My behavior, to some, may come off as strange. I started the digital court reporter helpline on Facebook. Some people, even my own readers, take issue with the fact that I refer to them as reporters. I’d like to level with people, I know that what I do is different from mainstream stenography. There are ideas and strategies behind many things that I do. I’d like to share some so that people can understand and make their own judgments. I’ll also memorialize some steno history as I see it.
First, on the issue of shortage, I envision possibilities and then document events until I know a probable truth. For example, certainly at the start of my journey, I wrote about shortage and I viewed the shortage as our main problem. As I started to see the Speech-to-Text Institute inundate our side of the field with claims that the shortage was impossible to solve, this belief was replaced, I came to believe that STTI was simply digital court reporter marketing, and that by emphasizing the shortage, they were trying to fool reporters into going digital, fool agencies into using digital, and ultimately fool our associations into embracing the “new” court reporting. It’s called framing. How you frame an issue dramatically changes the response you get. If they framed the shortage as insurmountable, we would come to the conclusion they wanted: You must go digital. To wrap up my thoughts here, I formed two possibilities in my mind. 1) The shortage is impossible to solve. 2) The shortage is possible to solve.
Eventually, after much documentation and research of their claims, I concluded 2 was most likely. I’ll spare everybody the explanation. But that’s where I jumped into a number of activities, writing about digital reporting, the pitfalls, the deception of jobseekers. Here’s the strategy part: This all creates a record. It populates searches with Stenonymous blog posts. It begins to shape digital court reporting’s online presence and frames the issue in the way STTI was doing to all of you. So when people look up digital, they might see it’s a kind of “soft scam” and go elsewhere. This makes the economic cost of filling digital positions higher, and therefore disincentivizes digital use in businesses. Even now, search engines may start pairing digital court reporter with scam just because I wrote them together. So for those of you that want me to call them recorders, this is why I won’t. The people in power now have to live with the toxic title they stole from us.
I also scare off people that have an agenda, but no conviction. I was connected with Jim Cudahy (then STTI), on LinkedIn for a short time. At that time a lot of shortage media was going out, and I realized the man had a connection with an association for journalists. While I can’t prove it, I believe at least some shortage articles were engineered because I have been trying to get an article run on corporate fraud for over a year (on and off) with little success. Why in the world is every journalist DYING to talk about the end of stenographers, a field for which they previously had no interest? It might be big business interfering in our industry media. One analyst, Victoria Hudgins, ignored me when I wrote to her with corrections and kept publishing stuff that put stenographers in a negative light. I finally ran an attack ad on her, and we haven’t heard from her since. I called Jim Cudahy a fraud and he ran away to the Alliance of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Science Societies. Now I’ve been watching Steven Lerner’s articles at Law360. He’s a senior reporter at Law360. I feel his articles put too much emphasis on calling things equal, mostly because the idiot called STTI a stenography association, and he has outright ignored many things I’ve sent him. So quite frankly he may be next. Say what you want about me. In medieval warfare getting the enemy to rout was a win. At the point where its enemies flee, the stenographic legion is winning.
There is also a strategy to being solo. I’m a bit of a loner and you can’t really ostracize a loner. I separated from my volunteer roles in associations. This has many benefits as far as lawsuits against me for my publishing. A potential plaintiff would have to target me as an individual. The amount they could collect is limited because I just don’t have very much. The economic cost of a lawsuit would also be phenomenal for a plaintiff. Imagine for a moment the 400 or so blog posts I’ve made over the years becoming exhibits, the depositions, the interrogatories, the emails, the trial! This is on top of the fact that a lawsuit against me would not be meritorious, and therefore plaintiff would risk losing against a pro se stenographer.
I tried contacting law enforcement, but I don’t have any details on where those reports go. This leaves us in a kind of twilight where we need the media to cover this and ask the hard questions, like “hey, multimillion dollar corporation Veritext, why would you let a respected member of the profession say these things about you without trying to convince him he’s wrong?” Remember, they don’t have to sue, they just have to convince me I’m wrong. They haven’t tried. Because it’s a fraud. I even wrote them a letter. We also need the media to ask government questions, because that would probably get government to act. Until it does, we are a nation of unenforced laws.
Again, possibilities. 1) An event will occur which triggers a viral moment, calling attention to us in a way that changes the trajectory of digital recruitmentand definitively ends shortage, such as attracting investors. 2) Such an event will not occur. So what is digital court reporter helpline? An assumption that I will lose. I will assume that court reporters will not increase their funding of Stenonymous over the next decade, that no journalist or lawyer will come to our rescue in a way that makes a difference, and that the number of stenographers falls to the point where we won’t bounce back (unlikely). So then the goal, for me, at least, becomes improving the lives and working conditions of working reporters. That means organizing people. That means communicating with them. That means thinking well outside the box. And if you see the description for the helpline, you’ll see what I mean. Again, as I grow this movement, it will hopefully decrease the steno-digital pay gap, leading to incentivized stenographer use because we are more efficient on average. And if the corporations decide to discontinue their aggressive pursuit of digital before we have a viral moment, so be it. But that’s what the helpline is about, taking control of digital court reporter spaces in a way that associations could never do.
But until I’m fairly sure I’ve lost, I’ll be trying to reach that viral moment. I’ve done this in a lot of different ways, even some ways people wouldn’t think about, like being a little more rude or aggressive. This is because journalists are lazy and about ten thousand times more likely to publish an article about me saying something a little off key than the math showing shortage is exaggerated. Seriously, somebody lie and tell a journalist I made a racial slur and I’ll be in the news tomorrow. But corporate fraud affecting thousands of people isn’t important. In that same vein, I was hoping someone would start media antithetical to mine and start an ideology war with me. Power’s about eyeballs, and nothing would get eyeballs like an open market media war. The most I got was Mary Ann Payonk blocking me and badmouthing me to others.
You see, for years court reporters predictably went in the same direction and were stuck in a kind of “group think.” By injecting the market with a new and growing viewpoint, we create an environment that is uncertain. In a “certain” environment, status quo reigns supreme, and right now the aggressive expansion of digital is the status quo. In an uncertain environment, the largest players have the most to lose and are the slowest to act. By taking our predictability off the table, we can force the largest players on the field to react to us. If your opponent is reacting to you, it means you have a shot at controlling the game.
