Turning Omissions Into Opportunity

We’re in an interesting time. Pretty much anywhere you look there are job postings for digital reporters, articles with headlines talking about our replacement, articles with headlines talking about our angst. Over time, brilliant articles from people like Eric Allen, Ana Fatima Costa, Angie Starbuck (bar version), and Stanley Sakai start to get buried or appear dated when, in actuality, not much has changed at all. They’re super relevant and on point. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, we’re going to have to use our professional sense, think critically, and keep spreading the truth about ourselves and the tech we use.

One way to do that critical thinking is to look squarely at what is presented and notice what goes unmentioned. For example, look back at my first link. Searching for digital reporting work, ambiguous “freelance” postings come up, meaning stenographer jobs are actually branded as “digital” jobs. District courts seeking a stenographer? Labeled as a digital job. News reporters to report news about court? Labeled as a digital job. No wonder there’s a shortage, we’re just labeling everything the same way and expecting people who haven’t spent four decades in this business to figure it out. In this particular instance, Zip Recruiter proudly told me there were about 20 digital court reporter jobs in New York, but in actuality about 90 percent were mislabeled.

Another way to do it is to look at contradictions in a general narrative. For example, we say steno is integrity. So there was an article from Lisa Dees that shot back and said, basically, any method can have integrity. Can’t argue there. Integrity is kind of an individual thing. But to get to the conclusion these things are equal, you have to ignore a lot of stuff that anyone who’s been working in the field a while knows. Stenography has a longer history and a stronger culture. With AAERT pulling in maybe 20 percent of what NCRA does on the regular, who has more money going into ethics education? Most likely stenographers. When you multiply the number of people that have to work on a transcript, you’re multiplying the risk of one of those people not having integrity. We’re also ignoring how digital proponents like US Legal have no problem going into a courtroom and arguing that they shouldn’t be regulated like court reporters because they don’t supply court reporting services. Even further down the road of integrity, we know from other digital proponents that stenography is the gold standard (thanks, Stenograph) and that the master plan for digital proponents is to use a workforce that is not highly trained. I will totally concede that these things are all from “different” sources, but they all point to each other as de facto experts in the field and sit on each other’s boards and panels. It’s very clear there’s mutual interest. So, again, look at the contradictions. “The integrity of every method is equal, but stenography is the gold standard, but we are going to use a workforce with less training.” What?

Let’s get to how to talk about this stuff, and for that, I’m going to leave an example here. I do follow the court reporting stuff that gets published by Legaltech News. There’s one news reporter, Victoria Hudgins, who has touched on steno and court reporting a few times. I feel her information is coming mostly from the digital proponents, so in an effort to provide more information, I wrote:

“Hi Ms. Hudgins. My name’s Christopher Day. I’m a stenographer in New York. I follow with great interest and admiration most of your articles related to court reporting in Legal Tech News [sic]. But I am writing today to let you know that many of the things being represented to you by these companies appear false or misleading. In the August 24 article about Stenograph’s logo, the Stenograph offices that you were given are, as best I can tell, a stock photo. In the September 11 article about court reporter angst, Livne, says our field has not been digitized, but that’s simply not true. Court reporter equipment has been digital for decades. The stenotype picture you got from Mr. Rando is quite an old model and most of us do not use those anymore. I’m happy to send you a picture of a newer model, or share evidence for any of my statements in this communication.

Our position is being misrepresented very much. We are not worried so much about the technology, we are more worried that people will believe the technology is ready for prime time and replace us with it without realizing that it is not. Livne kind of admitted this himself. In his series A funding, he or Verbit stated that the tech was 99 percent accurate. In the series B funding he said Verbit would not get rid of the human element. These two statements don’t seem very compatible.

How come when these companies are selling their ASR, it’s “99 percent” or “ready to disrupt the market,” but when Stanford studied ASR it was, at best, 80 percent accurate?

Ultimately, if the ASR isn’t up to the task, these are transcription companies. They know that if they continue to use the buzzwords, you’ll continue to publish them, and that will draw them more investors.

I am happy to be a resource on stenographic court reporting technology, its efficiency, and at least a few of the things that have been done to address the shortage. Please feel free to reach out.”

