A Stenonymous source comes through for the stenographic legion again. Sorry for the double post tonight, but I know this is bound to get some New York reporters flying west.
I bet there are thousands of stenographers that could beat those rates. We have some people here working for like $3.00 – $4.00 a page on an O+2. $4.50 is considered a good rate. The loss of that copy in NY kills the income just enough to put the squeeze on people.
Hey, attorneys, up to a 30% discount on contracting directly with your court reporters. 50% if you meet an idiot kid like I was. Probably a nice break on the copies too.
Anyway, this is a win for market transparency, competition, and free speech. Anybody from CA in the audience, feel free to weigh in and give me the perspective of an actual reporter on the ground.
PUBLIC NOTICE: Posts will no longer auto-post to Twitter. Apparently the Twitter API has shut its access.
While scouring social media, I came across an interesting post by Nancy Silberger. It mentioned the Better Business Bureau reviews for ProctorU.
This is not entirely surprising. I think most people only complain to BBB when they feel mistreated by business. But some of the complaints were striking. I know the only time I used the BBB was when Naegeli threatened me. It wasn’t helpful, but it does create a record.
Anyway, people came forward to discuss their feelings and ideas regarding testing and ProctorU.
What Dineen had to say really resonated with me. I personally believe AudioSync has massively deteriorated the interrupting skills of court reporters. But at this point, we have to contend with the reality that it is widely used on the job and using it effectively is part of the job for most court reporters and scopists. Even limited use would probably upgrade our pass rate significantly.
Just for the sake of completeness, I glanced over the BBB reviews too. Better Business Bureau isn’t infallible, but It’s pretty horrifying stuff for tests far less technical than ours.
As I was preparing for this post, a reader sent me an old Speech-to-Text Institute article with Marybeth Everhart, Realtime Coach. With hindsight, I can say that this supports the assertion that we need change. The ProctorU problems aside for a moment, I’ve been looked down on at times because I won’t refer to digitals as button pushers or recorders. Well, someone from the platform we use for our testing was pretty openly digital friendly.
And, unfortunately, as we later learned, the Speech-to-Text Institute is a propaganda outfit and corporate construct meant to manipulate the court reporting & stenotype services market. So, not to say that RTC is guilty of the same fraud I’ve alleged against Veritext et al, but for a field that used to care very much about bias or the appearance of bias, it does feel like all the major players, including ones we rely on for passing our students, are pretty biased in favor of expanding digital reporting, a position that is kind of strange to have if stenography is the gold standard and we haven’t tried other methods of alleviating the shortage, like asking lawyers to schedule with us in advance instead of the day before.
Even worse, digital proponents attack our testing procedures from the other direction, with Stenograph President Anir Dutta having stated in a letter, “…the national and state recognized process to certify a machine shorthand professional is unnecessarily arduous and, in our informed assessment, is designed to keep the number of stenographers entering the market artificially low.” I missed that line when I first reported about it, but I do find it kind of funny that while I have basically accused the companies under the Speech-to-Text Institute umbrella of manipulating the market to increase the number of court reporters create a market glut, depressing reporter incomes, they turned around and alleged that someone designed the state and national testing process to artificially reduce the number of stenographers. Since the National Court Reporters Association is basically the national test process, I think it’s safe to assume what organization they’re throwing shade on here, and it makes me rethink Anir’s NCRA comments a little bit more than I was thinking about them after he apologized to me.
In the hopes of a better tomorrow, I’m amplifying this discussion. Perhaps our next step is to have a serious look into which online proctoring companies have the best reviews and consider asking NCRA to make the switch.
Everyone has different page rates, but utilizing historic data from 1991 and 1999, we can get a rough idea of what the page rates would be today had they been consistently updated for inflation. It’s my hope that putting this out there often enough helps reporters know their value.
First, let’s look at the freelance rates adjusted for inflation by year. For the freelance rates, I pulled the 1991 rates right out of an old Federation of Shorthand manual.
I took the 2.75 rate from 1991, and I adjusted it for inflation each year using a Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. In 1992, for example, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars was worth $2.82 in 1992 dollars. If a reporter didn’t get a $0.07 raise between 1991 and 1992, that reporter lost buying power, and would have to work about 2% harder to make the same buying power. Doesn’t seem that bad, right? But by 2022, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars is worth $5.74 in 2022 dollars. This means that a reporter that is not making $5.74 in 2022 on a regular has to work harder to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter. This means a reporter making $4.00 a page has to take 30% more pages than a reporter in 1991 in order to have the same buying power.
As an example of how this plays out for new reporters, when I was a new reporter in 2010 at Jaguar Reporting, I was offered $2.80 a page. Not knowing anything about the field, I took it. Adjusted for inflation, the 2010 rate would have been $4.43 on a regular. This means that to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter, I would have had to have taken almost 40% more pages than that 1991 reporter. That’s a lot of efficiency to squeeze out of workers, whether you want to consider us common law employees or independent contractors.
Juxtaposing freelance versus official rates can be even more concerning. Officials typically receive their pages on top of a salary. Many are producing fewer pages, but adjusted for inflation, the rates appear to be far higher.
This “squeezing of efficiency” is not sustainable in the long term. The rates must go up in order to obtain and retain talent. For as long as they do not, we are asking reporters to work harder for less buying power.