Some miscellaneous points. As for why I allow uncomfortable conversations in the Stenonymous Facebook group, my business is information. It’s a cop tactic. Let the suspect talk themselves into a corner. Let the people that make us uncomfortable speak, we might learn something or we might not, but we certainly will not if we silence dissent. And learning new information can only help us because we are the more-established workforce.
Before I conclude, I would just like to say I’m imperfect. My execution of things isn’t always great. So I am open to criticism. I don’t discard it when you send it. I do not censor contrary viewpoints. That’s why I’m writing this. Being open minded is also part of my strategy. Evidence will change my views, particularly over time and with reflection. Building truth seeking into my worldview allows me to re-evaluate things and avoid confirmation bias trapping me in an endless loop of “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
I guess the bottom line is my life as a court reporter has taught me that a lot of “bad people” go through life with a simple moral code. “Screw you, stop me.” I’m experimenting with what happens when a “good person” has had enough and takes on the same moral code. What happens when a “good person” is willing to be the “bad guy?”
For court reporting companies and entrepreneurs seeking a listing of lawyers for cold calling operations in California, this spreadsheet provides over 1,200 law firms and their phone numbers in simple xlsx format. You can use Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to open it. The current price is $120, about $0.10 per listing.
Traditionally, big box companies have been better at marketing and sales. It is my hope that making this list available to our field of entrepreneurs at a reasonable price helps drive new court reporting ventures and encourages court reporting firms to seek out their own cold calling, sales, and marketing professionals. The volume of California court reporting work makes it an attractive market for digital court reporting infiltration, so getting on top of the sales & marketing game there is paramount if we want a healthy field. First step? Building a list of potential leads. Next step? Development of a cold calling pitch or plan. Then it’s just a matter of making the calls or hiring talent to make the calls. Now the first step is all yours for $120.
Over the coming months, I’ll be making efforts to produce more tools to give stenographers an edge in the business world. Sales will ultimately help drive that activity, so I am very grateful for all purchases.
When I was a young reporter, perhaps 21 years old, I learned that New York City reporters were earning considerably less on their copies than other states. I began explaining factors that were pushing our rates down. I drew a diagram for some colleagues. It probably looked something like this:
This was in the course of considering building a company and competing in our market. Of course, my colleagues at the time were incredulous. I was about eight years away from publishing the data that proved we were being underpaid. We thought it might be wise to start a company, but we also believed the agencies we were taking work from might retaliate if we did. This, I now know, is an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a model that provides a framework for understanding cooperation. It is often couched in criminal justice terms. Two suspects rob a bank. If neither cooperates the top charge might not be proven, and they could get as little as a year. If one turns the other in, the rat gets two years and the other guy gets ten. If they both turn each other in, they both get five years. With this kind of knowledge, both are heavily motivated to turn each other in just to avoid the possibility of being hit with ten years. There are many variations of this. How we see it play out in the court reporting field is “if I do not take this job for the rate that is offered, somebody else will, and then I won’t have a job, so I must take this job.” This environment puts reporters into a mindset where they are willing to accept shorter turnarounds, lower rates, and worse working conditions, such as more paperwork, being asked to work during Superstorm Sandy, or being asked to bring free snacks to a depo. I ended up very upset. They didn’t buy into my ideas and I never got my ideas off the ground myself because I didn’t have the social skills at the time to attract clients. But I learned the very important lesson that even in a situation where people would benefit from a choice, if they are presented with risk or the situation is framed in a way that appears risky, people are less likely to buy in.
Over the years I kept reading and learning. As I’ve described in other posts this week, I started to suspect that machine learning with regard to automatic speech recognition was not as good as it was made out to be. With Gartner predicting that 85% of business AI solutions will fail and IBM Watson finally admitting that it was not the industry-changing showstopper it was made out to be, again, it seems those suspicions are turning out to be true. But where did those suspicions come from? I started to see that the claims being made about ASR were numerous and constant. In 2016, Microsoft claimed that their automatic speech recognition was better than human transcribers. An awful lot of noise was being made about the abilities and exponential growth of technology even though the exponential growth of technology had already slowed. That’s around the time I read about the Empty Fort Strategy. In brief, it’s a story that’s part of the Thirty-Six Stratagems that describes a famous general who was defending a fort or city. He had no real garrison and was surrounded by the enemy. He goes up into the tower at the gate, throws open the gate, and starts playing his lute, beckoning his enemies to attack. The enemy army, believing a trap was waiting for them, fled. In real life, stenographers on social media were dejected and demoralized by the constant barrage of empty tech news. Would they run away? But news was breaking that companies like Facebook were secretly using human transcribers in ASR systems! And news was breaking that companies could be super weak financially but still stay in business for years. If behemoths like that were having problems, it was logical to conclude that nobody else was anywhere close. Could I show court reporters the fort was empty?
I had already read and written about the Pygmalion effect, and I continue to write about it often, because I see just how powerful that part of human psychology is. Robert Rosenthal went to a school, picked a bunch of random kids, and told the teacher they were expected to be intellectual bloomers that year. Rosenthal returned later that year and the children’s scores had increased. It was clear that the teacher had taken the idea that these were gifted children and subconsciously given them more support. You can listen to Robert Rosenthal talk about some of his associated rat studies at the start of the Learner Lab podcast. Our expectations cause us to make subconscious choices that lead to our expectations being fulfilled. Demoralized stenographers that expect the profession to fail will make subconscious choices to make it fail. Then there’s confirmation bias. Once people form a belief, they seek out information that supports that belief. Then there’s cognitive dissonance. When we get two conflicting ideas in our head, our mind seeks ways to reconcile them. This can blend into a phenomenon where even the brightest among us will fight for a belief that we have even where there is no factual basis. If multiple people come to form the same belief, it can evolve into an echo chamber. I could already see it happening on the court reporting front. I was getting into regular disagreements with court reporting colleagues that truly believed we would be done in five to ten years.