To be very fair, because of the limitations of the website submission form, she didn’t get any of the links. But, you know, I think this stands as a decent example of how to address news people when they pick up stories about us. They just don’t know. They only know what they’re told or how things look. There will be some responsibility on our part to share our years of experience and knowledge if we want fair representation in media. It’s the Pygmalion effect at work. Expectations can impact reality. That’s why these narratives exist, and that is why a countering narrative is so important. Think about it. When digital first came it was all about how it was allegedly cheaper. When that turned out not to be true, it became a call for stenographers to just see the writing on the wall and acknowledge there is a shortage and that there is nothing we can do about it. Now that’s turning out not to be true, we’re doing a lot about it, and all we have left is to let those outside the industry know the truth.

Addendum:

A reader reminded me that Eric Allen’s article is now in archive. The text may be found here. For context purposes, it came amid a series of articles by Steve Townsend, and is an excellent example of what I’m talking about in terms of getting the truth out there.

What Verbit Investors Need To Know

I had touched pretty gently on Verbit when its series A funding came in at $23 million. The series B funding is in at about $31 million earlier this year. Now Verbit’s announced a strategic partnership with the STI and professional flip flopper, Jim Cudahy. Migliore & Associates already came out with the hard truth of what this means: ASR doesn’t make the cut for the production of legal transcripts without a qualified court reporter no matter what you name it, NLP, ASR, AI, computer magic, automated transcription.

Do I come off as angry? I am angry. I’m angry that investors are being led down a path of burning capital where there’s just not a bright future. When the series A funding was happening, Verbit used words like automated, “save an enormous amount of manual labor.” “Adaptive speech recognition” with over 99 percent accuracy. Series B is out. They “would not take the human transcriber out,” “the AI will enhance the human.” So investors are fundamentally paying millions of dollars so that they can be another Rev. I doubt very much that that’s what was sold to investors. I don’t think anybody would be putting down millions on that.

Then the partnership with STI? A complete joke. I have already gone into how, without any doubt, stenographers and NCRA are by far the best equipped to deal with the court reporter shortage. AAERT and the STI just don’t have the funding, infrastructure, or experience to tackle the problem, and it shows in their data. By their estimates, court reporting companies stand to save $250,000 over the next decade by adopting digital tools. First, I would love to know if this is individual savings or cumulative. We don’t know because there are no sources linked or cited. If this is cumulative, it’s embarrassing that they would even post that. That would mean 25,000 in savings a year across all companies. If that’s the projected individual savings per company, only slightly less embarrassing. That’s less than the average annual salary of a single court reporter. This may come as a shock to Jim Cudahy, but court reporting companies adopted digital tools throughout digital’s birth in the 70s and into the 80s and 90s. Stenographers are already a part of the Information Age, utilize AI, and produce quality records daily. The idea that investors are going to dump $50 million into “technology” expected to save $250,000 over 10 years and expect a return is terrifying. “Most courts are digital,” again, assuming everything they have to say is true, and yet judicial candidates show a preference for stenographic court reporters and returning them to courtrooms. The growth here is in stenographers, stenography jobs, and stenography schools, and Verbit’s current leadership is missing this boat completely.

Let’s just tell it like it is. When a grassroots-funded stenography blog can give you some pretty solid reasons you’re backing the wrong horse, it’s time to give investors nothing less than what they deserve. Open up a Steno Department, throw down some money on us, and we will make sure you’ve got real and steady returns. Verbit, with proper leadership from Tom Livne, can still save the day. Just not with this bait and switch technology-to-transcription model that amounts to little more than a repackaging of old tech. The only other viable alternative I see is buying this blog for a good $8 million and hoping investors don’t see it before then. Not a difficult decision. Come on over to the winning team. Vote for sten!

Veritext Update, March 2019

Introduction & History.

First and foremost: This post is going to get into past history and then go into more recent history. In the more recent history, in order to prove that what we’re saying is true, there are screen shots of a person’s LinkedIn social media. We’re free to discuss that and we’re free to say how we feel, but any reader that comes here should be aware that harassment, bullying, menacing, stalking, and defamation are all amoral and illegal. Those things may all open you up to criminal and civil action. If you use our steno news as a gateway for antisocial behavior, do not be surprised if you get police at your door.

