For Digital Court Reporters and Transcribers, Check Out Steno!

If you’re somebody in the United States, United Kingdom, or Canada who’s sold on a career as a digital court reporter, or even if you’re just passing through looking for a new career, I’d like to introduce you to stenographic court reporting in a way that you have not been introduced. Just to get this out of the way, in very general terms, court reporting is taking down the legal record and providing an English transcript for judges, lawyers, litigants, and the public. Stenographic “court reporting,” can also be used to caption live shows and events, or transcribe recorded material when needed. The big difference between “steno” and digital is that digital court reporters record testimony or proceedings, usually on multitrack audio equipment, and take guiding notes as the proceedings go on. The stenographic reporter uses a stenotype to take verbatim notes of what’s being said. In our industry today there are a few big companies aggressively marketing to young people looking for work. Those companies insist that digital court reporting is an opportunity for them. There have even been journalists picking up these misconceptions without realizing they’re being misled. It’s time to dispel those myths, tell you a little bit about who we really are, and get you resources you can use to explore a career as a stenographic court reporter.

We Are Digital!
One of the most interesting claims I’ve seen from digital court reporting proponents in the press is that “this world isn’t digitized.” We’re old-fashioned. The implication is that stenographic court reporting is a dying art with very little time left as a viable career. Every time you see a representation of us in the media, you get a stenotype from 1983! The truth is that we’ve been digital for decades. Most working reporters today roll with a stenotype that is more like a minicomputer than a typewriter. There’s software onboard transcribing the machine shorthand stenography as we go. So that’s a big red flag, right? There’s a CEO making a major statement who’s clearly lying or completely ignorant. Don’t bank your future on the words of people who are lying or wrong. Not only are we technologically advanced, we’re extremely adaptable. When the pandemic struck, court reporters were in a jam for a month or so. The field quickly adopted remote reporting and now reporters are talking about having more work than they can handle right from home. If you like tech, steno is for you.

We Are More Efficient!
I know that this can come off as a loaded or insulting statement, so let me just get this out of the way. There’s nothing wrong with believing that technology improves efficiency. What’s often ignored in this discussion is that stenographic technology is evolving right alongside audio capture tech. There have been trials of automatic speech recognition in stenographic software. There have been leaps in text-to-text prediction and some software even attempts to guess what we meant when we mess up a stenographic stroke. Recording a proceeding generally entails the front-end recording and the back-end transcription. Machine shorthand stenography, on the other hand, loads the transcription on while the proceedings are going on. The most skilled stenographic court reporters can walk away from a proceeding and press print. The more average ones, like me, are able to reduce the transcription time so much that one person can do the entire job. You can also see this in the numbers. The average court reporter types (we call it writes) at 225 words per minute with a 1.4 syllabic density, so probably about 200 words per minute. The average transcriber types at about 100 words per minute. The average person hovers around 50 words per minute. So just by the numbers, you can see that stenographic reporting can get a job done twice as fast, four times as fast, or with far less manpower. Machine shorthand stenography is also much easier on your hands. We have the capability of getting down very large words or large groups of words with one movement of our hands. As an example, it took me over 18,000 hand motions to get this post down on a QWERTY keyboard. It would have taken about 3,000 hand movements on the stenotype that I was too lazy to plug in. If you’re a transcriber, imagine reducing the stress on your hands to a sixth of what it currently is.