I knew from reading about war and conflict that the easiest way to win something is to get the opposition to give up without a fight. Once people start running from a battle, it encourages others to run. Could the barrage of bad news get stenographers to run even though our institutions and numbers were far better funded and far larger? As people, we are basically problem solving machines. Once we identify a problem we take the path of least resistance to solve it. The bigger the problem is to us, the more of our attention it takes up and the more motivated we are to solve it. It follows that in order to get people to cooperate, the issue needs to be framed in a way that they will understand it as a problem where the path of least resistance is the path you want them to take. I saw that some digital proponents understood these concepts as well, because there was a constant flip between trying to press the message that digital was the new steno and steno was the gold standard; sometimes even seemingly from the same sources. They were trying to frame the narrative in a way that the future was inevitable, and therefore stenographers should do nothing, because what could a bunch of stenographers do anyway? It’s kind of like standing behind someone whispering to them how wonderful they are while you stab them in the back. It’s a disarming tactic that got some stenographers to buy into the mantra of “there’s nothing we can do” that I destroyed on Wednesday. A new diagram popped into my head. It probably looked something like this:
In addition to all these other concepts, I found articles about Richter’s rats. In a study done by Curt Richter, rats were placed in water. Each died within minutes. A second group of rats was placed in the water, and just as they were about to drown they were taken out of it. When they were reintroduced to the water, they swam fordays. As in some Rosenthal studies, rats were used because of the similarity their brains have to human brains. After all, drowning real live humans for science would be unethical! But we don’t need to do that. We can just look at how people facing impossible odds in history overcame the odds via hope and trying. It is fairly logical to extrapolate that given hope, people become capable of things that they otherwise would not be capable of. If my readers were capable of hope, they were capable of superhuman feats just like the mom who scared away the mountain lion with her bare hands.
As far as I could tell, we had the facts and numbers on our side. All that was left was to reverse the harmful messaging infecting our field and repeat all the more positive and true messages that would bring us together. I grew this blog. And now when I write something that’s good, about 2% of our entire industry tunes in on the day it’s written.
That 2%, we know from Rosenthal, Richter, and Margaret Mead, can change the world. And digital proponents like Verbit really helped get us into the world-changing mindset. According to some stenographers on social media, they told them they’d just have to stand aside for the new technology. Going back to my thoughts about conflict and risk, I knew that they were backing stenographers into a corner. I also had read a little about Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu figured out not to put your enemy in a corner over 2,000 years ago. Who wants to have to retrain and wonder what job they’ll do next? The path of least resistance for reporters was now to fightfor the job stenographers had, and more people began to send me information to feed that fight.
Of course, this works both ways. You’ll note in my writing, I never ever take a position that a company is irredeemable. When I let Veritext know that, they put it in writing that technology will not take the place of the stenographer. Can’t walk that back too gracefully. That gave me a glance into the corporate psychology. There’s probably no cohesive strategy for the replacement of stenographers even if it is a vague goal. That doesn’t mean they won’t act against us if and when it suits them. After all, Veritext had a digital reporter posting up as recently as this week. But it does mean that if the company should come out and say digital is replacing us, 27,000 people can point out the blatant contradiction to the media. It also means that should they change their stance, reporters that are friendly will have an incentive to resist on every front legally available. Their lack of cohesive strategy versus our extreme motivation to keep our jobs secure is part of what gives us an edge here.
I’m pretty much doing the same with US Legal. I’m going to hit pretty hard until they back down off the inferior digital product. I can leave my mind open to the possibility that maybe they too just got caught in that echo chamber of “digital is the only way.” All I can do is point them to digital slime shops like Kentuckiana or CED and say “look, if this modality was cheaper, more efficient, and easily scalable, these companies would’ve beat us out a long time ago.” All I can do is try to get the big dogs to see that their belief in digital reporting can hurt their business and people in our civil and criminal justice system. If they refuse to see it, then we have a conflict. A conflict where, due to our reach and numbers, it is impossible for them to come out of unscathed. Who in their right mind would go into conflict with someone that can reach 2% of the industry with a blog post? We’re at the point where I’m tagging them on Twitter. They’re not going to win this. They’re up against someone willing to murder a Stentura for the cause.
There’s that prisoner’s dilemma again. There is one rational choice that minimizes the risk, stenography. All other choices carry a risk. Sue me? Risk calling attention to my work, lose $400 an hour, maybe get sanctioned for a frivolous lawsuit, and lose the lawsuit quite publicly. Continue doing digital? Risk me being right about it. Attempt to refute my work? Risk calling more attention to it. Actually manage to refute my work? Risk my arguments becoming stronger and more logical. Ignore me? Well, then I can act with impunity. Go steno only? I can’t see a downside, especially if the company puts any good recruitment effort in for us. I go away, they make money, everybody’s happy. Steno is the easy win and the path of least resistance. There’s a special kind of irony to my life. If I had had a lucrative and comfortable freelance career, I would not have been as motivated as I am to help freelancers because I would not have viewed them as needing help. If the corporations in New York City had treated us like human beings instead of resources to be used and thrown away, Stenonymous wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be hanging out at an undisclosed location playing with dominoes. That last bit was a joke. The rest is dead serious.
This messaging and psychology stuff also works with our friends, the digital reporters themselves, who are not told that stenography is a viable career. Every single digital that is pulled to steno is someone these companies need to pay to replace. We stay in business five or six decades at a time. The average employee stays 1 to 4 years. Want turnover to decimate your bottom line? Transition to digital reporting. Meanwhile, reporters, when you tell someone they can have more money and opportunities by picking up a valuable skill and that digital reporting is risky, they strongly consider what you have to say. I have proof. Every now and then, I get an email kind of like this one, where I was asked by a very cool digital reporter how to get into stenographic court reporting and whether I believed the future was steno over digital. I let them know the truth. If we fail, the most likely outcome is the companies freeze the rates on them, and we know that because it was done to us 30 years ago.
Not only can we positively impact the lives of digital reporters through empathy and compassion, we can encourage the foreign transcribers that are being exploited to stand against their own exploitation. At the very least we can exchange ideas and information that will lead to greater understanding of each other’s position. If you think that sounds like a platitude, check out this conversation I had with an offshore transcriber.
What I wrote next will shock you.
And what I received back from this wonderful person shocked me.
Again, I can show that mathematically we are underpaid. So these corporations are paying our replacements about a fourth of what they pay us. Are they charging the lawyers a fourth? No? Then our next step is to tell the lawyers just how badly they and their clients are being ripped off. Get these leeches out of our industry and get their hands out of the pockets of our students. They have a choice to work with us. Anything that is not support of us is not working with us and we don’t have to tolerate it or be nice about it.
