The story of the speech-to-text industry over the next ten years will be the integration of a business that for decades has divided itself along precise lines that are rapidly blurring. We approached five leaders from the industry to answer some fundamental questions that are on everyone’s minds these days.
Collectively the group has accumulated nearly 200 years of experience in the business, each having served in many different roles within. Each can claim multiple titles and affiliations, but we have limited it to one, but we will say that four of the five are past presidents of the National Court Reporters Association.
Reesa Parker is CEO of Revolutionary Text. Mike McDonner is President of Kentuckian Reporters. Tom Runfola is President of the TMR Group. Kathy DiLorenzo is Director of Court Reporting at Planet Depos. Marty Block was a founder of VITAC Corporation.
What will be the biggest challenge that firms will have introducing digital reporting to attorneys and law firms accustomed to steno?
Parker: It comes down to educating the marketplace. What I have been saying to each of our customers is this. If what you require is a timely accurate transcript, there are several avenues to get there, just different methods of capture: on-site steno or voice reporter, remote steno or voice reporter, video deposition officer, digital audio deposition officer. If what you require is an accurate real-time stream, schedule as far in advance as possible, and expect it to be expensive, because these reporters are highly skilled, are in high demand, and often must travel to be in attendance.
McDonner: Hesitancy to fully commit to digital. I attended a conference a few months ago where an agency was “teaching” stenographers how to implement digital reporting. The gist of their advice was to only use digitals on easy jobs like workers compensation or minor fender-bender cases. They went so far as to tell the audience to have a steno on standby on the phone if it was a more serious deposition or likely to rush order. In short, these people had no idea what they were talking about. We have been using digital reporters since 2010. Our digitals make up 90 percent of our workforce and they take every type of deposition, hearing, and trial on a daily basis. We produce about a million pages of transcripts a year from digital reporters. They can do everything a stenographer can do except real time, if properly implemented. If you don’t fully embrace digital then you are telling your clients that it is a second-tier service and they are unlikely to ever fully embrace it. When the steno shortage becomes acute, these people will be left trying to explain to their clients why they should now fully switch over to a service they previously sold as inferior. All firms should get rid of labels and simply call everyone “court reporters.”
Runfola: I have a unique perspective on this because I made the conversion from steno to digital reporting 20 years ago. We decided to say nothing to the attorneys. It took a couple of weeks to realize anything was different, believe it or not. When someone finally noticed, we just said, “this is the new state-of-the-art technology, we are just ahead of the curve again.” There has been virtually no resistance from attorneys: Truth is, they just don’t care! Except when they are goaded by their reporter friends. The biggest challenge is the bad-mouthing that will occur from steno competitors and their allies, including perhaps your own steno reporters.
Block: Reporting firms must assure the clients that the traditional level of service shall be sustained with the introduction of this new technology. The reporting company must consistently demonstrate their sincerity in that regard by assigning only skilled digital reporters to cover work, if possible a Certified Electronic Reporter, and publicizing that to the client base.
DiLorenzo: I have the advantage of knowing this answer already, at least for our agency, and, as expected, it was just a matter of making an investment into training and education of our digital reporters. If the digitals are trained well and educated on the history of the profession, their role today, as well as the expectations of attorneys and law firms, they are well equipped on their own to answer questions or concerns by attorneys on the job. Like a steno or voice reporter, if doing their job well, digital reporters can ensure the client of an accurate, verbatim record.
If you’re a 25-year-old steno reporter, recently emerged from court reporting school, what does the future hold for you?
DiLorenzo: I should have the requisite skills to start my career with a focus on continued learning and skill development while keeping a close eye on emerging technology and how it plays a role in advancing my offering and enhancing the services that I deliver. Unlike the generation before me who 35 years later has an inadequate supply of professionals who can deliver advanced real-time skills, it will be necessary for me to adapt much more quickly than my predecessors. I’ve got a great future ahead if I’m focused on life-long learning, adapting to technology, and improving the service that I deliver to my clients.
Parker: If I’m writing in real time, the demand for my services is great, and I am getting paid generously for my talent. My CAT software has automatic speech recognition built into its software, so whenever I have dropped some words or something did not translate correctly, the ASR fills in the gap or corrects the untranslated speech. This greatly decreases my time in production, which allows me to be in the field or remotely reporting proceedings.