We Have More Support!
Some of the court reporting or transcription companies I mentioned before are riding on another misconception regarding our stenographer shortage. About 8 years ago there was an industry outlook and forecast by Ducker Worldwide that told us there would be a higher demand for court reporters than supply. That part is absolutely true. A shortage was forecasted. Some companies were having severe coverage issues. We saw the number of applicants for licenses and civil service jobs plummeting to about half the usual levels. This can lead to the implication that there are not many stenographers left. It’s an easy myth to propagate. How many of us have you seen recently? Unless you’ve been stuck in a lawsuit, been prosecuted, or seen me on TV, you haven’t seen a court reporter. The truth is that we knew the shortage was coming. Many initiatives popped up to begin recruiting stenographers or helping people get into the field. Depending on whose numbers you’re looking at, there are 10,000 to 20,000 of us working. That means that if you have a problem or a question, you have potentially thousands of people around to assist you. You have a nonprofit in almost in every state devoted to stenographic court reporters. Those nonprofits pull in cumulatively millions of dollars a year with the objective of promoting the welfare of stenographic court reporters. To put this into perspective, a popular stenotype manufacturer, Stenograph, recently donated $50,000 to Project Steno. Nobody’s dumping millions of dollars on nonprofits in a career that has no future. Why aren’t some of these “employers” telling you about this vast support network? Because if you join it, you will have sharper skills and better bargaining power.

We Have Options!
There are freelance, part-time, and full-time positions available dependent on where you are and what you’re looking to do with this wonderful skill. Maybe you’re someone who needs to work from home and “just” do transcription — I know a mom just like that. Maybe you love the law and want to see the process of law firsthand. Maybe you want to caption live events over the TV, internet, or in person, via stenographic CART & captioning. Maybe you want to travel internationally and take work around the world. There are even reporters who have taken the general skill of stenotype stenography and applied it to computer programming, such as Stanley Sakai. The limiting factor is how much time you put into hunting down the type of work you want!

We Are Equality!
If you clicked the link for my TV appearance, you saw that stenographic reporters got some really bad news stories run on them because while our certifications are 95 percent, we only scored about 80 percent in a study where some of us were asked to transcribe a specific English dialect sometimes referred to by linguists as African American English (AAE). VICE News filmed me for about two hours. They cut the part where I talked about the pilot studies. In pilot study 1, everyday people were tested and scored 40 percent. In pilot study 2, lawyers were tested and scored 60 percent. In a completely different study, automatic speech recognition was tested. It got white speech right 80 percent of the time. It got black speech right 65 percent of the time. It did worse when it was tested on AAE! What does this mean? It means that young people that want to ensure equality in the courtroom need to join up and become stenographic court reporters. I’m not gloating about 80 percent. But with no special dialect training, we’re the closest to 100 percent understanding on this dialect, and that was ignored by the media. I am proud to be one of the people fighting to bridge that gap and spread awareness on the issue. Beyond that, in the captioning and CART arena, stenographic court reporters are pushing to bring access to people for live programming and in classrooms. So if you choose this wonderful career you are not “doomed” to sit in legal proceedings for the rest of your life, you can also make a career out of taking down what’s being said and bringing it to the screens of millions of people who need that support. If you’re a person that believes that court records should be 100 percent accurate, someone that believes appeals shouldn’t be thwarted by missing court audio, or someone that believes that deaf people deserve real access, and not “autocraptions,” you’re somebody that needs to join up and be part of the team steno solution.

We Are Waiting For You!
Remember that shortage I mentioned and the resources waiting for you? I have an easy list you can use to get a jumpstart, find the right level of training for your financial situation, and get involved with our field. This is not an exhaustive list, so if you find something online that seems better for you, don’t hesitate to give that a chance. To help you understand some jargon in our line of work, “theory” is a method or system of using the stenotype and its letters to take down English, often phonetically. “Speed” is taking everything you learn in theory and learning to do it fast. Speed is by far the longest and hardest part of training. “Briefs” are stenographic outlines or strokes that do not necessarily resemble English words phonetically in theory, but we use them to get down large words fast. “Phrases” are stenographic strokes or outlines that collapse multiple words into one line of letters. Generally you will “learn theory,” then you will start “building speed,” and then you will use briefs and phrases to reach those very high levels of speed that we work at. It is physically possible to write everything out phonetically, but it will be more stressful on your hands.

Try court reporting for free. NCRA A to Z and Project Steno’s Basic Training are both free ways to try out court reporting and learn basic theory at low or no cost. Both are great ways to jump into the field without blowing $2,000 on a student stenotype only to find out you don’t like steno. On the topic of finding stenotypes to practice with, there are vendors such as StenoWorks, Acculaw, Stenograph, Eclipse, and Neutrino. You can also search on eBay for old Stentura models at a discount, but do not go outside eBay’s buyer protection or you will get scammed.

