Some have seen this video. I got around to it. I have honest reservations about giving someone like him more press and attention, but then, my audience outnumbers him by a lot, so if you all have the data, it’s a force multiplier and family he doesn’t have. You can tell Readback is terrified of us because they don’t have the guts to leave the comments on and get called out on their lies. Let’s take advantage of their fear.
He likens court reporting to medical transcription. I made a short TikTok on that. I’ve spoken to Mitch Li from Take Medicine Back. Emergency room physicians are being pushed out for nurse practitioners in the same way big money is trying to push us out for digital. Guess what? The doctors largely don’t like that their scribes were pushed out, and the quality of medical transcription has been suffering because of its lean to automation. As a matter of fact, as a young reporter, I was getting requests to get involved with medical transcription (MT). That was only ten years ago. Nowadays the Association for Health Documentation Integrity says there’s a transcriber shortage.
It’s so bad that they STILL want to attract court reporters to do medical transcription. So how good was automation for MT anyway?
Well, isn’t it interesting that jerks like no-steno man (NSM) created problems in an industry that they didn’t bother to stick around and solve? “Oh, people are dying from the reckless automation of something important? Exit stage left. Time to try court reporting!” Guess what? We’re not medical transcriptionists, and we’re not letting you destroy our industry without a fight, you jackalope.
His entire line about automating medical transcription and making it cheaper is fluff. What good is cheap, useless, garbage? And make no mistake that automatic speech recognition, natural language processing, artificial intelligence, or whatever fancy label we want to put on it, is just that. The objective science that exists today says that it’s 25 to 80% accurate from all the major players. When was the last time you had a 20% untran and called yourself “neartime?” This also kills his argument about the technology being revolutionary. He’s comparing our 99% real-world accuracy rating to AI’s 80-at-best average accuracy and calling it revolutionary. This is more like if Google maps led you the wrong way down a one-way street about 20% of the time. It’s not acceptable and we shouldn’t be forced to pretend that it is. If they’re not using full automation, they’re using human transcribers, and that means there are zero efficiency gains from a manpower perspective. This is a hide-the-ball trick of saying technology is better than it actually is to fool investors and consumers. It only fools people who have not seen the trick before.
Next strawman argument by the liar: Court reporting costs have gone up. In actuality, we’re working for less than we were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation. Let’s call this out for what it is, a ploy to get court reporters scared of demanding the rates and pay that they deserve. Less money in our wallets means less money for us to spend on our associations to fight for us. The push to get court reporters to accept less has been largely successful in the last decade, and it has been driven by low-intelligence businesspeople that look at the labor expense as something to be cut no matter who it hurts. There are over a million lawyers in the United States and about 30,000 of us. We’re a rare commodity and need to start acting like it — keeping pricing reasonable, but not abusively low.
Notably, NSM refers to the democratization of technology and talks a good game about how realtime is too expensive for the little guys to afford. Anir Dutta of Stenograph also referred to the democratization of technology in the Speech-to-Text Institute podcast. What does this tell us? This is a coordinated buzzword in whatever business circle they’re all playing in. They’re using democracy as transfer propaganda. Who doesn’t like the sound of democratization in a free society like the United States? This ignores that in actuality adopting his active reporting model would likely hurt democracy in the form of disproportionately hurting the quality of black and minority speakers’ records. We have put immense effort into ensuring everyone has an equal record. Are we willing, as a field, to allow technological snake oil to kill the equality we stand for every day in every proceeding?
The puffery in the advertising is on full display:
This looks intimidating to a stenographic court reporter that doesn’t grill it a bit. First, questioning our accuracy. How dare they? I just gave the science. They’re not guaranteed accuracy. Nobody can guarantee accuracy. What happens if a word is wrong? Does everyone get the service for free? That would be a guarantee. Tellingly, they make no such promise. Audio available? Stenographers have been using audio for years. It’s called asking nicely or getting a subpoena. Lawyers don’t want to re-listen to depositions anyway, that’s why they hire us. Exhibit handling, stenographers literally led the way and trained clients on that after COVID. The rest of it, hey, we can give all that away for free too, but we like our businesses to be profitable instead of losing $13 million a year like VIQ Solutions. We need profitable businesses so that we can continue to provide the same great service we have for over half a century. NSM’s investors must have their mouths agape. He’s not charging what the market can bear, and that’s a recipe for low returns and disaster in business. I’m pretty sure I learned that in business 101. What’s this guy’s excuse?
The low, flat rate that he talks about in the presentation isn’t really that low, which tells me that this process isn’t automated. Just to break it down, there are stenographers working for less than $4 per page in New York City right now. Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s $480 for two hours. Lawyers can get the tried and tested stenography for a little bit more than the brand new maybe-this-works-maybe-it-doesn’t Active BS. This isn’t a sell, it’s an embarrassment.
Final point I’ll address is his mention about the shortage and how the stenotype is “hard on its operators.” We’ve been cremating our shortage despite some of the biggest names in the business, Veritext and US Legal Support, actively sabotaging us. Additionally, our technology is a lot easier on the hands than the Mechanical Turk game that Active and others are probably playing. Mechanical Turk lets services crowdsource transcribers. When people buy into active reporting, they’re likely buying into inefficiency and hurting workers.