This is not normal. The average workers’ pay has gone up slightly, adjusted for inflation. Because most court reporters are working for less than they were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation, stenographers’ pay has gone down. Just check out the Statista data on that. After a 2009 to 2015 crash, wages sharply rose on average. And this data doesn’t even take into account “the great resignation” of 2021 and 2022, where employees are leaving jobs for higher pay at rates never seen before!
While I’ll be the first to say that this is a wonderful career and I enjoy it very much, and I’ll even go so far as to concede we don’t have to keep up with inflation perfectly for it to remain a great career, I think this data makes the case for why there is a shortage today. We are simply not competitive in terms of wage growth, and we are asking young people and newbies to work harder for less buying power — again, in some cases, 40% less. This is compared to the average worker between 1991 and 2020, who, by 2020, could work about 15% less and have the same buying power that they did in 1991!
The lack of data in and on our field remains a fundamental problem. Trade associations are entitled to collect and distribute aggregated rate data. If we had good data from 1991 to now on the average page rate, we could simply adjust those years to be in 2022 dollars and show everyone that they’ve gone up or down. Because we do not have the data, we’re stuck with taking a fixed point in history where we knew the rate, adjusting that each year, and then comparing that to what each of us makes personally.
I’ve created another spreadsheet with all of this information. It’s available for everyone, and I encourage people to share it. It not only informs people in the stenographic camp, but also in voice writing and digital court reporting, because ultimately if they are working for less than stenographic court reporters, they are being taken advantage of while being used to push us out of the market.
Hourly Conversion for Digitals: A stenographic to digital comparison is possible by estimating average pages per hour. As a freelancer, I averaged about 40 pages an hour. Current freelancers have told me they can get as much as 60 pages an hour. The court reporter page rate encompasses transcription time and “writing time.” It can be 1 to 2 hours for every hour on the machine, so it’s safe to assume writing time is about a third of the page rate. If we take the $5.74, that 1991 rate adjusted into 2022 dollars, we can calculate that a third of that is $1.89.
Assuming 40 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $75.77 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $113.65 an hour.
This creates a valid argument that a digital charging less than $75.77 an hour is being underpaid. Obviously, I don’t personally believe, based on all I know today, that digital reporting is equivalent to stenography, but there are some outfits and organizations that insist on perpetuating this myth of equivalency. If they are equal, the next question is whether they are being paid equally to their historic “equals.” If the answer is no, the next question is “why?”
Conversions for Transcribers: Again, taking my assumption, based on my own experience, that transcription time is worth at least two thirds of the page rate, we can create page and hourly conversions for transcribers. From that $5.74 rate, we can derive a page rate of $3.82 in transcription time.
Assuming 40 pages an hour, that’s about $152.80 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s about $229.20 an hour.
Hourly Conversion for Stenographers and Voice Writers: Assuming 40 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $229.60 an hour.
Assuming 60 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $344.40 an hour.
This might seem like a lot of money. But remember that the $229.60 to $344.40 an hour figures encompass 3 hours’ worth of work. Interestingly enough, this averages out to $76.53 to $114.80 an hour, which is comparable to what captioners charge.
_____________________________________________________ Ultimately, we can play with numbers all day long. If my work falls on blind eyes, then people will continue to get underpaid, grow discontent with the field, and leave. Because this is a very specialized field where we get better with time in, the loss of a practitioner is massive — you cannot just replace someone who’s been at this for a year, or two, or ten, slip someone brand new in, and get the same quality transcript. People will move on regardless of the methodology. I have offered fairly concrete math on the fact that we are underpaying most practitioners during a time of alleged shortage.
My next step, when I have some more time or funding, will be to begin collecting and distributing data myself. But again, I have to stress that this is something that our associations should have been doing for the last 30 years, and instead were trained and training reporters that they could not do, which enabled rate abuse that drove reporters out of the field over the last decade. This is why it is so insulting to me when it is alleged that the stenographer shortage cannot be solved. It does not take a genius to figure out that giving a class of workers the equivalent of $5.74 in 1991 and watching that value erode year after year is going to drive workers away — a fact that has somehow eluded the CEOs and business types of steno-America, and a fact that I hope is understood and embraced by the majority of our field over the next decade.
Lisa Migliore had this to add. While I feel it doesn’t detract from the overall flow of what I’m saying, I do think it is an important point and information that deserves to be included here.
Speech-to-Text Institute is an association that claims it wants to define, modernize, and lead the court reporting industry. About three years ago, in the Impossible Institute post, I wrote about how it appeared that the STTI had already concluded our shortage was impossible to solve. My position was simple: “There have been no updates since Ducker. How can anyone make that claim?
Several readers sent me the STTI’s newest production, a series of slides that make more claims about our industry and profession.
This is one of those times that it’s difficult to choose how to respond. Spreading their materials gives them free publicity. Being silent gives them free rein over the discussion. I think it makes the most sense to analyze the materials publicly and see what discussion springs from that.
STTI submits there is a steady and irreversible decline of stenographers. My feelings here are similar to the “impossible” argument. It’s a future prediction that’s not predicated on anything other than a forecast that’s been around the better part of a decade and a survey that could not possibly capture all the factors at play in our industry.
STTI submits digital reporting technology is “more than capable…” Arguendo, let’s say that digital IS more than capable. This is an imperfect world. Transcripts are going to be imperfect. And we’ve seen this when it’s studied. Stenographers were only about 80% accurate in the Testifying While Black (2019) study. But a pilot study from TWB revealed laypeople transcribed statements with about 40% accuracy. Half the accuracy! Not utilizing stenographers likely has a significant cost to accuracy.
