracy. But in all my research and all that has been written on this topic, I have not seen the following point addressed:
What Is An Error?
NCRA, many years ago, set out guidelines for what constituted an error. Word error guidelines take up about a page. Grammatical error guidelines take up about a page. What this means is that when you sit down for a steno test, you’re not being graded on your word error rate (WER), you’re being graded on your total errors. We have decades of failed certification tests where a period or comma meant a reporter wasn’t ready for the working world yet. Even where speech recognition is amazing on that WER, I’ve almost never seen appreciable grammar, punctuation, Q&A, or anything that we do to make the transcript readable. It’s so bad that advocates for the deaf, like Meryl Evans, refer to automatic speech recognition as “autocraptions.”
Unless the bench, bar, and captioning consumers want word soup to be the standard, the difference in how we describe errors needs to be injected into the discussion. Unless we want to go from a world where one reporter, perhaps paired with a scopist, completes the transcript and is accountable for it, to a world where up to eight transcribers are needed to transcribe a daily, we need to continue to push this as a consumer protection issue. Even where regulations are lacking, this is a serious and systemic issue that could shred access to justice. We have to hit every medium possible and let people know the record — in fact, every record in this country — could be in danger. The data coming out is clear. Anyone selling recording and/or automatic transcription says 90-something percent accuracy. Any time it’s actually studied? Maybe 80 percent accuracy, maybe 25; maybe they hire a real expert transcriber, or maybe they outsource all their transcription to Kenya or Manila. Perception matters; court administrators are making industry-changing decisions based on the lies or ignorance of private sector vendors.
The point is recording equipment sellers are taking a field which has been refined by stenographic court reporters to be a fairly painless process where there are clear guidelines for what happens when something goes wrong, adding lots of extra parts to it, and calling it new. We’ve been comparing our 95 percent total accuracy to their “94 percent” word error rate. In 2016, perhaps there were questions that needed answering. This is April 2021, there’s no contest, and proponents of digital recording and automatic transcription have a moral obligation to look at the facts as they are today and not what they’d like them to be.
If you’re somebody in the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada who’s sold on a career as a digital court reporter, or even if you’re just passing through looking for a new career, I’d like to introduce you to stenographic court reporting in a way that you have not been introduced. Just to get this out of the way, in very general terms, court reporting is taking down the legal record and providing an English transcript for judges, lawyers, litigants, and the public. Stenographic “court reporting,” can also be used to caption live shows and events, or transcribe recorded material when needed. The big difference between “steno” and digital is that digital court reporters record testimony or proceedings, usually on multitrack audio equipment, and take guiding notes as the proceedings go on. The stenographic reporter uses a stenotype to take verbatim notes of what’s being said. In our industry today there are a few big companies aggressively marketing to young people looking for work. Those companies insist that digital court reporting is an opportunity for them. There have even been journalists picking up these misconceptions without realizing they’re being misled. It’s time to dispel those myths, tell you a little bit about who we really are, and get you resources you can use to explore a career as a stenographic court reporter.
We Are Digital! One of the most interesting claims I’ve seen from digital court reporting proponents in the press is that “this world isn’t digitized.” We’re old-fashioned. The implication is that stenographic court reporting is a dying art with very little time left as a viable career. Every time you see a representation of us in the media, you get a stenotype from 1983! The truth is that we’ve been digital for decades. Most working reporters today roll with a stenotype that is more like a minicomputer than a typewriter. There’s software onboard transcribing the machine shorthand stenography as we go. So that’s a big red flag, right? There’s a CEO making a major statement who’s clearly lying or completely ignorant. Don’t bank your future on the words of people who are lying or wrong. Not only are we technologically advanced, we’re extremely adaptable. When the pandemic struck, court reporters were in a jam for a month or so. The field quickly adopted remote reporting and now reporters are talking about having more work than they can handle right from home. If you like tech, steno is for you.