Stenographers, I cannot stress this enough: Hold your ground. Our industry is worth $3 billion and we control most of that. The people that are trying to convince you to give up and run away are not doing so out of the kindness of their heart. These are liars, nothing more. Now that I’ve peeled back the curtain and exposed some of the flaws, I hope you will follow the Protect Your Record Project motto of “connect, educate, advocate.” I hope you will follow the STRONG motto of “we are strongest together.” I hope that if you found this blog post helpful, you will take the time to donate below.
I also hope that Active Readback will come on here and comment. We do not cower behind censorship like them. Perhaps that is all the world needs to see to know whose version of events is truest.
The more money I make from my media, the harder I can fight.
The FTC has changed its complaint procedure. To briefly explain antitrust, companies aren’t allowed to work together to mislead consumers. By setting up dummy sites to mislead student consumers and making the stenographer shortage seem larger than it is, Speech-to-Text Institute, Veritext, and US Legal appear to be doing just that.
Please take five minutes to send this information to the FTC. More attention on the issue means a higher likelihood the government will act. First step, click this link. Now follow the pictures:
It’s important to mention that the NCRA was lied about. Here is proof.
Remember, more reports will mean higher likelihood of action. We are a field of nearly 30,000 stenographers being victimized by this illegal corporate conduct. Ask your fellow reporters to take this seriously. Single complaints are not resolved by the FTC. Hundreds or thousands will get their attention.
This likely concludes my work on the illegal conduct angle. In defense of our profession and the law I have spent the last many months documenting the illegal conduct. Now I need associations and stenographers across the country to take action. Feel free to tell the FTC it was my idea. Any agreements that restrain competition are illegal. Bamboozling consumers to affect the market counts. The government relies on Americans like us to report crime. If you were watching a robbery, would you call it in or would you sit by and say “well, no court has told me this is illegal?”
We all have a choice. I hope you call it in on this metaphorical “robbery in progress.”
P.S. Michael McDonner of Kentuckiana attempted to intimidate me by stating I was attempting to conspire with others by trying to get others to act on the illegal conduct. This is an example of the digital camp trying to scare us into inaction. It’s the same reason Naegeli threatened to sue me. I expect members of the digital camp to try to intimidate some of you. Know that arguably all of you with no direct clients are common law employees and not direct competitors and therefore cannot illegally conspire. We’re not the ones benefitting from the illegal market rigging. Do not let these bullying tactics stop you from doing what you know to be right.
I hold myself out as an advocate for court reporters and people pass me info. A few have stated some large firms are offering packages to digital court reporters that are not being offered to stenographers, such as sign-on bonuses. I always ask for some kind of corroborating information so that I’m not publishing false statements. Today, I have some corroborating information.
In this Zip Recruiter ad, US Legal advertises that it offers family-friendly benefits to its employees, including retirement benefits, insurance, paid parental leave, and an EAP. It then goes on to describe a digital court reporter position. As I see it, either it’s (1) a clever play on words where they talk about the benefits that employees get and then hand the digital court reporters an independent contractor “job,” because employers can save a good 40% by misclassifying employees — seriously.
And up to 30% of workers may be, shockingly, misclassified.
OR (2) if it’s not a play on words and they’re actually offering all of these things to digital court reporters, then the fraud that I have been talking about just became really easy to explain: US Legal is, as far as we can tell, making the public claim that they cannot find stenographers. We know that stenographer rates are as much as 30 years behind inflation. We know that US Legal failed to use coverage apps or directories like PRO Link, Expedite Legal, and Cover Crow. In fact, corporate rep Rick Levy, who was on the board of NCRA at one time, attempted to pretend that he did not know what Sourcebook was. We know that US Legal is and was aggressively recruiting digital reporters on LinkedIn and did not attempt to do so for stenographers. We know that US Legal posted an impossible equation to JD Supra in order to convince readers the stenographer shortage was impossible to solve. We know that US Legal acquired and apparently destroyed StenoTrain. We know US Legal inflated the shortage numbers by a factor of six to convince the public stenographers were unavailable and that the shortage was impossible to solve. We know that US Legal’s Chief Strategy Officer Peter Giammanco and Rick Levy both had no problem bullying the women in our profession and others, but they give me carte blanche because they’ve worked out that I’m not afraid of them. We know that digital recruitment isn’t going well because they’ve had to publish their recruitment advertisements every day for months. Even if we want to excuse all of the company’s behavior, how do we excuse this? Reporters are 88% women and yet maternity leave was out of our grasp. All of these benefits that could bring reporters in, I have not seen offered to stenographers. Again, how can the company make a good faith claim stenographers are unavailable when the truth is that the company has done everything in its power to crush the stenographic modality?
If benefits are being offered to digital reporters, I’m happy for those digital reporters, but it’s only a matter of time before the companies turn on them too. We have to let digitals know what’s going on, get them working steno, scoping, and all the things that are going to improve their skills, and lead our industry by example. These big-money types won’t have a choice but to use steno if everybody they’re hiring is taking that money and putting it down on stenographic education. Here’s a hint: That’s happening right now.