STTI mentions the current or future capabilities of automatic speech recognition (ASR). There is a patent from around 2000 that shows 90% accuracy was thought to be possible. More recently, in the Racial Disparities in Automatic Speech Recognition (2020) study, ASR from major players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM were tested. Their tech was about 80% accurate for white speakers, 65% accurate for black speakers, and as low as 25% accurate for African American Vernacular English speakers. Succinctly, the current capabilities of ASR are not very good when studied objectively. Future capabilities are another unknown, and a case of wishful thinking. Dragon remains the best ASR, and that’s the domain of another established method, voice writing.
STTI then mentions that this is an era of alternative facts in order to disparage dissenting views. But this is a clever deflection, as STTI itself is guilty of pushing alternative facts. Just look at this old STTI graphic.
If we assume these numbers are correct and that there were 27,700 stenographers in 2018 and a supply gap of 5,500, that means that as of 2018, nearly 1/5 of every single job would be going uncovered, and it would get worse every year. It’s 2022. Agency owners may be having some trouble finding coverage, but not one has expressed that 20% of their work is going uncovered.
STTI points to how difficult it would be to recruit a large number of stenography students to make up for the historically lower graduation numbers. But a little comparative analysis is in order. Stenography has 26 NCRA-approved schools, tons of schools that are not yet approved (>100), and three separate nationwide initiatives to introduce people to stenography (A to Z, Project Steno, Open Steno). Digital has BlueLedge and the few schools that can be convinced to teach stenography and digital side by side. Digital is less efficient than stenography and it’s likely that multiple transcribers will be needed in addition to each digital reporter in order to make up for the efficiency loss. When turnover of audio monitors and transcribers is factored in, we are likely talking about recruiting similar numbers of people. The difference is that stenography has more infrastructure to introduce people to it. So companies turning to digital doesn’t appear to be a legitimate shortage concern, it appears to be about making money on the “labor churn.”
STTI’s next slide continues to paint a stark picture of the situation.
The slide is misleading in that it makes tactical use of the word “some.” A large percentage of firms having “some” level of struggle isn’t surprising. Firms were having “some” level of struggle to cover things before the shortage too.
STTI claims the majority of court reporting firms use digital. But STTI only surveyed 156 firm owners. According to the Kentley Insights Court Reporting & Stenotype Services 2019 market research report, there were over 3,000 firms in the industry. A population of 3,000 would need a sample size of 341, assuming a confidence interval of 5, according to this sample size calculator. If we wanted to be more certain, with a confidence interval of 2, the sample size jumps to 1,334. And again, there is tactical use of the word “some.” “Some” digital use could be one digital reporter sent out on one job. I can’t blame STTI for trying to collect data, but the data is not reliable for making definitive, sweeping, or predictive statements.
STTI mentions the widespread use of remote reporting, but fails to mention that this has increased stenographers’ coverage abilities. Many of us are no longer sitting in traffic and are able to jump job, to job, to job.
The technology slide points to how technology suppliers want us to embrace what they’re selling. It’s self-serving. “Trying to change stuff is futile, now buy my new software.” It is laughable to me that they think ASR is a future supplement for this field when they have not even worked out good and consistent cross-compatibility among softwares. Who would believe that these companies are going to succeed where the tech giants have failed?
We actually see this play out in a later slide where the technology suppliers outright admit they’re aiming for the business of digital court reporters, court reporting firms, and courts. It’s not about selling what’s efficient or best for your business, it’s about selling.
This is about making business owners afraid that if they do not jump on the digital/tech train, they will be left behind. We can all appreciate the importance of technology. But there is, to some extent, a practice among tech suppliers to make consumers afraid so that consumers open their wallets. Nobody wants to be Kodak, so everybody piles blindly into what they are told is the future.
I operate under the belief that most people seek truth. By summing up how and why these claims are questionable, I hopefully enable others to educate. If you feel there is some merit to these arguments, feel free to share, and enable more reporters and business owners to understand what’s out there, what’s being said, and why it may not be accurate.
As far as coincidences go, I could not have planned a better name to coincide with recent events. If you have not yet answered the Phoenix Pre-Launch survey, please do so. I anticipate being able to release more information soon™️ as we ford into 2022. This is the first major move in a re-imagining of our education. If current data is any good, this will benefit independent contractors and small businesses across the country.
Sneak peak: About 40% of respondents say they would not change their answer to question 6. I’ll be writing about why I think this is a great thing soon. In the meantime, please share with anyone you think might be interested! I am currently devising a way to make this project and product more valuable while responses come in. Happy new year, everyone!
Additionally, the new donation system is up on the homepage at Stenonymous.com. I would like to thank everyone that has donated. I see you and I am grateful. I am still familiarizing myself with the Stripe dashboard and whether there is a way to send a personalized thank you through that. If not, I know most of you, so I’ll be reaching out shortly. At this time, it is my intention to give the product of Project Phoenix free to anyone who spends $225 or more on Stenonymous this year or last year. As soon as I have been able to run the numbers on it, I’ll hopefully be able to make that a promise “velocius quam asparagi coquantur.”
In brief, US Legal wanted $550 for a 112-page transcript copy. That boils down to the equivalent of $4.90 a page. The lawyer wanted to pay $0.25. The court more or less split the baby and said $2.50 was reasonable.