The most recent step in my thoughts about science and psychology was deep self-reflection. For a long time I was trying to play the corporate game by making everything nice and politically correct. That was my idea of what society should be like. I had disagreements with so many reporters because they weren’t diplomatic enough for my liking. I was a fool. We ended up in conflict because I couldn’t analyze the flaws of my own approach and realize that being polite gave me zero leverage. I can only apologize to those I might have hurt in my naivety. We are not up against nice, correct companies. The individual people in those companies might be nice people, but they are all working towards a goal of making the corporation more successful with complete disregard for who it hurts. We cannot allow them to control the narrative because then we all become a part of making the narrative come true. We must force them to respond to and become a part of our narrative. As I just showed you, all of the aforementioned principles of human behavior will coalesce into a situation where we prevail. Our only problem is we have an aversion to reaching out and seizing the opportunity. That problem, I wager, is solved through American’s constitution, free speech and information dispersal.
Now that you have my playbook, I hope you will use it for good. Just know there is some evidence to suggest that these principles can go haywire and a person can hold and defend a belief that is simply not true. This goes back to confirmation bias and our innate desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. US Legal had a bit of that after my Wednesday article. They blocked me on Twitter rather than face the uncomfortable truth that the company is headed in a bad direction. That put them at a disadvantage where they are now not monitoring someone who can reach out to the legal community and explain very cogently why their policies are going to hurt lawyers. Again, we’re looking at a company of people just doing a job. They don’t have the same motivation against having their profession permanently eliminated. If US Legal closes tomorrow every single one of its brilliant employees will find a better spot somewhere else. It’s likely very few of them really care what happens to the company the way we care what happens to steno.
We must defend against putting ourselves at the same disadvantage. We do that by building truth-seeking into our beliefs and reassessing them as often as is reasonable. As long as we don’t become Buridan’s donkey, the reassessment can only strengthen us. Failing to reassess beliefs can cause us to fall into an echo chamber mentality where we may become ignorant to something important or dangerous. Our institutions suffer greatly from this. They are so hesitant to spend money or take on liability that the things they do often end up half-baked or ineffective. Some projects we spend months on never go anywhere at all because everyone is looking at everyone else waiting for them to pull the triggerand yell “go!” Real world example? NCRA would not allow a vote on one of our amendments this year for the same exact reasons. A risk was presented that it was illegal, and that was enough for the board to back downdespite very sound reasoning why it was not illegal. It’s not their fault. It’s how people work. And learning that helped me not take it personally and move on to the next big thing rather than obsess and stagnate.
I’ve seen reporters fall into that trap too, whether it’s “nothing can ever replace us” or “the sky is falling, we are irreparably doomed.” Any absolute statement becomes a chance for us to ignore important information. For example, reporters and people who believe digital is always cheaper will be most likely to ignore studies done where the costs of digital and steno were pretty much the same or that digital reporting has a high equipment replacement cost that our reporters typically eat out of their own revenue. Who is going to pay to replace equipment every five years once we’re out of the picture? Courts and lawyers! When the Testifying While Black Study hit the news, NCRA and PCRA went after the study itself, which was very similar to my own take on it. The news tore into us and we looked doomed. Then I reassessed my beliefs and ended up becoming the most knowledgeable stenographer in the country on the study; NCRA recognized that, which landed me on TV and eventually allowed me to call news organizations out for turning such an important story into clickbait — using clickbait!
The study showed we were twice as good at taking down the African American Vernacular English dialect and thousands of people missed that because they could not abandon their own preconceived notions. Meanwhile, one 30 year old with an AOS in court reporting figured it out. I’m not particularly bright. That’s just the power of open-mindedness intrinsic to healthy debate and reasoning, and it allows me to outwit the people messing with us. My message is that you, reader, have the same exact ability. For as long as I can remember, my favorite Latin phrase has been “a posse ad esse,” from possibility to actuality. Along those lines, if we admit to ourselves that any possibility can be an actuality, we no longer waste time running from truths we do not want to see, confront our fears, and meet our goals.
One piece of feedback I get back from time to time is “we can’t stand up to XYZ Corporation. They make 100 million in revenue!” I deeply empathize with this reaction because I’ve felt that before. Back in freelance, that feeling was constant. How could I negotiate with a company that was only offering $3.25? They were a big company with lots of work. I was basically a kid just out of college with my extremely shiny AOS. I didn’t even have a squid hat yet.
But about 3 years ago I started to teach myself very basic computer programming. I began to learn a little bit more about numbers and math. I had always hated math, and the whole experience completely changed that perception. I started to like math. One the first programs I ever wrote was a simple counter program similar to this one:
In this code, you start with the number 0 and it adds one forever until the computer malfunctions or the program is shut down. What you see happen very quickly is that when you’re adding one several times a second, one quickly becomes 10, 100, 1,000, 1,000,000.
What the hell does that have to do with stenographers? We are the ones that add up in this program called life. For example, let’s say we have XYZ Corporation and it makes $100 million a year in revenue. Now let’s say there are 23,000 reporters, like vTestify said almost three years ago, and let’s assume that reporters ONLY make a median salary of about $60,000 a year. Those reporters make $1.3 billion in revenue annually. You take two percent of that a year and throw it in an advertising pot, and you’re talking a $26 million annual advertising campaign.
So now to bring this out of theory and into reality, you can see it happening in real life. There’s no group of people that’s going to have a 100 percent contribution rate. But when you look at the numbers, you start to see that overall we put far better funding into our organizations and activities than alternative methods or spinoffs. Take, for example, AAERT, which pulled in about $200,000 in 2018 revenue. For those that don’t know AAERT, they’re primarily engaged with supporting the record-and-transcribe method of capturing the spoken word. As I’ve covered in past blog posts and industry media, it’s an inefficient and undesirable method (page 5), and most digital reporters would do a lot better if they picked up steno.
Then we can look towards the National Verbatim Reporters Association, which seems to focus more on voice writing, but definitely includes and accepts stenographic reporters. We see the 2017 revenue here come in at almost $250,000. Not bad at all.
But then we look to our National Court Reporters Association, which is primarily engaged in promoting stenography and increasing the skill of stenographic court reporters. This is where we see the collective power of reporters start to add up in a big way. In 2018, the NCRA saw more than $5.7 million in revenue. The NCRF brought in an additional $368,000. That’s over $6 million down on steno that year.