We have a choice, as people, to not be complicit in our own demise. It is very clear that the company wishes to exaggerate shortage claims in order to sell attorneys the inferior digital court reporting product at inflated and unreasonable prices. Either we become very open and honest with the attorneys we work with that this fraud issue is ongoing or we risk our jobs being stashed and undervalued. Our value is not directly tied to our productivity, but to our ability to communicate our value and negotiate a better deal. We are players in a game where we hold most of the leverage. Our nonprofits are bigger. There are more of us. We do the vast majority of the work that makes the business and industry viable. We are the consumers of the software and equipment companies that are supposed to support the industry. We are each contributors to local economy — our money doesn’t just sit in the bank, it supports local businesses. There are so many court reporters in this country that we could singlehandedly run candidates for office. Again, we hold all of the leverage. My only suggestion is that we start using it unapologetically. Remember, when the shortage narrative was accepted without question, we were lied to. Now this industry has facts and figures that tell us we were lied to, and there’s a shocking amount of silence. Now that this industry has been shown we defeated stenographer shortage twice before, it’s only a matter of time until we defeat it again, and on that day court reporters would do well to remember every single person and company that said such a thing was impossible. Remember them and remember that when they had a choice to uplift young reporters or peddle garbage, they chose the latter.
It came to my attention some time ago that Verbit was using a real proceeding’s audio to test its potential transcribers. After entering one’s information, one will get to a screen that encourages him or her to download all the files and put together a transcript from the information and audio given.
But this just takes my criticism of digital reporting and Verbit to a whole new level. Anyone with access to the link from anywhere in the world can just pop on and download a bunch of files from somebody’s case. These files have been accessible since July 2021 that I personally know of, and these files were still accessible as of September 15, 2021.
The whole thing leaves me in a pretty tough position. I want to prove this is happening so that court reporters can warn the legal community. But just dumping the evidence onto the internet a second time will violate the parties’ privacy more than it has already been violated. With heavy redaction, though, we can go through the various files and get a good idea of it. Let’s start with the cover page. Just remember, the redactions were put there by me. In the actual files there are no redactions.
There’s a file labeled TAG, which appears to be the digital reporter or video operator’s annotations. If I am correct about that, this is a window into just how useless the annotations are for a transcriber.
There’s a file containing a notice of deposition. To limit the time spent redacting, I’ll offer up the first page only.
The “must read” file comes next. Since that’s created entirely by Verbit, it’s downloadable here.
Then there’s a Verbit guidelines page, which seems harmless enough. But it hilariously refers to a “USLS” manual. The file is literally named “redone for USLS,” which to me seems to be fairly good circumstantial evidence that Verbit has a connection to US Legal Support. Not only is US Legal potentially defrauding consumers by making bad claims about the stenographer shortage, they might be working with a company so ignorant of good court reporting practice that it posted a proceeding online.
For the sake of completeness, I went looking for a USLS Manual and I found a 2017 version. Interestingly enough, it reads very much like an employee manual and has very specific formats for jobs. Remember, common law employees are all about who has direction and control of the work. I would say that if US Legal is or was using a 150-something page manual to “train” its “freelancers,” those people are actually common law employees and US Legal probably should have been paying employment taxes for them. What a shame it would be if I uploaded that manual and someone let the IRS know there was potentially a failure to withhold those taxes.
Back to Verbit’s files, they offer a template, which is more or less a transcription of the audio file they’re asking transcribers to transcribe. It is the single greatest indictment against digital reporting I have ever seen. The reporter’s name, Hang Nguyen, is misspelled as Han. The term “court reporter” is spelled “core reporter.” There’s a missing apostrophe. There’s a zero in the word “point.” She asks them to state their appearance and how they’re attending, but somehow it’s transcribed as “state your up here.” There are so many errors that quite frankly I hope my reporting colleagues do not let this go and that they take the time to send this to their bar associations. I am quite sure there are stenographic reporters that make mistakes. I personally make mistakes. But this falls well within the territory of “way too many mistakes to be normalized and accepted by our justice system.”
There’s a Kentuckiana reporter worksheet that’s published by Verbit. It’s a pretty standard worksheet, so I will not bother to publish it here.
We get to the audio file, and it’s a 22-minute file. Given that this proceeding is a family court matter between two individuals, it’s not appropriate for me to republish, but again, it was available on the internet for months and being used to screen or train Verbit transcribers. It’s real testimony about a family court matter.
I set out to investigate whether permission had been granted to Verbit to publish these proceedings on the internet. In full disclosure, court reporters have shared audio in our field, but it’s usually a snippet of a word or sentence for clarification purposes and not large chunks of testimony with information that can identify parties. Now, I don’t really like Kentuckiana because of their pro-digital stance, but when I reached out, Michael McDonner seemed very reasonable and made it very clear, permission was not given to distribute this audio.
But what about the attorneys? Maybe John Schmidt said it was okay.
But perhaps Amber Cook had given permission?
I reached out to Hang Nguyen on LinkedIn but I got no response as of writing. I also reached out to Leor Eliashiv from Verbit. Predictably, there was no response. But at the very least, Kentuckiana made a commitment to demand the audio be taken off the internet after I told them where to find it.