We Are More Efficient! I know that this can come off as a loaded or insulting statement, so let me just get this out of the way. There’s nothing wrong with believing that technology improves efficiency. What’s often ignored in this discussion is that stenographic technology is evolving right alongside audio capture tech. There have been trials of automatic speech recognition in stenographic software. There have been leaps in text-to-text prediction and some software even attempts to guess what we meant when we mess up a stenographic stroke. Recording a proceeding generally entails the front-end recording and the back-end transcription. Machine shorthand stenography, on the other hand, loads the transcription on while the proceedings are going on. The most skilled stenographic court reporters can walk away from a proceeding and press print. The more average ones, like me, are able to reduce the transcription time so much that one person can do the entire job. You can also see this in the numbers. The average court reporter types (we call it writes) at 225 words per minute with a 1.4 syllabic density, so probably about 200 words per minute. The average transcriber types at about 100 words per minute. The average person hovers around 50 words per minute. So just by the numbers, you can see that stenographic reporting can get a job done twice as fast, four times as fast, or with far less manpower. Machine shorthand stenography is also much easier on your hands. We have the capability of getting down very large words or large groups of words with one movement of our hands. As an example, it took me over 18,000 hand motions to get this post down on a QWERTY keyboard. It would have taken about 3,000 hand movements on the stenotype that I was too lazy to plug in. If you’re a transcriber, imagine reducing the stress on your hands to a sixth of what it currently is.
We Have More Support! Some of the court reporting or transcription companies I mentioned before are riding on another misconception regarding our stenographer shortage. About 8 years ago there was an industry outlook and forecast by Ducker Worldwide that told us there would be a higher demand for court reporters than supply. That part is absolutely true. A shortage was forecasted. Some companies were having severe coverage issues. We saw the number of applicants for licenses and civil service jobs plummeting to about half the usual levels. This can lead to the implication that there are not many stenographers left. It’s an easy myth to propagate. How many of us have you seen recently? Unless you’ve been stuck in a lawsuit, been prosecuted, or seen me on TV, you haven’t seen a court reporter. The truth is that we knew the shortage was coming. Many initiatives popped up to begin recruiting stenographers or helping people get into the field. Depending on whose numbers you’re looking at, there are 10,000 to 20,000 of us working. That means that if you have a problem or a question, you have potentially thousands of people around to assist you. You have a nonprofit in almost in every state devoted to stenographic court reporters. Those nonprofits pull in cumulatively millions of dollars a year with the objective of promoting the welfare of stenographic court reporters. To put this into perspective, a popular stenotype manufacturer, Stenograph, recently donated $50,000 to Project Steno. Nobody’s dumping millions of dollars on nonprofits in a career that has no future. Why aren’t some of these “employers” telling you about this vast support network? Because if you join it, you will have sharper skills and better bargaining power.
We Have Options! There are freelance, part-time, and full-time positions available dependent on where you are and what you’re looking to do with this wonderful skill. Maybe you’re someone who needs to work from home and “just” do transcription — I know a mom just like that. Maybe you love the law and want to see the process of law firsthand. Maybe you want to caption live events over the TV, internet, or in person, via stenographic CART & captioning. Maybe you want to travel internationally and take work around the world. There are even reporters who have taken the general skill of stenotype stenography and applied it to computer programming, such as Stanley Sakai. The limiting factor is how much time you put into hunting down the type of work you want!