Three major highlights: Herein it talks about US Legal charging for things the attorney did not explicitly order. I cannot think of anything that would support my contention that the company has an honesty problem more. But since over a thousand people have liked my Tweet about Giammanco, I guess that’s old news.
But more than that, reporters making less than $2.50 on a copy should realize that a court just came to a conclusion that $2.50 is reasonable. Guess what New York companies have been paying reporters for the last decade? About 25 cents. Hey, New York, it’s time for a raise. Even our court copy rate of $1.00 falls well short of what California calls reasonable. This isn’t greed, it’s basic math and economics.
But more than that, we now have good evidence of the cost shifting I wrote about. By undercharging original clients and inflating copy costs, the larger companies in my field are overcomplicating the market. Add that to the despicable lies of Veritext and US Legal, and you have a pretty compelling reason to never do business with either.
And in its own defense, US Legal wanted to make the argument that all the court reporting companies charge inflated prices, an argument which was, thankfully, flatly rejected.
They’re not alone though. I’ve reviewed documents showing Naegeli attempted to charge about $11.50 a page on a copy sale in Washington State. But that story is for another day. In the meantime, court reporters, remember that your worth is what you are able to negotiate. It is not tied to what anyone dictates to you. Don’t believe me?There are plenty of other role models to look at.
Though not too many of them are fighting for you the way you could.
PS. For anyone feeling a little lost, court reporters tend to charge by the page. Original transcripts tend to be more than copies of that same original. Depending on the market, we are about 30 years behind inflation. So while systematically underpaying court reporters, companies like USL are actually charging ridiculous amounts to satisfy their bloated management overhead. Because we stenographers are a heavy ethics culture and fairly connected to each other, the companies have an interest in breaking us and replacing us with digital reporters despite evidence that utilization of digital reporting disproportionately impacts minority speakers.
During the course of the ad campaign about US Legal’s dishonesty, an astute commentator mentioned that they believed I was giving people bad life advice by advocating for them to get into court reporting. The reasoning was actually very sound. They said the field is growing much slower than average. In fact, if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics page for us, this is ostensibly true, the growth is a slow 3%
But this doesn’t tell us the whole story. What about if we use the WayBack machine to see what the page read in January 2014?
10% growth and an employment change of 2,000 expected by 2022! And when did that data get updated? As far as I can tell, sometime between 2014 and December 2016.
What changed between 2014 and 2016? We started recruiting more. So the idea that we went from a 10% growth to a 2% or 3% growth that then remained mostly stable until October 2021 and somehow that resulted in the addition of only 100 jobs is just ludicrous. Our big retirement shortage crisis was set to start in 2018 and continue through 2033. Ducker was a forecast made before NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and the growth of Open Steno. The abysmal 3% growth rate is after Ducker. What’s missing? BLS has our numbers all wrong. They think about a third of the field is self-employed.
In actuality, at least according to Ducker’s 2013-2014 outlook, we’re about 70% freelance.
So the BLS thinks we’re 34% self-employed. 34% of that 21,000 number is about 7,000, and we’re about 70% self-employed, which is roughly double their estimate. Based on that, I conclude they’re probably not counting about 7,000 freelancers, which puts us just ahead of NCRA’s estimate of 27,000 and gives us about 28,000 court reporters.
In brief, the health of our field may be far better than presently-available BLS statistics show. I would love to get the straight number of graduates between 2013 and 2021 and compare that to the 2018 opportunity forecasted by Ducker, which was about 5,690. The 2018 forecasted supply of stenographers was 27,610, very close to that 27,000 estimate by NCRA or my 28,000 estimate that assumes the BLS is wrong. I do not presently have access to graduate numbers, but if the graduate pool was much higher or much lower than 6,000, it would give us a more accurate picture of where we are, with a higher amount of graduates being very good and a lower amount of graduates being very bad. California would be in the most dire position. Their shortage was forecasted to be 5x to 20x worse than any other state. If California can survive and thrive over the next decade, the rest of us can too.
If we believe the NCRA’s numbers, we have likely recruited just under what we needed to by 2018. If my assessment of the BLS and Ducker data is correct, we recruited just above what we needed in 2018. Either way, it seems we will need to continue this period of heavy recruitment to keep pace with the retirements that are going to happen over the next ten years. Failing to do so would be catastrophic for our field. While I still think it’s very clear that the shortage has been exacerbated by companies like US Legal, Veritext, and Planet Depos, and am horrified by their collective, seemingly intentional, failure to attempt to recruit stenographers, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to make up for their bad behavior and end this shortage the same way we ended the last one. We have to keep building interest in this field, whether that’s through media, press releases, word of mouth, or smoke signal.
Anyone demoralized by the 3% growth number should take comfort in seeing just how fast those stats can change. Our actions greatly impact those numbers. Consider that the 10% estimate came just after a wave of recruitment by schools, the same wave that I was recruited during, and that the 3% estimate came in the middle of a depressed market where court reporters were not recommending this job to anyone because they were working very hard to maintain the quality of life of past reporters. Perhaps if investors were plopping down $200 million on stenographic companies with no future, we’d be growing at 22% too.
That’s not even a joke. Let me lose $10 million in a quarter and I’ll double everyone’s page rates. This field would be about triple its size. The money being dumped on digital reporting is literally the only thing that keeps it competitive with stenography.