Now onto history. Veritext was a leader in working to bolster stenography. A quick Google search will show you that assuming all the media out there to be true or partially true, they are a partner to NCRA and do or did, on some level, and sometimes on an astounding level, support the stenographic methodology for taking the record. It is hard to tell if what follows is a case of Yes, Prime Minister’s advice on backstabbing or a case of the principle of hedging. Veritext proceeded to buy out a lot of stenographic or court reporting companies, including Diamond Reporting here in New York. Next, we caught wind that Veritext was advertising to attorneys that they should change their deposition notices to add language of “stenographic or other means”, presumably so that Veritext could choose to send digital reporters to jobs.

This all ended up culminating in a post where we mirrored SoCalReporter’s ideas and said: We need to stop beating each other up about where we work and start talking solutions. Guess what happened? People started coming up with solutions, and content, and even going so far as to create watchdog groups. We have said this before, but we are seeing a memetic shift. The reporting zeitgeist of silence is over. There are hundreds of voices blogging, talking, and working together to come up with new ideas.

Today & Tomorrow.

So that brings us to the end of February 2019. A woman named Gina Hardin, purportedly a VP of Sales at Veritext, wrote or posted an article about digital reporting being the changing landscape of reporting. There was a great deal of chatter about this, culminating in the post being taken down the night it was posted, and an immediate declaration from Veritext that the post was posted by a former employee and that they had nothing to do with it, honest. This doesn’t pass the colloquial “sniff test” or SMELL test for being true. Why would a former employee try to drum up business for a past employer? In this country, with so few rights for workers, what employee would ever go out on a limb and post something like that without their employer’s explicit permission? Unless you work for the government or have a contract saying otherwise, you can be fired for any reason or no reason, even a made up reason, just not an illegal reason, of which there are very few. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. And if she’s a former employee, apparently nobody told her, because as of March 2, 2019, she was still listed as working at Veritext, but under the name Gina H. It’s all but undeniable that Veritext is pushing digital, including hiring via their website.

Now, here’s the deal: Some people went online and talked about the typos in the article, or even had personal attacks. It’s not about her. As best we can tell, she’s an employee doing a job, and probably doing it damn well. We make a thousand typos a day unless we’re Super Stenographer. Stenographers, and the entrepreneurs among us, should really be looking at teaming up with salespeople like that who’re dedicated to their job and willing to put themselves out there. Though we have not yet gotten a chance to interview Eve Barrett of Expedite Legal, one of the things she’s alluded to online is there’s an amazing power in human-to-human marketing because of this digital, faceless world. Who is going to be better at human-to-human marketing than someone who is willing to attach their face to the product and pitch? We wouldn’t be surprised if there are stenographic companies looking to poach Gina H. or salespeople like her right now! There’s huge money in this field. Nearly every big agency has a satellite office in every borough of New York City and a cadre of dedicated employees — in other words, there is money to be made in this field, and we shouldn’t be afraid to hire talent when it means a bigger return. Success is often a matter of intelligent delegation. As stenographers, we often let our penchant for perfectionism stand in the way of hiring help and building our brand, perhaps to a fault.

But where does that leave us? Well, we need to recognize that Veritext is apparently willing to lie. Freelancers need to recognize that group boycotts by competitors may fall under antitrust violations. Reporters everywhere need to start acknowledging that the best way to beat ’em might be to just start grabbing clients. It’s time for us to get serious about funding our associations and demanding marketing and entrepreneurial courses. These companies all exist because they got clients off of somebody else. Individually, they may seem bigger or stronger than us because they can outspend us one-on-one, but there’s an inherent power in the fact that if thousands of reporters were to compete directly with them and start poaching clients — which is perfectly legal unless you signed a contract saying you wouldn’t do that or stole a trade secret — they’d be SOL.

For the most ambitious, start looking at fundraising. Start considering all the ways companies come into existence. You very well could be the next nationwide conglomerate. As a matter of fact, if you’re in Illinois, New York, California, or Texas, you are in one of the largest court reporting states in the country, and you have a real shot at seizing the market. Companies rise and fall — but your career is in your hands.

We look forward to the day Veritext sees it’s on the losing side and starts throwing its weight behind stenography again. We look forward to dutifully reporting that right here on this blog. But until that day comes, we encourage fierce competition in this market. Don’t be complacent. Maybe someday we’ll get SLAPP’d for standing up for our profession, but we’re happy to take the heat so that you don’t have to. Be involved. Encourage others to get involved and start building their brand. Know that you are making a difference in how the market and our day-to-day jobs develop.