We Are Equality! If you clicked the link for my TV appearance, you saw that stenographic reporters got some really bad news stories run on them because while our certifications are 95 percent, we only scored about 80 percent in a study where some of us were asked to transcribe a specific English dialect sometimes referred to by linguists as African American English (AAE). VICE News filmed me for about two hours. They cut the part where I talked about the pilot studies. In pilot study 1, everyday people were tested and scored 40 percent. In pilot study 2, lawyers were tested and scored 60 percent. In a completely different study, automatic speech recognition was tested. It got white speech right 80 percent of the time. It got black speech right 65 percent of the time. It did worse when it was tested on AAE! What does this mean? It means that young people that want to ensure equality in the courtroom need to join up and become stenographic court reporters. I’m not gloating about 80 percent. But with no special dialect training, we’re the closest to 100 percent understanding on this dialect, and that was ignored by the media. I am proud to be one of the people fighting to bridge that gap and spread awareness on the issue. Beyond that, in the captioning and CART arena, stenographic court reporters are pushing to bring access to people for live programming and in classrooms. So if you choose this wonderful career you are not “doomed” to sit in legal proceedings for the rest of your life, you can also make a career out of taking down what’s being said and bringing it to the screens of millions of people who need that support. If you’re a person that believes that court records should be 100 percent accurate, someone that believes appeals shouldn’t be thwarted by missing court audio, or someone that believes that deaf people deserve real access, and not “autocraptions,” you’re somebody that needs to join up and be part of the team steno solution.
We Are Waiting For You! Remember that shortage I mentioned and the resources waiting for you? I have an easy list you can use to get a jumpstart, find the right level of training for your financial situation, and get involved with our field. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you find something online that seems better for you, don’t hesitate to give that a chance. To help you understand some jargon in our line of work, “theory” is a method or system of using the stenotype and its letters to take down English, often phonetically. “Speed” is taking everything you learn in theory and learning to do it fast. Speed is by far the longest and hardest part of training. “Briefs” are stenographic outlines or strokes that do not necessarily resemble English words phonetically in theory, but we use them to get down large words fast. “Phrases” are stenographic strokes or outlines that collapse multiple words into one line of letters. Generally you will “learn theory,” then you will start “building speed,” and then you will use briefs and phrases to reach those very high levels of speed that we work at. It is physically possible to write everything out phonetically, but it will be more stressful on your hands.
Try court reporting for free. NCRA A to Z and Project Steno’s Basic Training are both free ways to try out court reporting and learn basic theory at low or no cost. Both are great ways to jump into the field without blowing $2,000 on a student stenotype only to find out you don’t like steno. On the topic of finding stenotypes to practice with, there are vendors such as StenoWorks, Acculaw, Stenograph, Eclipse, and Neutrino. You can also search on eBay for old Stentura models at a discount, but do not go outside eBay’s buyer protection or you will get scammed.
NCRA-approved schools. There are several NCRA-approved schools across the United States and one in Canada. These are worth looking into if you are serious about making court reporting a career because of the quality of the education. Please note that not all NCRA-approved schools are accredited.
Online, self-paced, or programs not approved by NCRA. There are numerous programs for stenographic reporting. There are programs to teach theory like StarTran. There are programs like Simply Steno that focus on building speed after someone has learned the basics of theory, and there are programs like Court Reporting At Home (CRAH). You can also see if the court reporters association of your state has any advice or school listings. All of these things also have a great deal of social media support. There are lots of Facebook groups like Encouraging Court Reporting Students or Studying Court Reporting At Home. There are students and professionals online right now who are there to help with the journey.
Open Steno. I have to put Open Steno in a category by itself because there’s just nothing like it. It is a free, active, and open online community with Google Groups, a free way to learn theory, and its own Discord chat. There are enthusiasts that build stenotype keyboards from scratch. This is the community responsible for Steno Arcade. This is the community responsible for Plover, a free steno-to-English translation software. It was all started by Mirabai Knight, a CART writer in New York. If you’re motivated to teach yourself for free, Open Steno makes it possible in a way that it simply was not a decade ago.
Christopher Day. Chances are high you’re here because you saw an ad on social media. I’ve been a court reporter for almost eleven years. I’ve been funding this blog and keeping it an ad-free experience (with some very appreciated help!) just to help stenographers and people that aspire to be stenographers. I know people that have transitioned from digital (and analogue!) court reporting to stenographic reporting and become real champions of and voices for our field. Every reporter I know is supportive of stenography students and fellow professionals. You’ll rarely hear one of us refer to another one of us as being “low skill.” Compare that to this marketing infographic from Verbit. They said digital solutions do not require a highly-trained workforce. Do you really want to work with people that downplay your work when it’s convenient for them? These folks are setting themselves up to make money off you. I have no such incentive or financial ties. I’m a guy with a squid hat and a blog who fell into this wonderful career by accident, and I’d love for you to be a part of it.