For so long our institutions and businesses have been trying to find a way to say we are the superior product. Maybe the answer is to just show consumers what they’re really signing up for if they entrust the future of the legal record to companies like Verbit, tons of errors and potential breaches of privacy. We have to direct people to the many resources to learn stenographic court reporting, such as NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno. We have to get serious about educating consumers. Please consider a donation to Protect Your Record Project today. They have been pioneers and powerhouses in consumer awareness, and it is largely thanks to them that this article will reach thousands.
Within 24 hours after the posting of this blog the files were taken off of the internet.
And despite my attempts to alert them to the inaccuracy in July 2021, nobody could be bothered to correct the article. It’s still wrong as of September 14, 2021.
And just to make this really clear, it’s fact checkable using New York’s business search, which takes maybe 60 seconds. Verbit is a foreign corporation, meaning it is not based in New York.
This might seem like a minor thing, but it points to a larger problem. Media people are not bothering to fact check anything. They’ll go on and on about how the technology is great and new, and how this company is a unicorn valued at a billion dollars, but they’ll miss simple realities, like 85% of AI business solutions being predicted to fail. IBM Watson wasn’t the holy grail of ASR and IBM makes $70 billion in annual revenue. What are the chances that Verbit beat IBM with its $5 million in revenue? I’ll give everyone a hint. Vince McMahon’s theme song tells us exactly what chance they have.
And Verbit is not doing anything to correct false perceptions. They reposted their May 2020 article again on September 14, 2021.
Just for fun, let’s dive into the implications they list here, since it’s being published a second time as if it is still true.
1. The rise of non-compete litigation. I see no reason to believe that this is an accurate assessment. States like New York are banning non-competes under 75,000. Even our sitting President of the United States doesn’t seem to like non-competes very much. So it probably wasn’t true in May 2020 when the courts were closed and probably isn’t true now.
2. Courthouses are closed. True in May 2020. Not really holding true now.
3. Working from home culture. Stenographers adapted to this. There’s no edge to Verbit in that department.
4. High demand for lawyers. Can’t argue here. Our nation of laws needs lawyers, especially in rural areas.
5. Technology is key. They mention how lawyers that know how to send documents electronically and perform video conferences are more desirable. Is this surprising to anyone?
6. Fewer courtroom cases. Verbit has pointed to our stenographer shortage in the past as the casus belli requiring our replacement. If there are fewer courtroom cases, demand is lower than anticipated, and therefore stenographers can meet demand and the whole theme that we cannot has been a marketing farce.
7. Smaller law firms thrive. They’re writing this because smaller law firms have fewer resources to spend figuring out that the article is a sales pitch. Marketing is about how you make people feel. They want to make smaller law firms feel good and try Verbit.
8. New court reporting strategies. In May 2020, laws regarding oaths and the swearing-in of witnesses were changing to adapt to the pandemic environment. This has been a major debate in our field where some businesses ignore procedural rules while others zealously defend them. New York itself has fairly simple guidelines for depositions taken within the state, without the state, and in a foreign country. As page 32 of the Summer 2020 Vermont Bar Journal told us, this situation gets complicated. So it’s not a false statement they’re making, but this is an example of framing. “New” and “court reporting” are designed to make the reader feel like court reporting is changing. Our strategy is the same it’s been for a hundred years, stenotyping what you say while you say it. We just do it with better technology than we had in the 80s.
10. The rise of the remote deposition. Automatic speech recognition thrives via the remote work because the audio quality tends to be much clearer, assuming everyone’s connection is good. It’s a closed scenario where everyone is speaking into a microphone. By contrast, the stenographic court reporter can survive anything. Check out 25 seconds of one of my early freelance jobs and let me know how well automatic captioning does there. I was a 20-something year old kid next to a steam radiator. If I had not been taking notes on my stenotype, there’d be no legal record of the proceedings. Automatic speech recognition fails in court reporting for the same reason court reporters get stressed out at lawyers. We have to get every word. Sometimes they stick us in spots where it’s really hard to do our jobs. In today’s world we are occasionally looked down on for asking to change our seat or relaying that a situation is unreportable. We will be very upset if the legal field suddenly decides “yes, we can create the ideal hearing scenario for the computer that we couldn’t bother to do for the human beings we work with every day.” But my money is on one simple truth, people are people and most of them will never jump through hoops to make a computer “happy” when they can work with a live stenographic reporter who will jump through hoops to make them happy. It’s the same reason customers dread calling any kind of service center nowadays. Getting bounced around by an automated system has got to be one of the most infuriating experiences in modern life. Applying that to the legal record is a masterful level of stupid.
This isn’t anything new from Verbit. They put out questionable marketing materials all the time. They did it again in this undated webpage about digital reporting. Let’s put those “myths” to bed too.
But you know what’s screwed up? Here Verbit is calling digital court reporters highly trained, but not long ago, they were claiming that digital reporting required a workforce that is not highly trained. Again, this is a company with no conviction or facts backing it. It is a chameleon, ready to blend in with whatever way will make it money or sound good.
Let’s keep on reading some digital reporting myths.