What conclusions can be drawn here? As much as the anti-steno crowd wants to say the profession’s dead, dying, or defunct, there’s just no evidence to support that. Here you get to see some fraction of every field contributing to nonprofits dedicated to education, training, and educating the public. We know from publicly-available information that our membership dues are not 30x more than these other organizations, so we know that there are a lot more of us, and we know that there are a lot more of us participating in continuing education and sharpening our skills. We’re the preferred method. We’re the superior method. We’re training harder every day to meet the needs of consumers. There are only a few ways this goes badly for stenography.
We lack the organization or confidence to counter false messaging.
We lose trust in our collective power and institutions, stop supporting them, and stop promoting ourselves. Kind of like the Pygmalion effect.
We spend time tearing each other down instead of boosting each other’s stuff.
See the common theme? There’s really nothing external that’s going to hurt this field. It all comes down to our ability to adapt, organize, and play nice with each other. In the past, I equated it with medieval warfare and fiction. The easiest way to win any adversarial situation is to get the other side to give up and go home. It’s an old idea straight out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Applied to business, if you can convince people not to compete against you, you win by default. This might be in the form of a buyout. This might be in the form of convincing people that stenography is not a viable field so that there are not enough stenographers to meet demand. This might be in the form of would-be entrepreneurs believing they cannot compete and never starting a business. This might be in the form of convincing consumers that stenographic reporters are not available. This might be in the form of casting doubt on stenographic associations. This might be in the form of buying a steno training program and ostensibly scrubbing it out of existence. These are all actions to avoid competition, because as the numbers just showed you, we only lose if we do not compete. If you do nothing else for Court Reporting & Captioning Week 2021, please take the time to promote at least one positive thing about steno. If a guy in a squid hat could get you to think differently about just one topic today, what kind of potential do you have to make a difference in this world?
I’ll launch us off with an older quote from Marc Russo. “If you are a self-motivated person with a burning desire to improve your skills, this is the field.” This is our field. This is our skill. All we have left to do is stand up to the people that take advantage of our stellar customer service mentality and the public perception that we’re potted plants.
PS. That $3.25 I was having trouble negotiating up from? Some of my friends were making $4.00+ with less experience than me. The limitation was me and the way that I was thinking about it. We have all had to deal with hurdles that seemed insurmountable. Max Curry talked a little bit about it in his NCRA Stenopalooza presentation “Fear…Let It Go!” when he talked about his father and introversion. It was an amazing presentation. But here’s my takeaway for those that missed it last year. If you’re having a problem, try looking at it another way.
Before I begin, let me just say that I have no problem with transcribers. I do have a serious problem with companies pushing the record and transcribe method as innovation when stenography was doing that and stopped doing it because it was inefficient and costly. Digital reporters and transcribers come to steno because it is the better method for the consumer, the worker, and their hands!
We face a public relations blitz on us disguised as the “field changing.” As best I can tell, this is mostly to discourage us from recruiting for and promoting stenography. Nobody else is reading that. The easiest way to win is to get the other side to not fight, or to get it to fight itself. I’ve written about nearly all of this before, but it is nice to have in one spot. Here are some truths and concepts you should know before you buy the hype that we’re a dead field.
Conclusion: There is no reason stenographers cannot fill the stenographic reporter gap if we try.
Self-reported, transcribers can take up to six hours to transcribe one hour of testimony compared to an average via steno of one to two hours. Regular transcription can take up to six times as long or require six times as many people to produce the same work.
Simple math, stenographers input words 3 to 4 times faster.
Assuming a stenographer workforce of 15,000 and a projected 2030 court reporter shortage of 11,000, it’ll take 78,000 to 156,000 transcribers to replace stenographic court reporters.
The dropout rate before NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, Open Steno, Steno Key, and other steno initiatives was about 80 to 90%. If we are looking at recruiting 100,000 transcribers, we can certainly fill a gap of 10,000 even using the terrible dropout rate from years prior to 2015.
The Ducker Report, which forecasted the shortage, is about 7 years old, and predates the initiatives in point 4. To my knowledge, nearly all court reporter shortage numbers are extrapolated from that report, and there has not been a new study since.
The Ducker report predates layoffs that occurred in Massachusetts and elsewhere, and happened at about the same time as a major change in New York’s Workers Comp reporting. There are likely fewer jobs and a smaller gap than forecasted, as those reporters moved to fill slots that would otherwise be empty.
The Ducker Report showed California, by far, as being the state with the largest shortage. If we win in California, we can win anywhere.
70 percent of reporters are likely to retire by 2033 as of the 2013 report. This means that if the field is still ticking in 2033, it’s unlikely to go anywhere for the next 30 or 40 years while those new people move towards retirement. This means reporters today have a unique opportunity to make or break the next generation of reporters by recruiting.
Stenographers are ten times more organized and equipped to handle the shortage. NCRA’s 2017 revenue was 5,926,647. AAERT’s 2017 revenue was 195,652. For the sake of comparison, if we divide that revenue by the cost of a membership, NCRA would have 19,755 members at a $300 membership. AAERT would have 1,565 members at a $125 membership. Obviously, these do not reflect true membership levels, but they give us an estimate of the relative strength and support of the two organizations, as well as the support we give to our continuing education culture.
There are four AAERT-approved schools listed as of 2020. There are 25 NCRA-approved schools listed as of 2020. If we judge by approved schools, stenographers are six times more likely to close the gap.
The turnover rates of digital reporters and transcribers are poorly documented. Ducker acknowledges that stenographic reporters tend to stay in the workforce longer. Proponents of transcription and digital reporting look to the faster training time, but a faster training time means nothing if you’re constantly having to train the 100,000 people mentioned in point 3.
Rates for digital vary wildly, between $15 and $45 an hour. This is not so different from stenography, but we have a culture of mentorship and showing people the ropes so that they can make wise decisions. Going by the numbers in point 9, there’s just no way for them to match the infrastructure and guide new people the same way we do, and ensure that there is a balance between the worker not getting screwed and the customer getting the best value possible.
Using the “guesstimate” of membership and support in point 9, there are simply more of us to recruit and promote this field.
Automatic speech recognition outfits like Verbit have gone from claims of 99% accuracy in Series A funding to statements akin to “we will not get rid of the human element” in Series B funding. Automated speech proponents, time and again, have made claims they simply cannot support.