The only way to get people interested in our field is to broadcast ourselves. To that end, if you or your organization would like help writing and releasing a paid press release, please reach out to me. I can’t do it for free but I’m very serious about boosting the amount of content out there on us. The numbers show that with the slightest effort we will produce more content than digital reporting companies, recruit enough people to take back the rest of the industry, and enjoy much more of our $3 billion field. Sound good? ChristopherDay227@gmail.com.
The main talking point of some industry hacks, is that we have a low pass rate for stenographic court reporting, about 10 to 20%, and therefore we cannot solve the stenography shortage by recruiting because recruitment will “never” keep up with demand. This is extrapolated from the information that was provided in the Court Reporting Industry Outlook 2013-2014 by Ducker Worldwide. As stated in the beginning of the report, the way that this forecast was created was by interviewing about 120 people from in and around our field, as well as some proprietary data analysis by Ducker.
My main strategy, up to now, has been to explain why these people are extrapolating incorrectly or making bad arguments. I’ve made counter arguments that suggest the shortage is best solved through stenographic reporting that put theirs to shame and have not been refuted. I’ve unapologetically named names on the corporations that are trying to bump us out because this matters to me. This is my field. This is what I want to do. This is where I can help society the most. If they are successful in changing the minds of reporters and consumers, my job is likely to be eliminated someday or the pay is likely to be substantially reduced. People will suffer greater inaccuracies in their court records because ASR is 25 to 80% accurate and non-stenographers transcribe English dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) at a rate half as accurate as court reporters. To me, there is no greater dishonor than to do well and lift the ladder up while others are trying to climb. Not only are companies attempting to lift the ladder, they are indifferent to the fact that they would hurt people in the process.
I tried to be diplomatic about it for four years. I tried to convince colleagues and companies in a more polite, erudite manner. I made a very open warning that if they did not make companies where we were the standard, we would build them. We’re building. Look at the lawyers who started Steno. They put us in the name of their company. Not to mention Steno Captions LLC, a company that not only put Steno in the name, but gave me solid data that helped me show our field that VITAC was offering a disgustingly low amount of money. I’m not prescient, but I just told you that I love my field. I know my field. Humans are literally built to be this way; we get better and more knowledgeable at anything we do a lot. Now I have another open warning: Change direction or we will figuratively burn pathetic digital reporting businesses to the ground. It clearly isn’t as scalable or logistically feasible as it was thought to be and digital proponents look like clowns to anyone paying attention.
In this country, the elements for defamation are that plaintiff must prove defendant published a false statement of fact to a third party that causes damage to plaintiff. It’s been years of publishing information and not a single company has threatened to sue. That’s a clear indicator to me that I am accurate or real close in just about everything I publish, including that big companies may well be facing financial trouble. Sooner or later, the majority of reporters are going to work out that I am publishing truth. They will, as I have, work out that millions of dollars don’t mean much if these companies don’t have a good business model. By trying to force us out of the market, companies are giving themselves 27,000 competitors, a move that should make shareholders physically ill. No longer will we accept the false narrative that “there’s nothing they can do.” They’re bright people. Insist that they figure it out and see how fast they figure it out. Tell them to stop throwing up their little social media posts or reporter corners and calling that support while they put advertisement dollars and training effort down on digital. Nobody who thinks about the situation for more than a minute or two believes that they’re using digital because they can’t find stenographers. We have a national database of stenographers that goes underutilized. How do I know it’s underutilized? Easy. When I was a young reporter, I got inundated with emails from agencies that found me on Sourcebook. Today, after about four years of blogging, out of all the garbage-like companies that were pushing garbage-like product, namely US Legal, Planet Depos, and Veritext, I have received maybe one email looking for reporters, if that. Other companies are writing me and looking for stenographers. We certainly don’t see any recruitment campaigns as we do with digital. One email in four years? Nothing they can do? How about working with the very established industry that they’re operating in instead of trying to outsmart it? Tipping points are hard. Not getting fully behind stenographers is going to be much, much harder for businesses. Look at the news. Watson didn’t work out. Automation is looking less likely every day. Even the poster child for automation, Elon Musk, is having a rough time making good on his big tech promises. What hope does anyone with less fame or money have? We’re not even playing particularly rough and digital proponents can’t make it work. What happens to big firms when reporters start poaching clients, publishing invoices, publishing client lists, and creating marketing firms that could eclipse the annual marketing budget of any court reporting firm in the country? Again, this is not prescience, it’s observation. I am one guy with a blog. I have about as much money as the bear that wasn’t a bear. If I am able to poke holes and publish things that professional news organizations miss, just imagine what any person reading this is capable of, let alone many thousands of court reporters. That TikTok I posted Monday said it best: Do not fuck with stenographers.
In addition to changing the strategy from diplomacy to Hell March 2, I have to now point out the inherent flaws of relying on Ducker’s 2013 information in 2021. The industry outlook is eight years old at this point. Stenographers had a choice in 2013, go big or go home. After that time, NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno all went big. Plenty of other reporters did too. Kim Xavier began Stenovator Pathway Solutions. Allison Hall set up programs and initiatives to get students in schools and help them find their way, and most recently received an award from the Oklahoma judiciary. Katiana Walton started training people under StenoKey. Shaunise Day started Confessions of a Stenographer. Protect Your Record Project set up strategies to help educate consumers against the pushing of inferior digital reporting products. NCRA Strong created resources for members to help educate consumers. So many people did so many things that I regret ending the list there. The recruitment and content creation efforts of stenographers didn’t double or triple, it exploded exponentially into a runaway train that only keeps accelerating and will only go faster now. Ducker’s top reason for low enrollment was that stenography was relatively unknown. That just isn’t going to be the case anymore. The median age of reporters in 2013 was 51 according to page eight of the report. Today, NCRA statistics state the median age of reporters is 55. It has been eight years. Without any activity whatsoever, the median age should have been 59. We can already see the results of our work.