Block: The future never has been brighter for shorthand reporters. While they will have to share the stage with other methodologies for preserving the record, shorthand has proven itself time and again to be a versatile and reliable process. The shortage of skilled shorthand reporters is the very reason for courts adopting digital reporting, not the superiority of digital reporting.
McDonner: Assuming you learn how to do real time, the future holds giant piles of money. It’s simple supply and demand. If the 25-year-old does not learn how to do real time, they don’t possess any skill beyond that of a digital reporter who can be trained in a matter of months instead of years. There simply will not be a need for them beyond the attorneys who arbitrarily prefer stenos.
Runfola: They are secure for about 10 more years, likely. After that they would be smart to convert to a high-volume, voice-to-print practice, hiring others to be on-site digital reporters and cottage-industry transcribers using state-of-the-art ASR technology or whatever the new technologies are at that time. They will not be able to compete in a price competitive marketplace with old technology and an old skillset. It would be like Gregg and Pittman writers trying to compete with CAT and real time.
With an 80 percent graduation rate and a skill set that can equal steno in most or all ways, why hasn’t voice writing taken off over the past two decades? And do you think it will now given the steno shortage?
Block: Voice writing has existed in one form or another since World War II. One of the greatest mistakes NSRA/NCRA leadership made was its approach to voice writing as an existential threat to shorthand reporting rather than as simply another methodology. Voice writing has long provided a substantial percentage of reporters doing legislative reporting, but that might change with digital reporting spreading across the industry. I think the window for a large-scale expansion of voice writing has largely closed, but voice writing is not going away.
Parker: Many consumers – as petty as this may seem – find the stenomask off putting. Voice writing done remotely becomes indistinguishable from a steno reporter. They both deliver a real-time stream.
Runfola: Short answer: No standardized training or industry standards. The technology is a bit obnoxious to some in its use. No state and national civil rules recognizing them on a level playing field with steno reporters. Today they have the same problem as steno reporters, their training cycle is too long and they appear to be a dead-end skill and technology.
DiLorenzo: Unfortunately, voice writing really never had a chance to make a big impact in our industry, and for a number of reasons. One, in certain areas of the country, the steno community regulated them out of business, refusing to acknowledge them as peers, at least not until they were forced to do so when digital entered the picture, too little too late. Two, the NVRA didn’t have the resources to effect change in these areas. Three, schools moved too late to include voice writing into their programs. Four, NCRA, well positioned decades ago to represent “court reporting” and not “stenography,” lacked the leadership to educate its members and ensure that they were not where they are today, an association that is no longer seen as the authority on making the record and will continue to dwindle in membership just as their influence in the industry has. And for all these reasons, it was clear to me at least a decade ago that voice writing would never gain the traction necessary and would be passed over for digital.
McDonner: Because it is off-putting. The equipment looks weird and it makes people uncomfortable.
Audio recording has existed in a courtroom setting for decades. What do you think are the biggest lessons that firms on the deposition/freelance side of the business should pull from its use in courtrooms?
McDonner: My home state pushed stenographers out of the courtrooms over 20 years ago and went completely digital. The biggest problem has been that very little training was given to court clerks regarding equipment operation. Instead, most of the courtrooms are wired to simply always be “on” and the mics that are closest to the speaker turn on while the others automatically turn off. This led to absolutely horrible audio quality. Digitals need to use quality, multi-channel devices and actively monitor the audio. The other problem we encounter, and I say this as someone who practiced law in these courtrooms, is an audio recording from a previous day of trial is almost useless when you are trying to prepare for the next day of trial. You need a transcript. It is imperative that you have a transcription and proofing team available at all times that can break audio into pieces and churn out transcripts rapidly. If you can’t produce digital transcripts as quickly as you can stenographic transcripts, you are going to have lots of problems.
Runfola: The biggest lesson is that the courtroom use of audio/digital in courtrooms has been instituted, managed, and championed by people from outside the reporting profession; therefore, they have been less than stellar in making it work like it should. New court reporting techniques should be ushered in by industry experts with skills and knowledge within the industry, not from those uneducated in the art of verbatim reporting. That’s why the performance is so disparate when used by industry professionals as opposed from court administrators and others not intimately acquainted with the industry.