AI never has a bad day? Well, in my October 2020 article, YouTube thought the caption for defeating the enemy and extinguishing his life was “to feed my enemy, I extinguish his wife.” In my June 2021 article YouTube AI thought “raise your right hand” was “rage right hand.” There’s two bad days right there. If Verbit’s got better ASR than YouTube, why haven’t they sold it to YouTube yet?
To understand why this is wrong, you have to know a little about the tech and concepts at play. Alexa and Siri are constantly able to learn your voice and tune to your voice. That’s like voice writing. In order to create a uniform ASR program that can get all English speakers all the time and automate that transcription, you need tons of data from all those speakers in all different types of environments. Since new people are being born every day and language is changing a little bit every day, this is basically hopeless. As written in Scientific American, ASR is not perfect and may never be. Just think criminal prosecutions. Does anyone really believe we are going to get defendants to sit there and help the court system train the computer to their voices? “Ah, yes, I think I will just assist the state in my prosecution.”
For anyone that hasn’t caught on, there is a pattern here. There is little substance, a lot of fluff, some great sales tactics, and no real court reporting knowledge. Perhaps most offensive is their reliance on quotes and ideas from the National Center for State Courts, which as far as I can tell just doesn’t like stenographers, since they continually call for digital recording despite some evidence that costs are similar and stenographers are more efficient. I hate to say that about NCSC since they seem to admire community court solutions as much as I do, but that’s where we’re at, they don’t like that my job exists.
I really feel for investors. They’re being recklessly encouraged to throw millions of dollars into something that, from any reasonable view of the facts, has a high chance of failing or stagnating. As I pointed out in my science article, they’re paying Kenyan transcribers maybe a fourth of what Americans are paid for the same work. Any alleged savings doesn’t go to the consumer, it goes to the company. Does the court reporting consumer want the creators of the legal record to be outside of his or her subpoena power? Does the captioning consumer want a company to push down prices so that captioners have a hard time affording continuing education? Is everybody really okay with what is apparently a zombie company coming in and sinking millions of dollars into Rev 2 under the false notion of “future technology?” Livne himself has admitted they’re “over-subscribed” when it comes to funding. It’s quite clear to me that they’re overfunded because they’re turning out to be an overblown transcription company and not the cutting edge of technology. After all, just compare their “over-subscribed” funding of maybe a couple hundred million dollars to the money pit of real AI research. When the media will admit that or when investors will catch on? That remains to be seen. But very much like US Legal, anything from Verbit needs to be viewed with extreme caution.
For investors looking for a stable return, consider getting involved with stenographic firms. Voice recognition and transcription has been identified as a market with billions of dollars in potential. Stenographers are the most efficient modality in that regard. Where technology companies will overpromise and underdeliver, the stenographic writer has worked out a system that has been going strong and evolving for over a hundred years. A Kentley Insights 2019 report showed a 10% profit as a percentage of revenue for court reporting businesses. As far as I am concerned, a far safer and more stable return is in stenography. If any investor wants to be directed to the more entrepreneurial minds of our profession, I am happy to direct. Please write me at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com.
I reached out to Jim McMillan from NCSC and I have to correct my above position on the organization. He explained that he believed quote Verbit used from him was from a 2013 post and that that was well before speech-to-text automatic speech recognition was close to usable. The position that NCSC takes tends to be on courtrooms that do not require the transcription of many matters. Obviously, I will always be an advocate for the stenographic reporter, but this is a far different take on it that I previously had and important for our field to see.
In our field there are three main modalities for taking the record or captioning. There is stenography, voice writing, and digital recording. Stenography is using a chorded stenotype and computer dictionary to instantaneously take down and transcribe the spoken word. Digital recording is all about letting a microphone pick up the audio and having somebody transcribe it after the fact. Sometimes digital recording proponents insist that they can run the audio through automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems to “assist the transcriber.” I’ve been pretty open about my feelings there.
There are also nonprofits representing each modality. NCRA is all-in for steno. NVRA admits stenographers, but in my mind is really more for voice writers, and rightfully so. AAERT is pro-recording. ATSP is pro-transcriber to the extent it has any court reporting industry presence. There are others like Global Alliance or STTI that claim to be for all three modalities, but I’ve always gotten a “jack of all trades, master of none” vibe from those types of associations.
From information available to me, I believe that NCRA is by far the largest organization and in the best position to handle the court reporter shortage, but NVRA does provide an incredibly important role in certifying voice writers. One common problem in the early years of voice writing, which some New York attorneys still hold against them, was that occasionally they could be heard through the mask. Even now, when there is a lot of sibilance, one can infrequently hear a voice writer through the mask. Modern certification requires that the voice writer is able to perform without being heard, and a two-strike policy is employed in which the first time a writer is heard during a test they are tapped on the shoulder. The second time they are heard, they are disqualified. Voice writing tests, like ours, give the voice writer one shot at getting their “voice notes” correct. They are not allowed to repeat or review the test audio. This kind of testing is important and represents the quality standards this industry needs. NVRA confirmed its testing policy in an 8/11/21 e-mail to me.