Another “problem” with relying on the forecast or cherry-picking data from it is that focusing directly on the shortage ignores all the nuance and the actual messaging of the report. Let’s go through the report together and see just how much it supported the conclusion that stenographic court reporters were needed. Check out page six, where they published the segmentation of court reporters to voice writers.
Voice writing is actually a decent product. Yet voice writers still were only 4% of the field. For about five years companies stood silent. When they had the slightest hiccup in scheduling, 2018, they went digital because “stenographers take too long to train and have too high of a failure rate.” If that were true, perhaps they would have built the voice writing side of their business, since it was already far more established as a modality than digital reporting. It is far more likely that some companies’ ultimate goal is to offshore the work, a disastrous result for our justice system in America due to the fact that offshore transcribers will be beyond the subpoena power of local and state courts. Even if it is not the goal, it is the logical consequence of moving reporter transcription from the front end to the back end and taking us away from public view. What school would open to fill a job that nobody sees or knows about?
The number of reporters entering and retiring is touted by know-nothing companies like US Legal as the reason the stenographer shortage cannot be solved by recruiting more reporters. Recently they put out that we have an annual shrinkage of 920, and I explained why, even assuming that was true, they were wrong. The equation they presented would eventually lead to negative stenographers, which is impossible if there are 200 new entrants a year. Ducker also explains why they’re wrong. At the worst of our decline, when the study was commissioned, we had an estimated 1,500 entrants coming into the field from 2013 to 2018, about 300 a year. Are we really to believe that with all of the effort going into training court reporters and bringing attention to the field that the number of annual new entrants fell between now and then?
In addition to Ducker’s forecast with regard to the actual number of opportunities, there was data about violent crime which led to them to believe the demand for criminal court reporters would go up. According to them, it was trending up at that moment.
But when we look at sites like Statista, we see that the violent crime did rise for about three years as predicted by Ducker. Then it started falling again. It is hard to say, given the events of 2020 and 2021, where that per capita violent crime rate is going to go in the years to come. But what we can see with clarity is that Ducker’s information became outdated on violent crime as quickly as 2016. That leads us to the question: What other information might be outdated that we simply do not know about?
The next few pages of the Ducker Report focus on the demand for stenographic court reporters. It’s probably the single greatest marketing piece of its time for us. We needed people, and the forecast told us that. Page 13 of the report gave us some striking infographics that let us know California and the west coast were going to have the hardest time with meeting the demand.
The rest of the report focuses on state projections. Some states were projected to have a surplus. This means that any state with a surplus could theoretically lose reporters to states with shortage problems and still be fine. This is likely what occurred in 2020 when depositions moved online. The fact that depositions moved online and companies continued to push digital is another clear indication that this was never about the shortage. It was about messaging. Signal to reporters that their job is over and get them repeating that news over and over under the mantra of “nothing else we can do but go digital.” Let me pull a word from Stacey Raikes’s amazing JCR article: Hogwash. It was a sweet lie to ride on. It’s over now. And make no mistake that it is a lie so blatantly obvious that I predicted it would occur back in February, writing “there will be a strong push from certain entities to say there aren’t enough of us. That will happen regardless of the truth.” Let’s repeat this: Stenographic reporting is here to stay. There is a place for every single one of our students as long as they work hard and do good work.
So was Ducker Worldwide wrong? Not by my assessment. They made an accurate forecast based off accurate data that existed when the industry outlook was written. That said, as an industry, we need to stop letting others tell us what the report said, really look at it, and encourage colleagues to look at it. It was a message that stenographers were needed. The shortage was not ever impossible to solve. That was a lie propagated by STTI that the corporations picked up when they saw a chance at pushing our educated and highly trained workforce out so that they could exploit digital reporters. Offshore transcribers are also being exploited, with some of them being paid as little as $0.80 a page or $0.24 a minute. The only way that we get pushed out is if we let it happen. I began documenting these events years ago with hope that we would not. Don’t let me down.
An awesome Reddit user pointed out that the way I describe the median age here does not account for retiring reporters and assumes none retired out. To that, I would have to partially agree, but also point out that Ducker conceded that many reporters stay past the retirement age, as shown in purple below. The number of reporters that reached retirement age in the last 8 years was not the retirement cliff we have been anticipating. The next ten years is the retirement cliff. So I see it as I do because the reporters that were not yet retirement age as of the Ducker Report are likely to still be with us in large numbers, with some exceptions, such as our very recently retired and beloved Dominick Tursi. Given the substantial increase in stenographic reporter recruitment in the last 8 years, the logical conclusion is that the reporters staying past retirement age are bringing the median age up. There is no doubt that we need to continue our recruitment efforts, but we should no longer be swayed by the arguments that the situation is “impossible.”
