The year was 1994 and I was two years into my work as a marketing specialist at the National Court Reporters Association. I had just written a letter that would mail to NCRA members. The direct mail would solicit donations for the association’s political action committee. At the time, NCRA was vociferously opposing what it saw as infringement by audio recording in federal courtrooms.
The first key to any good direct mail package was to get the reader to open the envelope. Envelope teaser copy was vital. It had to be edgy and it was best if it could begin to invoke the emotions that would compel the recipient to pull out his or her checkbook.
So, in 72-point, bright-red type across the top of the envelope, we printed the following:
“Stop audio and video in their tracks!”
While I have a vivid recollection of the teaser copy, I don’t remember the contents of the letter the envelope carried. But it’s not hard to imagine. I’m sure it played to the fears of stenographers losing their jobs to audio and video recording while suggesting the infringement upon stenography would severely impact the legal system – the degradation of analog tapes, the inability of “tape recorders” to interrupt proceedings, and the miscarriages of justice that inevitably would ensue when transcripts later could not be generated from inaudible recordings.
I left NCRA the following year and returned 14 years later. This was 2009 and the association was embroiled in a bitter dispute that began with the mere suggestion by its board that NCRA should talk about opening membership to those using non-stenographic technologies to capture the record. The battle lines that I’d participated in drawing 15 years earlier were still conspicuously in place.
What also hadn’t changed was the rhetoric about non-stenographic technologies, which ignored at least two crucial realities: first, that digital recording technology had leapt forward in its capabilities; and, second, that the number of stenographic court reporters was declining dramatically. Indeed, part of the reason that NCRA had lightly touched the possibility of opening its membership was because it saw its membership decline significantly over the previous ten years.
Fast forward another ten years and market forces are in the process of re-defining the industry. The artificial divisions that previously have delineated the industry by the technology used to capture the record are evaporating before our eyes. Certainly, the marketplace acknowledgment of the capabilities of audio and video recording and voice writing is a major reason for the industry disruption. But the continued, steep decline in the population of stenographers has compelled court reporting firms, suppliers, and schools to align their business models with marketplace reality. The shortage of stenographers that NCRA’s Ducker Report calculated would lead to a gap between supply and demand of 5,500 by 2018 (last year), by our calculations will grow to 11,345 by 2023 and to 18,447 by 2028.
To be clear, the spirited and inspiring stenographer recruitment efforts should continue. Likewise, if you’re a stenographer of any age, you’re going to find yourself in strong demand, always. But collectively as an industry we must accept the reality that filling the marketplace gap of stenographers that will be more than 11,000 in four short years would require more than 110,000 new stenography students based on a generous overall 10 percent graduation rate. In the meantime, on average, more than 1,100 stenographers will retire each year while no more than 200 emerge from schools as reporters.
So, what’s the answer? There is no single answer, but all answers will involve acknowledgement that the industry has changed and will continue to do so. Filling the gap of 11,000 court reporters and otherwise orienting the industry and the consumers of speech-to-text services to the new marketplace dynamics will require a collaborative effort that crosses business function, technologies, and the corresponding organizations who represent each. In other words, we need schools, firms, suppliers, and practitioners engaged with stenography, digital recording, video, and voice writing working together.
And no one should feel that they are abandoning their colleagues, the organizations to which they have allegiance, or the technology/method that has been theirs in order to take part in this collaboration. Everyone will be needed to establish the standards and community that will help us to do what is necessary to protect the integrity of the legal record.
That is the purpose of the Speech to Text Institute and the rationale for why we are forming this new organization. Indeed, the days of writing envelope teaser copy may have passed us by, but if I were writing teaser copy to introduce prospective members to STTI, it would say this: “Help us redefine an industry … together.”