DiLorenzo: Unmonitored audio recording in a courtroom is vastly different than a digital reporter in charge of the record either in the courtroom or on the deposition/freelance side. Those who attempt to discredit digital reporting are gathering news stories of unmonitored audio recording failures in the hopes of making their case to an unsuspecting attorney or law firm. When, in reality, they’re comparing apples to orange – or, aptly, a steno reporter without an audio backup as opposed to one with. Some do so willfully; others are just ignorant of the technology. Firm owners will discover that training the next generation of court reporters, while a substantial investment of time and money, is just a matter of learning the technology and training a new workforce to do the job that (stenographers) did.
Parker: Audio recording is an effective method of capture of proceedings of many types. This method of capture is best used in cases that do not require an immediate transcript, or in cases where the testimony is brief. Depositions that last less than two hours are not as desirable to reporters, so this is a great place to deploy digital recording.
Block: Even should Project Steno and other programs that address the shortage of shorthand reporters have a relatively high degree of success, it is clear that there shall remain a large unfilled gap between the supply and demand for reporters, and as in the courts, digital reporting shall fill the gap, but unlike the courts, they should never fall into the trap of not having a skilled digital reporter in place and should utilize only the best microphones and other equipment.
The year is 2039. What is the state of the speech-to-text industry within a legal setting? (ratio of steno/digital/voice in deposition space? Is there cross-technology certification? What role is ASR playing?)
Parker: Twenty years from now, complex litigation will still require real-time translation and expedient delivery of verbatim transcripts. ASR has improved exponentially, and now real-time translation occurs using software and a real-time editor. ASR is incorporated into all computer-aided transcription software, whether it is voice or steno. Certification of editors will be the certification of the day. There will still be some steno and some voice writers, but largely ASR will rule the speech-to-text marketplace. There will still be a need for those who are skilled in producing and filing transcripts in accordance with rules of civil or criminal or appellate procedure. This is where firms should focus their transitions from here to there.
McDonner: I believe that the average age of stenographers currently practicing is in the 50-55 range, maybe higher. Add 20 years. They will all be retired. Schools are closing and we are not replacing those who retire. Math suggests that stenographers will be the minority of court reporters. Digital will be the dominant reporting method as long as agencies don’t tarnish its reputation by implementing it incompetently. I am not a fan of certification for two reasons. The market is the best judge of whether a court reporter is competent. If you cannot generate verbatim transcripts in a timely manner then you will go out of business. Two, most certifications just say that at a certain point in time you were able to type at a certain speed. Who cares? Some of the worst reporters I have ever worked with were RPRs. The absolute best real-time writer I ever worked with had no certifications. I had to beg her to get certified. She correctly believed it was a waste of money.
Runfola: By 2039 the industry will be nearly 100 percent digital/ASR – or some other yet-to-be-discovered technology. There will be no need for cross-technology certification. Stenos will be gone from the scene entirely. ASR will truly be refined by then, and the next advance will be unmonitored digital/ASR real-time that is nearly letter-perfect without the need for skilled monitors – although some human will still be involved in some way. All records will be audio/video/text based and synced.
Block: There are three distinct questions within this question. I have not seen the outcome of any study that attempted to address the ratio of the various reporting methodologies in the deposition space. I would estimate that it is at least 70 to 80 percent stenographic, the rest split between other methods. Cross-technology certification is certainly possible as applied to most elements of a written-knowledge test, but possibly not so much on the skills portion of the certification. A minority of transcribers utilize automated speech recognition. ASR translation accuracy varies. On broadcast-quality audio, it is good to excellent. On normal recorded audio it is all over the board. It is not yet nearly as accurate or nimble as a skilled shorthand reporter or real-time captioner.
DiLorenzo: Unless and until steno schools completely revamp the curriculum that has been in place for far too long, I suspect that the number of steno reporters might resemble the number of pen writers we see today. Court reporters will talk about the “olden days” when stenos would need to get everything down on the first pass, weren’t permitted to go back and listen again, and the vast majority never made it into the profession. When asked, “Well, they had audio back then, didn’t they?” “Yes, they did, but they weren’t permitted to use modern technology and, as a result, steno just went away.” In 2039, the record will be captured by digital, or newer, technology, delivered in real time through use of automatic speech recognition, finalized by trained editors. If there is any certification at all, it may be on the end product, how closely the final text matches the audio.