Expectations can impact reality. How we perceive the situation can directly impact the situation. This is the major hope of digital proponents. They want you to expect your associations and field to fail. They want you to expect to be replaced.They don’t want you to fight. We’ve seen this from Veritext’s love letters and Cudahy’s constant droning about the shortage. By alternating between messages of “good court reporters will always have jobs,” and “it’s impossible to close the stenographic reporter gap,” people who want change in this field are hoping that you will see the change as not impacting you or inevitable, and therefore pull your support from associations and grassroots efforts to protect our field. Conversely, you can expect to win. Expect that if you put in your membership dues, or a little volunteer time, you’re setting us up on the path to remain a stable profession and a viable career.
I created a masterpiece about a week ago. On the left, a very horrifying creature that took about three minutes to create and was instantly copyrighted upon creation. If you took my creation and slapped it on a mug and started selling it, I could probably successfully sue you. On the right, a file snapshot of years worth of transcript work, which could be freely copied by anyone any time, at least ostensibly, as any court that decides this issue seems to decide that transcripts are not expressive work protected under copyright. Sam Glover also wrote about this years ago, but seems to have purged it from his blog. Some courts, like the one in Urban Pacific Equities et al v The Superior Court of Los Angeles County (59 Cal. App. 4th 688, 69 Cal. Rptr. 2d 635), have taken the step of ruling that the transcript does not have to be turned over under a business record subpoena because it is a product of business and not a business record, but this does not necessarily prevent it from being copied if counsel obtains it another way.
Here in New York, we do have guaranteed payment of an original via our General Business Law 399-cc (Transcripts and stenographic services). In that way, I feel the state and legislature has already partially acknowledged the hard work that we do. But it’s no secret that court reporter businesses, for whatever reason, have chosen to make originals cheap, and make their businesses more or less dependent on these copy sales. It’s often reported in social media circles that attorneys at a deposition will openly and in front of the stenographic reporter offer to copy and give the transcript to counsel that would otherwise have to order the transcript from the reporter. Why not? As best anyone can tell, it’s legal! There’s also a darker side to this. If you do not have a clear agreement with your agency stating otherwise, they can probably also legally copy your work and not tell you about it. Again, why not? It’s legal!
The question arises, what do we do about this? Many ideas have been floated over the years. Some say we should change our model to reflect the lost copy sales and consider charging in a different way, like hourly, per diem, or a higher original. Personally, I believe it would not be unfair to create a body of law protecting stenographers’ rights to their work. Transcribers would probably be equally in favor, and it would certainly slow the rate of copying if it were explicitly not legal.
Many ideas have been floated in this regard, including putting it under theft of services. I don’t think anyone supports throwing attorneys in jail over this. That’s unreasonable to me. But I do think it’s fair to create a civil penalty for the copying of transcribed work. Virtually everything else is protected via patents, copyright, or intellectual property laws, and it seems weirdly unfair to have a class of people whose work is wholly unprotected.
I would propose language to the effect of “No person or business entity shall copy, reproduce, publish, or dispose of to another a copy of the transcript of any matter transcribed or stenographically reported. A person or business entity that violates this must pay a copy sale to the stenographer or transcriber that created the original transcript. Such copy sale price shall not exceed the mean average of the stenographer or transcriber’s copy sales for the twelve months preceding the copying, reproduction, publishing, or disposal.”
Now, if we were to propose such law, there’s a strong possibility we would have to make some concessions. Let’s be fair, many of these matters are matters of public domain and importance. I would propose a few important carve outs, such as, “nothing in this law shall be construed to abridge the right of any person to critique, cite, discuss, parody, or utilize a transcript’s content in any expressive matter.” This punches a bit of a hole in the law, but look at fair use in copyright law, and you’ll get what I’m trying to do. Also, “nothing in this law shall prohibit any person from preparing or having prepared by another their own transcript of the same proceeding or matter.”
There are some bigger issues we’d have to deal with. Would this law exclusively cover private transcribers / stenographers and not public employees? That’s a fantastic question. As a stenographer, I’m sure everyone knows where I stand, but as someone who reads a good amount of law, I understand that government work simply works out that way sometimes. I think if we’re serious about a New York City, New York State, or even someday federal law on this, it’s entirely doable. I think the important thing is prohibiting copying while allowing “fair use” type cases that don’t prohibit freedom of speech and expression. Notably, we could always go the way of this proposed Florida rule, which states plainly, “subdivision (g) requires a party to obtain a copy of the deposition from the court reporter unless the court orders otherwise…”
As always, discuss away or email me! It’s always fascinating to see what others have researched. Hopefully, if ever it becomes a serious discussion by our lawmakers, they’ll also get a chance to consult with authorities in our field like NYSCRA, NCRA, or even ASSCR.
If you haven’t had the time to use my site’s search box for all the shortage solutions available, I recommend giving it a try. Over the last year we’ve covered some phenomenal ideas. Many stenographers across social media have internalized these ideas, talked about them, made them better than I ever could’ve dreamed.
Well, this one’s for all the non-stenographers and a look into why our shortage mathematically requires us and not other methods of capturing the spoken word. May it help some of you educate non-reporters and maybe even reporting companies on who we are, what we really do, and why we are irreplaceable. Really quickly, machine shorthand reporting gets a bad RAP because it’s “old.” The stenotype style we use today originally was invented in 1906 by Ward Stone Ireland. With over a century of usage, it’s easy for other methods to say that the technology is outdated and point to something like digital recording, originally invented in 1970 by James Russell, as a newer, “better” technology.
Objectively, when you look at both methods, they have seen vast improvements. Back in “the day,” stenographers had to painstakingly transcribe paper tape notes or even dictate their notes back to a typist using Dictaphone-type technology, who would transcribe for them while they continued to take other proceedings stenographically. Modern stenography uses advanced word processing techniques to take the input from a stenographic writer and output text. The more skillful someone is at operating a stenography machine or stenotype, the cleaner the output text is. Some reporters, reaching a 99.9% untranslate or accuracy level, can practically hit print at the end of a job and have a ready transcript.
Even those of us without such a level of skill are more efficient than the record and transcribe methodology. The average person types about 50 words per minute (WPM). The average transcriber reaches about 80 WPM. The average stenographer? 225 WPM. So while it may seem paradoxical that this century-old technology is the fastest and most efficient method available to the consumer today, it’s true.