After releasing the article on how a New York reporter doubled their money by taking private clients, I was hit with a scenario. “Chris, I went to get private clients, but they showed me invoices they were getting, and they were lower than what I get from my agency! How does anybody make money in this city?” Subsequently I came across an article regarding Veritext’s lawsuit with US Adjustment Corp., and from that lawsuit I was able to get a whole lot of old invoices.
At a glance, most of the invoices seem to be between $3.40 and $3.95, and this is indeed competitive with the rates given to reporters for O+2 work, which usually lands somewhere between $3.25 and $4.25 with no upcharges. For non-NY readers, your O+1 is our O+2. The witness’s attorney customarily gets their copy without charge. For those of you that would like to peruse 200 pages of invoices, enjoy. The rest of you, keep reading.
Just in case anybody missed it, at least one of these invoices is listed at the Cutting Edge Deposition office, a one-star digital reporting outfit. So there’s at least circumstantial evidence that Veritext was linked to or had a relationship with digital reporting services as early as 2015. Note also that there’s basically no difference between the price listed at the digital firm’s office and any other invoice. As old studies have shown, digital reporting is not cheaper.
Obviously, these are all over half a decade old and may not reflect current market rates. Obviously whatever rates USAC was getting were probably discounted for the bulk work in the same way Diamond gave the Law Department great rates. The point stands that companies are finding a way to charge less than the reporter is making. How is that possible?
1. Cost shifting via copies. 2. Zombie behavior.
Cost shifting? Cost shifting, in this context, is when one party underpays for a service or product, and the cost of that service or product is recovered from another party who is overpaying.
Again, using New York City’s market as an example, an agency could pay a reporter $3.25, $4.25, or whatever rate was agreed upon. The reporter generally makes the majority of that O+2. Where the agencies get their money is typically the copies. Let’s say you send Johnny on a deposition for $4.25 a page, but you give your client a sweet $3.95 rate because they have so much bulk work. A loss, right? Only if the job is an O+2. There’s no statutory cap on copies here that I know of, and copy rates are notoriously bad in New York City, between 25 cents and 50 cents, so a single copy of more than $0.55/page means profit for the company on that job. Just to put this into perspective, I’ve reviewed a Veritext email from the Midwest region that had copy rates in the $3.80 (regular) to $4.80 (expedite) ballpark. The copy rate for officials in New York, who also collect a salary in addition to their pages, has been hovering around a dollar for the last couple of decades. The idea that private sector is not charging more for that is pretty naive. So assuming an original of 3.95/page, a copy sale of 3.80/page, and a payment to Johnny of 4.50/page, the agency is pulling in $7.75/page in revenue. That’s nearly 42% of the money for them for what is essentially a finder’s fee. It also complicates things for Johnny, who can’t promise clients $3.95 unless he’s willing to take a pay cut and gamble on getting copies.
It goes beyond that with what’s called a sliding scale. The sliding scale awards the client, and sometimes the copy purchasers, with a discount dependent on the number of copies sold. Because the reporters are not fighting for their copies, companies have a lot of wiggle room. They can put $8 on a copy invoice. If a lawyer pays it, then they’ve just made $8 a page under the client’s assumption that “court reporters are so expensive.” If the lawyer complains, they can cut that rate down to $4 or $2, tell the lawyer they’re such a great client and getting such a great deal, pay the 25 cents to the reporter, and walk away with significant amounts of money. Think about it this way: Let’s send Sally on an O+6 for a rocking $5.25 a page, original and 4 copy sales at Johnny’s same rates. The agency can charge 2 bucks a page to everyone, walk away with $10 a page, and again make about what Sally is making despite it being Sally that’s doing 99% of the work because binding transcripts really isn’t hard. Again, Sally is stuck in a situation where working on her own might actually make her less money unless and until copy sales come into play. If Sally can’t survive the short-term pay cut, she doesn’t make it to the big bucks that are keeping agency rents paid, and she’s more likely to accept whatever rate the agency wants instead of the best rate her skill can command. And that $5.25 is generous, because prior to the court reporter shortage getting bad, some companies, like Diamond, didn’t even bother to pay all of their reporters copies. So a company like Diamond as it was would’ve been making 60% of the money from the job before factoring in the proofreading fee that some reporters were asked or told to pay.
The darker side of the sliding scale is when companies ask reporters to change their layout or give a discount on multiple copy sales/realtime hookups. There is typically zero guarantee that they are passing on those savings to clients. Think about that the next time you send a job in your preferred layout and an agency asks you to cram it into a new one that widens the margins or changes the page count. The N word can be your friend sometimes. I knew a realtimer who was asked to slide their rate back because of all the parties ordering. Acquiescence meant losing half their money on that job, but failing to acquiesce might’ve meant the entire job being given to someone else. They used the N word, got the job, and made lots of money. Reporters win when they stand up for themselves.
Zombie Behavior? Brains… Several articles ago I explained the concept of zombie companies. Companies can make money through loans and investors, keeping cash flow positive while losing money and/or earning no profit. Zombies can also be defined as companies that are just barely making their debt obligations. 1 in 5 companies examined by Bloomberg were zombies. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, 1 in 4 court reporting companies was said to be not profitable. Those that were not profitable lost an average of 10% of their revenue a year. These companies can basically use their investor money to hire people and give customers great discounts. If they obtain large enough market share and run competitors into the ground, they can then jack up their prices monopoly style.
