For Digital Court Reporters and Transcribers, Check Out Steno!

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.

He’s got the hand thing down better than I do.

A Word on AI and Stenography

I’ve said this before, but it feels like AI is ubiquitous and in everything these days. It spreads a lot of bad press for us stenographers in that people believe we are or will soon be replaceable. We can further extrapolate from the Pygmalion effect that those beliefs impact reality.

As many know, I’m an amateur programmer. I know relatively little about the top-of-the-line tech and can only code on a very basic level. That said, the more I learn conceptually, the more I’m in awe of just how far computers have come, and how far they have to go. You see it every day on your smartphone and in your steno software. Computers are hard at work and designed to do amazing things.

Here is the thing about computers: They only do what you tell them to do. You have to come up with a set of instructions, an algorithm, that gets it from point A to point B. They solve problems, but only using the instructions you give them. Even if you come up with the instructions, the results can be useless. We can imagine problems as mathematically solvable and insolvable — finite or infinite. An example of an infinite problem is a Fibonacci sequence. You take the next number in the sequence, and you add it to the last number in the sequence. This stretches into infinity. You can easily write a program to generate Fibonacci numbers, and the computer would die before generating them all because there are infinite numbers.

Then there are solvable problems. Chess is considered a solvable problem because it is a game with a finite number of pieces, spaces, and moves. There’s a problem, though. There are so many moves in chess that just the datasets for having 7 pieces at the end of the game (Lomonosov tablebases) are said to be 140 terabytes of information. To put that into perspective, it’s been estimated that all the books in the world would fit on about 60 terabytes. Even if you had a supercomputer capable of generating every possible move in Chess, the information would be absolutely useless to you, because to digest all of it would be the equivalent of reading every book ever written thousands of times.

So let’s think of AI and audio in terms of problem solving. The most basic way to describe Alexa and Siri is that they listen to you for keywords, and check what you say against their database, and decide what to do based on that algorithm we talked about. Let’s face it, there are only maybe 200,000 words in the English language. You could store every single one as a large audio file with less than 700 GB. Here is the deal: computers don’t hear in the traditional sense. They’re taking what you say and presenting educated guesses based on all the data they have. So now, if you will, imagine all 200,000 English language words and every combination they could possibly be in. To put it in perspective, it is a way bigger number than this. Now let’s add all the different ways words might be said, or all the different scenarios that might interfere with how the computer is “hearing.” Let’s add all the different accents and dialects of English.

Let me say this: It is very likely, in my mind, that someday computers will be programmed to hear as well as stenographers in any given situation. It’s a solvable problem. It’s a winnable game. But right now, based on what I know, there’s an indeterminate amount of time and money that it’ll take to get to a point where it is perfect and 95 percent or better in most or all scenarios in a reasonable amount of time. Take for a moment the example of Solar Roadways. Pave the roads in solar panels to solve America’s energy crisis. Millions of dollars were poured into this solution, and it failed. Remember, solvable problem, winnable game. Finite number of people with finite energy needs. Failed anyway. Speech-to-text is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. But what if it takes 100 more years to solve? How many millions or billions of dollars need to be lost before the solution is declared “good enough?” Remember, they can sell Alexa and Dragon today for piles of money. They don’t need 95 percent. The exponential growth of computers has ended, and unless the experts bring us quantum computing or some other huge leap in technology, we’re looking at computers being more money to upgrade.

Those companies you see that are touting transcription AI in 2019 are doubtlessly having transcribers fix AI-prepared transcripts at best. Their game is psychological. It’s not cost saving, it’s cost shifting from the worker to the boss. That’s why it’s not being sold to the public. It’s a magic trick. Look to the left while the magician rolls the coin to the right. It is in our best interest as stenographers to call this out when appropriate, and continue to bolster our own magic skills and industry as the go-to for the hearing impaired and legal communities. Could some geniuses come along and program your replacement next year? Sure. But one thing that you should understand is that it’s not very likely, and buying the hype before they have a product to sell is only going to hurt our morale and livelihoods. We have our method. We have a product. We’ve got more brains, voters, and history in the field. So do yourself and all of us a favor, don’t buy the hype, and the next time you meet a transcriber working for Fake AI Transcription Corp, LLC, tell them they can double their earnings and better themselves by joining the stenographic legion. If a supercomputer is required to solve Chess, what do you believe is required to get automatic speech recognition to 95 percent?

May 26, 2019 Edit:
I should add that it’s obvious computers are becoming ruthlessly good at transcribing one speaker, especially in a closed or suitable environment. There are hours of video on that. It’s introduction of multiple speakers in a less-than-perfect environment where the thing struggles, probably because of all those mathematical issues talked about above.

June 18, 2019 Edit:

A post recently made its rounds on social media claiming a computer science PhD couldn’t see the perfect transcription coming out any time soon. It stands in stark contrast to the claims of some that the technology is already perfect.

August 17, 2019 Edit:

Another article came to light showing that Facebook Messenger and other automatic transcription apps are actually using human transcribers behind the scenes. Using my amateur knowledge of computer coding, I can say this is clear evidence that they need data (the transcriptions) to feed into the machine learning algorithms. Further, if they’re not paying their transcribers exceptionally well and bad data is being inputted, it could ultimately make automatic transcription programs worse. Expect some pretty big delays on the AI transcription front.

August 25, 2019 Edit:

I had created a “mock voice recognition video” just to prove how easy it would be for a company to lie about its voice recognition progress. I coded a computer program that spits back whatever text you give it at a set words per minute. So next time you’re at an automatic transcription demonstration, ask yourself if what you’re seeing is automatic or staged. I often give the example of Project Natal and Peter Molyneux. Gamers were made to believe that the Milo demonstration of Project Natal was a showcase of technology that was coming out. The truth broke years later that the demonstration was heavily scripted, and over ten years later, no such technology exists. Similarly, when someone tells you that their audio transcription program is flawless — question whatever you’re seeing and realize how easy it is to stage and sell things.

Learn About Stenography at Plaza – February 2019

Plaza College in Queens is hosting a chance for people to come learn about stenography, CART, and grand jury on February 11, 2019 at 10, 1 and 2. Family Feud Game Day will also be held at 12:30 and 6 p.m. That’s 118-33 Queens Boulevard, Forest Hills, New York. Want to learn about stenography? You’re invited!

If you love the legal field or have someone that loves the legal field, this is a great chance to get in there and ask questions about studying to become a stenographer. If the legal field is not your thing, there’s also a great chance to serve the deaf and hearing impaired community by becoming a stenographer in the schools and captioning for people who need it in class. The speech recognition market is estimated by some to be worth $21 billion over the next 5 years, and the bottom line is stenography is all about getting in and making up for what the technology can’t do yet.

If you’d like to type four or times faster than the average typist or start a great new career, definitely go hear what they have to say, or get in touch with them at 718 779 1430 and attend their next open house! Remember: Easy to learn, hard to do fast.