NCRA-approved schools. There are several NCRA-approved schools across the United States and one in Canada. These are worth looking into if you are serious about making court reporting a career because of the quality of the education. Please note that not all NCRA-approved schools are accredited.

Online, self-paced, or programs not approved by NCRA. There are numerous programs for stenographic reporting. There are programs to teach theory like StarTran. There are programs like Simply Steno that focus on building speed after someone has learned the basics of theory, and there are programs like Court Reporting At Home (CRAH). You can also see if the court reporters association of your state has any advice or school listings. All of these things also have a great deal of social media support. There are lots of Facebook groups like Encouraging Court Reporting Students or Studying Court Reporting At Home. There are students and professionals online right now who are there to help with the journey.

Open Steno. I have to put Open Steno in a category by itself because there’s just nothing like it. It is a free, active, and open online community with Google Groups, a free way to learn theory, and its own Discord chat. There are enthusiasts that build stenotype keyboards from scratch. This is the community responsible for Steno Arcade. This is the community responsible for Plover, a free steno-to-English translation software. It was all started by Mirabai Knight, a CART writer in New York. If you’re motivated to teach yourself for free, Open Steno makes it possible in a way that it simply was not a decade ago.

Christopher Day. Chances are high you’re here because you saw an ad on social media. I’ve been a court reporter for almost eleven years. I’ve been funding this blog and keeping it an ad-free experience (with some very appreciated help!) just to help stenographers and people that aspire to be stenographers. I know people that have transitioned from digital (and analogue!) court reporting to stenographic reporting and become real champions of and voices for our field. Every reporter I know is supportive of stenography students and fellow professionals. You’ll rarely hear one of us refer to another one of us as being “low skill.” Compare that to this marketing infographic from Verbit. They said digital solutions do not require a highly-trained workforce. Do you really want to work with people that downplay your work when it’s convenient for them? These folks are setting themselves up to make money off you. I have no such incentive or financial ties. I’m a guy with a squid hat and a blog who fell into this wonderful career by accident, and I’d love for you to be a part of it.

So if you need more guidance, reach out to me at Chris@stenonymous.com. Do yourself the favor of getting involved with stenographic reporting. If sitting there hearing testimony is something you can see yourself doing, you’ve already got a whole lot more in common with us than half the world. Give our profession some consideration. It’s easy to learn, it’s hard to do fast, and though it takes 2 to 4 years of training, it really can be your gateway to an exciting front-row seat to history and a rewarding lifelong career. If that doesn’t sell you, we also have some top-quality memes.

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

The Frank N Sense Monster

Came to my attention maybe a year ago that there is an overall interesting blog, Wake Up NCRA. It’s interesting because it’s, as best I can tell, anonymous, someone very concerned about the field, and someone willing to be pretty honest about their feelings. They even take a page from my book, or perhaps I from theirs, and use the word we occasionally so you can’t really tell for sure whether it’s one person or many.

For some the mix of anonymity and honesty doesn’t make sense, but there are honest reasons for wanting anonymity. Batman says it toward the end of the Dark Knight Rises, the mask is not for you, it’s to protect the people you care about. In a real world context, if “they” know who you are they can apply pressure. An agency can “fire” you. Your family can go from pretty comfortable to struggling. You don’t have to be saying anything wrong, just something someone doesn’t like. It’s private sector and it’s the last effective method on censoring someone’s free speech.

All that said, I’ve used the term monster, so I ought to get explaining that. I had linked the article in question at the top. It’s actually perfect. It talks about a group apparently calling itself SOS Plan B, talks about how this group seems to be interested in audio recording, and says straight out: The plan B is steno needs to be the gold, silver, bronze standard. I have mirrored this concern in the past. Realtime will mean nothing if it’s the last of stenographic reporters. Chess is kind of hard to win if all you have left are the king and queen.