So when we talk about shortage, numbers, and the “impossible” gap stenographers must fill to meet rising demand and replace retiring reporters, let’s talk some real numbers. There are somewhere between 11,000 and 30,000 working reporters in this country depending on whose numbers you want to use. Let’s say a healthy 15,000. If we’re inputting words 2 to 4 times faster, on average, you need 2 to 4 people to replace every stenographer. If you need another person to operate the recording equipment, that means 5 people per stenographer today. It gets tougher. Hard-working transcribers have reported it takes up to six hours for them to transcribe a one-hour depo. I’m a pretty average stenographer. I know from timing my own work that a one-hour depo is about 40 pages, and I can transcribe 40 pages in 1 to 2 hours. On a great day where my input is good, I could even do it in 30 to 45 minutes dependent on page density and subject matter. But let’s stick to average, one hour transcription for one hour of testimony for one stenographer. Now compare that to the record and transcribe method, up to six hours for one hour of testimony. That could be six to seven people to do the work of one stenographer, or it could take six to seven times as long.
What do all these numbers mean? It means whoever’s numbers you want to use, if you want to say the gap is 10,000 people by 2030, or 1,000 people, or 5 people, it means you’re talking about filling a stenographic reporter gap. Companies who are pushing digital as a solution are saying there’s no way to get stenographers, but somehow they can find, organize, train, and utilize teams 4 to 6 times larger than their current stenographic reporting assets. We complain about the lack of stenography schools. How many digital reporting or transcribing schools exist? How long have those existed? AAERT lists four. NCRA lists almost four steno schools in New York alone. Tell us again how that is the future? Seems to me that if you’re scared about filling a gap of 1,000, a gap of 4,000 is pretty terrifying. If we’re talking replacement of 15,000 stenographers, we’re looking at 50,000 people plus the gap. Even with the abominable success rates of the past, pre A to Z, pre NCRA 2.0, 10 to 20 percent, it follows that if you’re introducing tens of thousands of hardworking people to the field of reporting, and you introduce them to stenography, you can overcome any shortage you would otherwise have. Smart transcribers and digital reporters have a head start on this. They’ve switched to steno because it’s better for them, their wallet, and the consumer.
Let’s just touch on AI as it relates to taking down the spoken word. Computer programming is not magic. Despite the claims of some that technology is advancing every day, an objective look at technology shows it hasn’t advanced much at all. How much better has your bank’s voice recognition gotten in the last ten years? It was hit or miss then, and it’s hit or miss now. Look at it in big picture terms instead of the daily claims of “tech news” sources. Improvements have been made, to be sure. Open source programming projects allow virtually anyone with a little time and technical knowhow to integrate voice recognition into their product or website. Promises of a $25 billion market draw new investors every day.
But the fact remains that a lot of the buzz surrounding automatic speech recognition is just that, buzz, smoke, promises of a better tomorrow that no one can guarantee. It’s a new spin on old news. To understand this, it is important to understand what computers really are. Computers are math-solving machines. Anything you can break down into numbers can be represented by a classical computer. Video games? Math. Word processing? Math. Internet search? Math. We are spoiled. We live in a world where you click buttons and have windows. Far gone are the days when programmers had to use punch cards to operate computers. But consider that everything your computer is doing is broken down into two signals, 1 and 0, on and off. How smart do you think someone has to be to figure out an equation to account for every accent, English dialect, or circumstance? Try differentiating four different speakers using math! I’ve said it before. There’s a very real possibility that it can be solved and that perfect voice recognition can be programmed. Could be tomorrow. Could be 100 years away. Might not even happen. We don’t know. But any claim that AI is the future must be met with serious and sustained skepticism, as AI-related companies can burn through half a billion dollars in a year and still have no major profitable product. There’s a reason the public trusts stenographers and not Siri, and that’s why smart investors stick with stenographer platforms.
Companies and organizations should really re-examine their own views on this. Stenography needs all hands on deck, and they’ll have a much easier time building on our education culture and matured technology than trying to switch over the industry to something untried, untested, and less consumer friendly than the personal and proper touch of a qualified stenographic reporter. The years of training and experience we have collectively, as well as the infrastructure of our large associations and institutions, are second to none. Ultimately, it will be up to the buyers in our market to examine that and decide: Do they want to ride the wave, improve the field as it stands today? Do they want to pay the great cost of reinventing the wheel in the hopes that things will someday be better? I suspect the smartest leaders have already crunched some of these numbers and weighed these factors. They know there’s a very real truth that replacing stenography is unlikely to work. It certainly doesn’t make sense mathematically, and that is why they hedge their investments and keep all avenues open.
Maybe this will serve as a wake-up call to companies on the fence. Do not go the way of US Legal, who apparently acquired Stenotrain just to scrub its Internet presence a couple of years later. These numbers are real. The challenges faced in finding coverage are real. These challenges are far from insurmountable. But it will be about four times harder to use non-stenographic transcribers than it would be to address the stenographer shortage. Follow the recent example of companies like Lexitas. Reach out to stenographers and ask them about schools that need your support to keep supplying you with quality reporters. Your investors will thank you. Your customers will have the best service for the lowest cost. You will not be subject to the inconsistency of professional flip-floppers. Your business won’t be broken by people who have no plan for when a transcript is needed for appellate review. Your companies will thrive. You will have a better outcome than you would losing money and clients up against a superior modality like stenography. Shortage solutions? Without a doubt, the resourceful entrepreneur picks steno.
One of the highlights of the January 2020 PYRP popup in Brooklyn was talking about the local shortage. One solution mentioned on the freelance side was how stenographers and stenographic reporters can advocate for attorneys to set depositions at different times. It was explained that it can be very difficult to accommodate every deposition at 10 a.m., and how a small change in attorneys’ ordering habits might make it simpler to cover work.
This is a small thing to talk about, but would be no small feat to accomplish. It would be a serious cooperative effort for the buyers and sellers of stenographic services to come together and do something to alleviate the coverage issues faced by all companies.
This also brings to light a truism we don’t talk about often. The winners of this market will be the logisticians. Companies and entrepreneurs that master matching reporters with work are necessary. If a reporter can only work in the afternoons, or close to home, or has some other need, an agency that can satisfy those needs is going to get coverage over an agency that just doesn’t care. This is a time for companies that truly support the stenographic reporter to really shine.