Most reporters know that voice writing is, at its core, speaking into a Stenomask or other voice mask and allowing automatic speech recognition to assist in the transcription of what’s said. In some settings, a voice writer may use an open mic. Some stenographic reporters may be surprised to learn that realtime voice writing is superior to digital reporting and general ASR use. In general ASR use, the microphone takes input from everyone and the computer system gives its best guess based on the training data it has. In a study from last year, it was shown that that technology’s accuracy could drop as low as 25% dependent on who is speaking. Realtime voice writing, by comparison, is a trained operator, the voice writer, often speaking into a closed microphone, and utilizing ASR that has been trained to that writer’s voice. In the best of circumstances, that ASR can reliably put out highly accurate transcriptions of the voice writer’s voice — as high as 98%. Many realtime voice writers utilize Dragon by Nuance connected to their preferred CAT software. I guesstimate that Nuance has the best ASR tech, and there’s no coincidence that despite all the other ASR vendors out there, Nuance is the one Microsoft wanted to buy. This lead in technology comes from the system being trained to understand the specific user or voice writer.
One important distinction is the difference between realtime voice writers and voice writers that speak into the mask and have someone else transcribe and do the work. This is very similar to the divide in stenographic reporting where some scopists report having to fill in huge chunks of information missed by the court reporter. A realtime voice writer, like a realtime stenographer, does not have to provide realtime services, but they do maintain the equipment and capability to do so.
The knowledge and preparedness of the voice writer is integral to the integrity of the record produced. Think of all the glitches and anomalies in stenographic CAT software. Think about how reporters create macros and dictionary workarounds every day to deal with them. As an easy example, my software does not like certain punctuation marks to be together. Early in my career, I worked out that placing a backslash between the two marks and then deleting it would override the software’s programming to delete punctuation. Similarly, voice writers have to deal with the complexities of the ASR system, the CAT software, and how they interact in order to overcome word boundary and formatting issues.
The understanding and maintenance of a voice writer’s equipment is also paramount. How the computer “hears” a writer’s voice in one microphone can be vastly different than another microphone. Different masks can be given different training configurations to enhance the ASR transcription. Voice writers are speaking into a mask, and where saliva or liquid gets into the mask it can alter what the computer hears. The competent voice writer monitors their realtime and keeps redundant equipment in case of an equipment failure, including extra masks and multiple audio backups of their “voice notes.” As someone who keeps two stenotypes in case one decides to die mid-trial, I admire the voice writers that take the time to ensure the show goes on in the event of computer problems.
Like us, there are many briefs or triggers voice writers use. The key difference is that they must speak the “steno.” The same way we must come up with a stroke for designating a speaker, they must come up with a voice command. The same way that stenographers must differentiate the word “period” from the punctuation symbol of a period, voice writers historically had to create differentiations. For example, in years gone by, they might have had to say “peerk” for the symbol and “period” for the word. Modern ASR systems are sometimes able to differentiate the word versus the mark without any special command or input from the voice writer! Again, the experience and ability to predict how the software will interpret what is said is an important skill for the realtime voice writer.
The obvious question arises as to why this blog tends to be silent on voice writing. There’s no overt hostility there and deep admiration for the people at the top of the voice writing modality of record taking. Simply put, I truly believe that stenographic reporting is better and will open more doors for students. That’s colored by my own experiences. As of today, voice writers are not allowed to work in my court and be in my civil service title. We can argue about whether they should be allowed, but the simple fact is that New York courts today tend to utilize stenographic reporting or digital recording. It’s easy to see that the qualified voice writer is a far better choice than the digital recording, but I couldn’t say to a student “get into voice writing! You’ll have the same opportunities as I do!”
There is a tumultuous history between stenographic court reporters and voice writers. I’ve been told by multiple NCRA members that when an effort was made to include voice writers about two decades ago, there was heavy backlash and even some harassment that occurred against those that were pro-integration. That was the climate of yesterday. While it seems unlikely that there will be formal alliance, inclusion, or cooperation, the separation we see today is not the same violent rejection of voice writers from the early 2000s. The civility of NCRA’s 2021 business meeting showed that court reporters are ready to disagree without belligerence and keep our industry moving forward. This is more akin to why the North American Olive Oil Association probably doesn’t partner much with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. Olive oil and fish oil are both fine oils, but every second and cent spent advocating for one could be spent advocating for the other. It doesn’t make much sense to divide the time and resources. That’s where we are today. What the future holds for tomorrow, I can only imagine.
A big thank you to everyone that made this article possible, up to and including the NVRA. One source of my information was the esteemed Tori Pittman. Trained in both stenography and voice writing, Tori gave me a full demonstration of voice writing and agreed to speak at length about voice writing. See the full interview below!
It came to my attention through an anonymous source that on June 26, 2021, the Pennsylvania Court Reporters Association held a webinar titled “Educating the Next Generation of Reporters.” The learning objectives were pretty standard: The importance of staying up to date with technology, how technology is affecting reporting, and recruiting individuals to become students of court reporting. At a glance these are all things related to technology and advocacy, and certainly fall under NCRA’s CEU guidelines. Nothing particularly surprising until we get to a couple of the presenters.