So if you need more guidance, reach out to me at Chris@stenonymous.com. Do yourself the favor of getting involved with stenographic reporting. If sitting there hearing testimony is something you can see yourself doing, you’ve already got a whole lot more in common with us than half the world. Give our profession some consideration. It’s easy to learn, it’s hard to do fast, and though it takes 2 to 4 years of training, it really can be your gateway to an exciting front-row seat to history and a rewarding lifelong career. If that doesn’t sell you, we also have some top-quality memes.
During our Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021 there were a couple of press releases and some press releases dressed up as journalism all about digital recording, automatic speech recognition, and its accuracy and viability. There’s actually a lesson to be learned from businesses that continually promise without any regard for reality, so that’s what I’ll focus on today. I’ll start with this statement. We have a big, vibrant field of students and professionals where everyone that is actually involved in it, from the smallest one-woman reporting armies to the corporate giants, says technology will not replace the stenographic court reporter. Then we have the tech players who continuously talk about how their tech is 99 percent accurate, but can’t be bothered to sell it to us, and whose brilliant plan is to record and transcribe the testimony, something stenographers figured out how to do decades ago.
You know the formula. First we’ll compare this to an exaggerated event outside the industry, and then we’ll tie it right into our world. So let’s breeze briefly over Fyre Festival. To put it in very simple terms, Fyre Festival was an event where the CEO overpromised, underdelivered, and played “hide the ball” until the bitter end. Customers were lied to. Investors were lied to. Staff and construction members were lied to. It was a corporate fiasco propped up by disinformation, investor money, and cash flow games that ended with the CEO in prison and a whole lot of people owed a whole lot of money that they will, in all likelihood, never get paid. It was the story of a relative newcomer to the industry of music festivals saying they’d do it bigger and better. Sound familiar?
As for relative newcomers in the legal transcription or court reporting business, take your pick. Even ones that have been incorporated for a couple of decades really aren’t that impressive when you start holding up the magnifying glass. Take, for example, VIQ Solutions and its many subsidiaries:
VIQ apparently trades OTC so it gives us a rare glimpse of financial information that we don’t get with a lot of private companies. Right off the bat, we can see some interesting stuff. $8 million in revenue with a negative net income and a positive cash flow. Positive cash flow means the money they have on hand is going up. Negative income means the company is losing money. How does a company lose money but continue to have cash on hand grow? Creditors and investors. When you see money coming in while the company is taking losses, it generally means that the company is borrowing the money or getting more cash from investors/shareholders. A company can continue on this way for as long as money keeps coming in. Companies can also use tricks similar to price dumping, and charge one client or project an excessive amount in order to fund losses on other projects. The amazing thing is that most companies won’t light up the same way Fyre did, they’ll just declare bankruptcy and move on. There’s not going to be a big “gotcha” parade or reckoning where anyone admits that stenographic court reporting is by far the superior business model.
This is juxtaposed against a situation where, for the individual stenographic reporter, you’re kind of stuck making whatever you make. If things go badly, bankruptcy is an option, but there’s never really an option to borrow money or receive investor money for decades while you figure it out. Seeing all these ostensible giants enter the field can be a bit intimidating or confusing. But any time you see these staggering tech reveals wrapped up in a paid-for press release, I urge you to remember Fyre, remember VIQ, and remember that no matter what that revenue or cash flow looks like, you may not have access to the information that would tell you how the company is really doing.