Then out comes the monster. The author says the solutions to the reporter shortage are firms paying reporters a fair wage, firms networking, and the shortage scaling back the contracts that sell us so cheaply. And all these things I believe in pretty deeply. I’d love it if that would happen, but I do not believe it is realistic.

  1. The rates will always be a struggle because companies will always want more money.
  2. The companies network now and from my experience it always ended up with me taking a job with ridiculous conditions like don’t say who you work for, change your transcript from your usual 60 page layout to our 30 page layout that we definitely don’t change back, and get an order form but don’t talk to the client.
  3. The shortage will make it easier for firms to switch to electronic reporting and there will be fewer of us in opposition. And this is where I just get confused. It takes probably a minimum of a year to train a court reporting savant. It doesn’t take them much time at all to train someone to set up equipment and take notes during a proceeding. Our barrier to entry is already worlds higher, and if the jobs don’t get covered, people become more okay with alternatives.

That’s the monster. This is an apath’s wet dream. Do nothing. Support the shortage, the whole train falls apart. Dave Wenhold was at a NYSCRA meetup years ago. Told us he did some advisory work for a group of officials elsewhere, some other state. They were unhappy with their conditions and wanted to strike. Being a pretty politically smart guy, his advice was do not strike. They struck. For two days the courthouse was down, and then they hauled in audio equipment, and that was the end of that. Was his story true? I don’t know. Was the message of his story powerful? Oh yes. If you’re not there to do the job, the powers that be will come up with some other way to get the job done. We are valuable. We are so valuable that I have a wonderful career with wonderful colleagues and a whole universe of talented contemporaries. But we are not irreplaceable in the eyes of the people that use us. We are a means to an end. And if we sit back and let stuff happen, we’ll be proverbial fish in a barrel. But what good am I if I do not offer some solutions to the shortage problem? Some of what we at Stenonymous have crafted up:

  1. Promote all forms of stenographic education, from the traditional to the open source. I’m talking to you, NCRA.
  2. Create more and better open source learning materials.
  3. Create networks of people that can go to the high schools and promote court reporting. The logistics of funding this or finding volunteers is the major barrier.
  4. Support the students heavily through formal and informal mentorship. Rework mentorship to include education about the market in which the reporter expects to work.
  5. Shift association focus somewhat to educating reporters on business principles like negotiation, inflation, labor, et cetera. This is the ultimate battle. If expenses rise and income never does, the business, the reporter, becomes insolvent. Make business knowledge more ubiquitous so that reporters, legally considered to be on the same level as agencies, can actually have a chance here. I’m not talking your savants, I’m talking raise your bottom of the barrel people up so that they can be as good.

A lot of love to Frank N Sense. I know the logistics and long-term fruition of our ideas seem further away than yours. I know it’s harder to build than it is to sit back and hope for the best. It resonates better with people. Who wouldn’t want to just let the shortage happen and everything works out? But I don’t believe in my heart that that’s the way it’ll go. But I do believe there’s a way forward. I do believe that things can always get better. And I believe that we’ll all play an important role in making things better if we care to.

Typey Type Introduction

Hello readers. It’s come to my attention that someone in the Open Steno world created Typey Type. This is an interesting tool where users can do text-to-text practice similar to a typing game. If you use a traditional steno software (CaseCAT) then you should output your text so that you can type in the web box. If you use Plover, Plover pretty much automatically types in the web box. For professionals that are watching, you can also upload a spreadsheet of words and the corresponding stenographic notes, and they can be included as a lesson on Typey Type.

The program/website also has an option for the words to be spoken. I cannot seem to get that to work, but that may be an upcoming feature or a problem with my web settings as of writing.

I am a traditionally-trained stenographer and I believe in the power of formal schools and practice dictation to help people learn stenography, but I do support alternatives and I believe that this is an alternative that is worth a glance, particularly if you are a visual learner.

Do remember, though, that if you are training to be a court reporter, in the end it is paramount that you hear and take down the words, so any use of text-to-text training materials is probably best coupled with some kind of audio or dictation training.