Chrissy Boggs from Secure Transcription Solutions (STS) and Kelly Moranz from Tri-C. Secure Transcription Solutions doesn’t sound like court reporting and Ms. Moranz is on the board of the Speech To Text Institute (STTI). STTI is basically the new mouthpiece of digital reporting and automatic speech recognition. They claim that they want to set quality standards for all methods of record taking, but as we’ll get into, digital reporting, and especially automatic speech recognition, is inherently less efficient and cannot consistently meet the quality of stenographic court reporting or voice writing as of today.
It was noted that Chrissy Boggs has worked with STS since its inception in 2019. “During that time, she has embraced the unique challenges posed by the court reporting industry; namely, the issue of expediently producing qualified reporters using critically needed and thoughtfully designed digital reporting technologies.” At this point, at least some reporters in attendance were confused, and for good reason. There is an audience requirement for CEUs. Courses must be designed to meet the continuing education needs of a specific credential holder segment. Take a look.
During the presentation, automatic speech recognition by Parrot was showcased transcribing My Cousin Vinny. It performed poorly according to at least two sources. It was mentioned that there’s room for every method and they don’t diminish one method over the other. In summary, the presentation was a platform that legitimized digital reporting and automatic speech recognition as court reporting technologies, and if you don’t believe me, you can check out the extensive notes taken by my source.
Being somebody who just resigned from an association board last month, I thought “this must be in violation of their mission statement or bylaws.” I could not have been more wrong. As of today, PCRA’s bylaws do not define court reporters as stenographic court reporters. Their purpose is the general welfare of court reporting.
My investigation didn’t stop there. I took a look at the mission statement, which I could see was revised late last year.
So then I used the Wayback Machine to get a look at what the mission statement had been in August 2020, prior to the revision. It unreservedly and unapologetically was about stenographic court reporting. That was the clear mission of PCRA prior to the November 2020 revision.
This leads, naturally, to some questions. Questions that I asked PCRA right away.
1. Does PCRA see the future generation of reporters as being digital reporters? 2. Why was PCRA’s mission objective changed from focusing on stenographic reporters in November 2020? 3. Doesn’t it seem nonsensical to promote the modalities as equal when stenographic reporting organizations like NCRA are many times bigger than digital reporting nonprofits? 4. Any other comments related to the session or PCRA’s stance as it pertains to stenographic reporting and digital reporting.
I was ready for them to kick my ass (in a good way). Maybe some kind of legal requirement was at play. Maybe I missed something very, very obvious. Maybe a mistake was made. Whatever the case, certainly a board of RPRs was going to set the record straight and make this situation clearer.
If you take the statement at face value, it’s actually not a bad statement. A hundred percent steno sounds good. But my four questions were pretty softball questions. It would’ve been pretty easy for anyone with any conviction or strong feeling to say “The future is steno. No further questions.” They didn’t bother. Regardless of actual intention, this creates justifiable suspicion of a change in direction, a lack of conviction, and/or a desire to hide something. All things we do not need in leadership today. If that sounds harsh, let’s apply the response I got to some other situations together.
For those that can’t watch the video, I sit down with guest star Marina Dubson in a series of three short skits. In the first skit, the question is asked, “Did you cheat on me?” The response, “baby, I’m 100 percent you.” In the second skit, the question is asked, “Why did you eat all the snacks?” The response, “While the number of snacks has recently changed, my objective remains the same.” In the third skit, the question is asked, “Why would you invite Johnny to the party? You know we don’t get along.” The response, crickets. There’s not a single situation I can think of where avoiding questions like that doesn’t raise some suspicion, whether it be suspicion that the answerer is lying or that the answerer simply does not care enough to give a real answer.
Well, I am incredibly naive and gullible. Maybe they just forgot there were specific questions posed.
I cannot overstate how upsetting this is for me personally. I’m no association hater. I’m a member of six different associations this year, though admittedly not PCRA. In my view, PCRA has always been among the best teachers with regard to political writing and advocacy for reporters. They were the victims of a mindless media flop that I have spent years trying to correct. They have maintained great materials on their site with regard to writing to politicians or writing to editors since I was a young reporter. There’s a lot of great stuff about the organization that reporters should support. But this needs an immediate course correction. I’ve gotten better responses in the past from Esquire and Veritext. I hope I am not the only one that finds it a little odd that, when questioned, Veritext, ostensibly among the leaders of the corporations pushing digital reporting, says technology “...will not take the place of the stenographer” and PCRA, when questioned, can’t be bothered to answer directly. It’s about as bizarre as NCRA’s complete silence on the matter despite requests for comment from myself and others.
Just in case somebody thinks this is all bluster and that digital reporting and/or ASR really can be equivalent to stenographic reporting, let me set the record straight. It can take up to eight transcribers to complete a rough draft, something I was completely oblivious to until I consulted Lisa Migliore Black from Migliore & Associates. She had this to say:
“I’ve spoken with Verbit salespeople on a few occasions over the past few years. In the most recent sales pitch regarding the provision of rough draft transcripts, the representative stated that eight transcriptionists would be working behind the scenes to provide a rough draft of the day’s proceeding with a final transcript delivered the next day. Eight. Eight sources of potential breach of confidentiality. Eight transcriptionists to provide the rough draft that a single stenographic reporter could produce within seconds of the conclusion of a legal proceeding. Eight transcriptionists to provide the next day [that] a team of three (stenographic reporter, scopist/editor, and proofreader) could produce within an hour of the ending of the proceedings on the same day with a stenographic reporter in charge. If Verbit’s ASR technology were truly an advancement, shouldn’t it be more efficient and require far less human involvement?”