This also leads to a very bright future for steno entrepreneurs. As we learn the game, we can pass it along to each other. When Stenovate landed its first big investor, I talked about that. Court reporting and its attached services, in the way we know them and love them, are an extremely stable, winning investment. Think about it. Many of us, when we begin down this road, spend up to $2,000 on a student machine and up to $9,000 on a professional machine and software. That $11,000 sinkhole, coupled with student loan debt, grows into stable, positive income. So what’s stopping any stenographic court reporting firm from getting out there and educating investors on our field? The time and drive to do it. Maybe for some people, they just haven’t had that idea yet. But that’s where we’re headed. I have little doubt that if we compete, we will win. But we have to get people in that mindset. So if you know somebody with that entrepreneurial spirit, maybe pass them this post and get them thinking about whether they’d like to seek investors to grow their firm and reach. Business 101 is that a dollar today is more valuable than a dollar tomorrow. That means our field can be extremely attractive to value investors and be a safe haven from the gambling money being supplied to “tech’s” habitual promisors.
Know a great reporting or captioning firm that needs a spotlight? Feel free to write me or comment about them below. I’ll start us off. Steno Captions, LLC launched off recently without doing the investor dance. That’s the kind of promise this field has. I wish them a lot of luck and success in managing clients and training writers.
“We are committed to our entire network of independent contractors, including the stenographic reporting community, as they provide an integral and necessary service to our legal system,” states Tony Donofrio, CTO of Veritext. “Technology has become an integral part of practicing law today, and while it will not take the place of the stenographer, it will continue to evolve to provide the profession with a broader toolset to aid them in their commitment to transcribing the spoken word efficiently.” – passed to me by Senior Vice President Valerie Berger on February 4, 2021. Again, these are the words of Veritext’s CTO, Tony Donofrio.
How’d we get here? Not long ago, I was performing some research on where students could find scholarships and grants. It wasn’t long until I came across the Veritext Scholarships page. It struck me as odd that I had gotten eight LinkedIn notices for the company looking for digitals in my area, but not a single one for stenographic reporters. I did what many of my readers do. I kept an open mind. I reached out, and I asked, in spirit “why bother with scholarships for stenographic reporting if you’re going to press so hard on digital reporting?” I had an e-mail exchange with Ms. Berger where I shared many of the things I’ve reported on in the past and seen in the media recently. I got to explain that to many reporters, this kind of stuff comes off kind of like business “stashing,” a term I borrowed from the dating world where a partner says they love and support you in private, but doesn’t do a lot to broadcast that relationship, usually to maintain a relationship with another partner.
The message I got back, in sum and substance, was that Veritext supports all of its independent contractors. They said they find their own network a better way of finding stenographic talent than LinkedIn. Ms. Berger told me that Veritext provides more work to stenographers than any other firm in the country, and took the time to link me to some things that Veritext is doing or has done to support the stenographic community:
The Veritext Peer Advisory Council (VPAC) and its mission to mentor students and individuals considering a steno career in North America in addition to collaborating with Veritext on education for the stenographic community. VPAC also has a student resource center, where the advice column has scores of reporters saying what I often tell students, “find a mentor!” As a matter of fact, there is an old quote from me right on that advice column, “know your market and seek many mentors.”
I was positively surprised by a lot of what I saw. Our lives and careers are so busy. It can be hard to keep track of all the information out there, and though I was tangentially aware of some of these endeavors, a lot of it was news to me. Let this mark the first time that I have seen such a definitive statement from Veritext. Technology will never replace stenographers. I’ve alluded to that. Many industry leaders have said that. Now Veritext, through its CTO, says that. This is serious vindication for all the times we’ve pressed to correct the news media. This is truth that can be brought to the media’s attention by any one of us for years to come. What better time for such a declaration than CRCW 2021?
What I need from readers is a commitment to keep sharing information and supporting stenography. There are so many programs that have opened up to beat the shortage and for stenographic court reporters to meet the demands of the legal field. There’s so much media about such a small field that it becomes impossible for one man to keep track of. As we march through the year, please feel empowered to send me things that support this article, contradict it, highlight the work of other agencies big or small, or give a totally different point of view on a totally different topic. We’ll keep building information and work to keep the public record accurate, and court reporting will carry on as the fantastic career it has always been.