Reporters nationwide are advocating for stenography. I see no reason why scheduling habits can’t be a small part of our efforts at consumer education. If it’s the difference between covered and uncovered work, it’s worth mentioning, and it’s worth getting a stenographer into every proceeding possible. There is a digital reporting proponent named Steven Townsend. He has described an idea he calls the long tail, stating that digital recording can cover matters where transcript demand is not high. So when we talk about matters of coverage and jobs that are “not good enough” for a stenographer, remember that long tail. Remember that’s a core strategy of the companies gunning to replace you. Take enough of the “easy” work, become what lawyers regard as “the reporter” and then muscle in on the so-called valuable work under the idea that stenographers are obsolete. They even tell digital reporters we’re obsolete so that they don’t realize we’re a growing and vibrant career choice. There has already been talk in Veritext-owned companies in New York about digital reporters taking over EUOs, which are insurance jobs that many reporters are hesitant to take or refuse to take. Don’t let that happen. Those jobs fuel new stenographers and stenographers with a lower skill ceiling.
Nobody becomes a USPS or UPS-type master of logistics overnight. There is a lot that goes into getting a stenographer on every job. So let’s make it a part of the discussion and grow it together. Existing companies can adapt these ideas, or stenographers can form new companies that do it better. Either way, stenography and the consumer win.
This past weekend 78 pop-up events across the country launched for stenographers, almost all of which were at the same time on January 18, 2020. For Sabbath observers and those who couldn’t make the January 18 pop up, Devora Hackner organized and hosted one on the night of January 19 in Brooklyn. It was a fantastic night and a good indicator of what just a little solidarity can achieve. Protect Your Record Project, started in California by Kimberly D’Urso and Kelly Bryce Shainline, has swelled to a national movement where stenographers are saying loud and clear to the consumer that we are the fastest and most efficient method of capturing the spoken word.
The Brooklyn event was a real showing of stenographic society in NY. Every attendee’s presence was important and brought something special to the table. Nancy Silberger, immediate past president of NYSCRA and host of New York’s Saturday PYRP event was there. Howie Gresh and Reid Goldsmith, both longtime working reporters and educators were there. Ellen Sandles, a reporter who has done extensive research into the Federation of Shorthand Reporters was present. Representatives and owners of Little, Lex, and Diamond were also present. NYSCRA’s President, Joshua Edwards, also made an appearance some time after the event’s start. There were over thirty decades of collective reporting experience in the room and nearly two dozen attendees.
Everyone came together to talk about how to advocate for stenography. Ms. Silberger mentioned her ability to host some meetings. Ms. Sandles talked about having potential press contacts. Jane Sackheim of Diamond mentioned that space could be offered by Diamond to teach A to Z courses, something NCRA and Project Steno advocates should definitely ask about. Mr. Gresh reminded everyone about NYSCRA’s involvement in offering free test prep classes. Rivka Teich, a masterful reporter working at the Eastern District Brooklyn Courthouse talked about doing a career night and introducing more people to what we do and different jobs in the field. Mr. Edwards reminded everyone about NYSCRA’s mentoring program and urged people to sign up as mentors or to be mentored. He also brought up that attendees were still being accepted for the NYSCRA Court Reporting & Captioning Week Real-Time events.
Many, many ideas were covered. From high school outreach and following NYS legislation to PYRP’s available resources and files, all the way to potential legislative ideas, like copy protection for reporters’ work. The importance of starting discussions on stenography was noted. We talked about the potential of changing covers, parentheticals, and cert pages to say stenographer instead of court reporter. The importance of communicating with the videographer and injecting oneself into the record when necessary to make a better record was talked about.
There is one theme recurrent in all of this. The power of the individual is undeniable. That’s everyone who was present. That’s you. Reporters are getting together and great things are happening. Maybe there’s a skill you have, or some kind of connection you’ve made that can help educate a consumer or empower another reporter. You don’t have to wait for a giant winged creature to invite you, you just have to be brave enough to jump on the wagon.
Courtesy of the links I’ve got up at Get A Real Job, here’s what we’ve got posted around the Internet at the start of the new year. Freelancers can check the bottom for some ideas. Just before we roll into that, remember that NYSCRA has a free mentoring program, and people can use NCRA’s Sourcebook for unconventional moves like finding a mentor. If you’re a student or a new reporter feeling kind of lost, you don’t have to go it alone, reach out. Even people five years on the job have said “wow, sometimes I feel like I need a mentor!”
But you’re not here for that. You’re here for the jobs, dammit. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this month we have the Bronx grand jury job still posted. That’s a Reporter / Stenographer title as a City of New York employee. Side note, the Queens DA site is down so I have no idea if they’re hiring. I guess I’ll have to snail mail them. More side notes, the DCAS Reporter Stenographer application scheduled in November has been postponed, and there does not seem to be a date for it on this DCAS schedule, up to April 2020.
There’s no civil service exam out for NYSUCS Court Reporters because they just had the last test in Summer 2019. They generally hold the test every 1 to 4 years though, so keep an eye out. Even though the civil service exam is probably a little way off, Court Reporter provisional applications are being accepted continuously statewide according to the website.
In the least predictable move ever made, we move on to federal jobs. There are three Southern District postings in New York, including part time and full time work. Whether that means they need three people or one really good one, go for it! There are also a number of federal positions all around the country. Maryland, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Utah, Tennessee, North Carolina, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Florida. Remember what happens when they can’t get good stenographers in those positions. They settle for less. Spread these jobs around, don’t be shy.
From the freelance angle it is troubling to me that for years I rarely saw agencies advertise looking for steno reporters and yet I see many postings continue to pop up for digital reporters now. It is not inappropriate for stenographers to take this for what it is, a sign that securing private clients may be a way forward to secure future work, especially if our trade and methodology is not going to be front and center of these old businesses. Take the leap, file with NYS, get yourself on the vendor list of NYC VENDEX or NYS procurement, get on the insurance companies’ procurement lists. Navigating the business world is not an easy thing, but it is entirely possible for anyone that sits down and starts familiarizing themselves with how people buy and sell services and where to find people that buy what we do. Pricing is another monster to tackle. Depending on the contract, people might bid super low original prices just to get copies locked in. Some contracts don’t really have many copies so a high original is necessary. There’s no manual I know of, it’s all straight experience and getting yourself situated as a player in this game, not a pawn.