In brief, there’s no reason to believe the technology is equivalent, and Verbit, a digital reporting proponent, has conceded the lack of equivalence its own infographics, as I reported in the past.
For those that believe pay is commensurate with training or experience, enjoy this video where a Youtuber advertises that transcribers can make 23,000 Indian rupees a month working with Verbit. That’s about $308 a month as of writing. Good luck maintaining uncompromising quality and adhering to AAERT standards when digital proponents can pay people 8,000 miles away 6% or less of what court reporters make today. No matter what Moranz had to say during the presentation, the hard fact is that once you shift the reporter from the front end to the back end, unscrupulous and conniving people are going to be shipping the work off to Manila, Kenya, and India where your laws and best practices are not enforceable. How do we know? They already do it.
It’s just anti-intellectual to continue to pretend that these things are equal. 85 percent of AI business solutions, the umbrella under which ASR lives, are predicted to fail by 2022. There’s very good reason to believe some companies relying on digital solutions are unprofitable. Court systems have acknowledged that the use of such technologies would threaten access to justice. Captioning advocates refer to ASR output as autocraptions. That PCRA is okay with platforming this stuff as stenographic reporter education and then comfortable with giving me one of the most non-responsive responses I’ve ever had the displeasure of reporting should give reporters and the consumers we serve pause.
There’s a real easy way to remedy this situation, and there can be some good to come from it. Bylaws matter. Board members and the organizations they serve are obligated to follow the law and the organization’s bylaws. If you are not a Pennsylvania reporter, the best thing you could do for this industry right now is forward this to a Pennsylvania reporter. If you are a Pennsylvania reporter, then any three members of the board or any five members of the association can propose a bylaws amendment.
You need only slip the word stenographic in front of “court reporting” and “captioning” in Article II and redefine court reporter in Article III to be any person who captures the spoken word by stenotype or stenographic means.
This exercise will serve a few purposes. If everything is cool, then the amendment is going to pass without issue, members can feel confident in their PCRA, and this post can go down as the ramblings of Chris Day, the registered paranoid reporter. It is not lost on me that there are good, professional people on that board right now and that leaders sometimes stay silent for strategic reasons or out of fear. At this point we really need our leaders to fear silence and take strides to safeguard our associations. I am unabashedly a steno ally. If I can’t get satisfactory answers, then any time a writer wants to spin a bullshit anti-steno story, they’re going to tear our leaders apart. Changing the bylaws will allow PCRA to come out strong on this issue and maybe give the organization some practice in responding to media inquiries.
The exercise will also help identify people who might be sitting in positions of power with an intention to spread the consumer nightmare that is digital reporting. If anyone fights the amendment, it’s a great indicator they’re trying to subvert your organization’s original mission and have got to be voted out. Those subversives, by the way, will be the ones saying “we don’t need to amend the bylaws because there’s no problem with the bylaws.” Those subversives will be the ones who want to publish a throwaway statement about this article instead of amending the bylaws.
Subversives are not going to spell out for you that their intentions are not in line with what most of us expect from stenography’s leaders. How do we know? Again, it’s already happened before. Jim Cudahy was the Executive Director of NCRA. He did the association a great service in getting the stenographer shortage forecasted. Nowadays he’s using his “knowledge” and past title to advocate for an integrated market of stenographic and digital reporters and bring some legitimacy to AAERT and STTI.
Professional flip flopper, weaponizing the shortage against us, and completely shameless. It’s very dangerous to engage in pitchfork culture. It’s also very dangerous to continue to trust everybody when there is at least some evidence of a small minority in the field willing to use their credentials and experience to sabotage the rest of us. That’s why I urge Pennsylvania reporters to take control of the situation and get those bylaws amended in 2022.
This exercise will also put the industry on notice that stenographers are not going to sit idle while the dues they pay are used to advocate for their elimination. There is also some hope that every reporter in the country realizes now how important it is for us to take ownership of our associations. If you don’t want your association, STTI and AAERT supporters will be happy to have it, its legitimacy, and its bank account.
You want an easy win for steno? It takes three to five of you to make the difference. In an organization that is 100% steno, it will never get easier.
Addendum: A few hours after this article launched, an e-mail was sent by Lisa Migliore Black to a number of people regarding whether the CEUs should be counted. A response by NCRA President Christine Phipps acknowledged that the course, in the way that it was submitted to NCRA, was appropriate. She pointed out that withdrawing the CEUs would punish certification holders that had already taken the course, and explained that steps had been taken to review the content. It was further mentioned that steps would be taken to deal with similar issues in the future. Not a bad outcome and certainly in line with what I had expected when I initially reached out to NCRA. As of writing, I cannot think of a way to screen CEU courses better without making it a much more burdensome process on nonprofit and commercial educators, so I think these actions are appropriate for addressing junk education.