This isn’t a fantasy-land scenario. It’s what Uber did. It gave great discounts and even occasionally gave drivers incentives. It killed the taxi industry as best it could, made itself a fixture in people’s lives, and jacked up the rates while claiming a shortage. Meanwhile, the business model is losing billions of dollars a year. Honestly, I’m more concerned with the cost shifting than I am with the zombies. If companies can’t make money exploiting the “driving” skill, companies are doomed when it comes to a specialized skill like legal reporting. This is a simple calculation. About 80% of America drives and about 0.01% of America court reports. It’s about supply and demand. To me, that says that reporting zombie firms are about 8,000 times less likely to be profitable than Uber, a company which despite ubiquity and billions lost has not managed to turn a profit. But the danger of zombies is evident: They can take up significant market share, impact market rates, and bankrupt other service providers for decades before the money runs out. Again, look at what they did to the medallions. A high of $1 million in sales went as low as $140,000 in recent years, likely thanks to companies that do not even have a sustainable model.
What do we do? Hope. I’ve been told “what? That’s business! You hate business? They’re not doing anything wrong!” Legally they are probably not doing anything wrong in New York. I’ll concede that much until I have real evidence to the contrary. But morally it’s pretty clear this is wrong. Why are the page rates such a shell game? Why is everything so hidden instead of the yesteryear commission split that reporters made? Why aren’t young reporters being taught the value of the copy and their work? It’s easy to control ignorant people and conclude a lot of companies want reporters to be ignorant so that the companies can continue to leech off of the work of reporters. So to address the morality question, ask yourself how you would feel about me if my mantra was “I need you to be dumb so I can profit off your work.” That would be pretty evil, right? How about if I reduced standard turnaround times so you were always too busy with work to think about the situation and whether you were getting a fair deal? Let’s say I wasn’t evil and circumstances just lined up perfectly for me to profit off your ignorance, and I let it happen. Am I a “good person” yet? Am I “not doing anything wrong?” Sometimes it seems we have this bizarre notion that anything goes in business except standing up and saying “no, this is wrong, I won’t cooperate with this.” I’m still in the process of vetting the following, but I was told by a colleague that reporting companies here in New York City brought on salespeople, the salespeople saw the money to be made in this field, started creating their own companies, killed the union, and from there our rates literally stagnated for about 30 years. In my younger years I was literally told “if you don’t like the way it is, leave.” A good four people that I knew in or around my graduating class of 2010 did leave. It’s been an incredible decade and we are now at the point where people are talking about this stuff pretty freely instead of telling newbies they’re the problem and that they should leave. As I see it, hope and communication are winning us many battles.
I can’t say with certainty where the tolerance to everything that keeps reporter rates down comes from Perhaps it’s all exacerbated by antitrust concerns and the fact that our associations cannot engage in anticompetitive behavior such as group boycotts. Perhaps we see they are silenced, so we mimic that silence. NCRA, for example, could never legally denounce Veritext, US Legal, or Planet Depos in the same way I’m allowed to. Maybe that tolerance is linked to survivorship bias. “I was successful and therefore anyone who is not successful must not be trying hard enough.” Maybe that tolerance is linked to expectations and the Pygmalion effect. “There’s nothing I can do, so I won’t try to change anything, and therefore nothing changes, validating my belief that there was nothing I could do.”
There’s no end to the list of “maybes,” but there is a profound power in spreading knowledge. With knowledge on how the court reporting firms are making their money, everyone from the grizzled four-decade reporter to the newbie graduate can compete. That’s a pretty scary thought for anybody who’s been making money off of reporter ignorance. That’s a scary thought for reporting companies that can’t even make a profit in the current climate. But for the people that actually do the work in this field and the reporter-owned companies, it provides real opportunity. Not so entrepreneurial? You’ve seen now hundreds of invoices and just how much money is in this field. It’s time to ask for your fair share. A typical finder’s fee is something between 5% and 35%. Why should you give up 95% on a copy?
Entrepreneurial? Try subcontracting your O+2 out to your non-entrepreneurial colleagues and grabbing those copy jobs. It may be frightening to lose money on any one job, but if you lose $100 on one job and make $1,000 on another, you put more in your pocket, and as I just showed you, it works out mathematically. You can pay your colleagues well and still make boatloads of money. If you’d like to be added to the list of agencies I compiled so that New York reporters can find you, let me know.
There’s no cheap fix. Industry health is a lot like personal health. Took me a long time to get heavy. It was about a decade of decline until I peaked at 290 pounds. It also took a long time and a lot of reporter apathy to get from the golden age 80s to the nightmare of a field I stepped into where rates were lower in 2010 than they were in 1991. Those of you who saw me at NCRA 2021 saw I’m a lot closer to 240 now and headed in a somewhat healthier direction. Without some communication from people that loved me, I probably would’ve remained hopeless and just kept gaining the weight. Similarly we can rehabilitate this field and make the working reporter’s wallet a lot healthier on average, but it’s going to take consistent effort to get word out to the newbies. The long-term consequence of an informed field is probably more stable pricing for consumers, the people we’re doing all this for to begin with, and I can’t see a single drawback.
Addendum: As pointed out in a comment below, I neglected to point out that agencies also create a word index or concordance index and charge for those pages. Some firms charge a reduced rate and others charge a full rate. In my past experience, no firm paid the reporter for the index. Since it’s a practice that relates so closely to this topic, I am adding it here.