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Presentation by Marty Block @ 2019 Executive Forum

Tuesday, April 9, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Maria Tannen
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The Choices You Will Make

Good morning to all. I am delighted to be here.

Verbatim reporting will change more in the next 5 years than it has in the last 100 years! AAERT President, Geoff Hunt, has correctly identified this period as our industry undergoing a Paradigm Shift.

Today is the “Someday” that people in our industry have talked about for more than 30 years…

It is a time of rapid change;

It is a time of new technology;

It is a time of new paradigms and new methods.

It is a time when we must change our thinking and redirect our focus.

In 1989, when I was installed as the President of the National Court Reporters Association, I addressed the members at the Annual Convention telling them, if the railroads only realized they were in the transportation industry instead of the railroad business, where would they be today?

It is no secret that today that I tell my colleagues if we only realize we are in the verbatim text industry and not the shorthand reporting business look at where we can be tomorrow.


To those of you recovering from the winter's ravages welcome to the Sunshine State of Florida. We have an expression down here: If you do not like the weather at any moment just give it an hour and it will change.

I grew up in a tenement neighborhood in Da Bronx not very far or different from the setting for the play and movie, "A Bronx Tale, and like its central character, who we first meet as an eight-year-old boy growing up in the wonderful Italian-American neighborhood on Arthur Avenue, I grew to learn that “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent and the choices that you make will shape your life forever."

After spending some time wasting my undefined talent at Long Island University, I attended shorthand reporting school and upon graduation, I began a 40-year career as a shorthand reporter and eventually business owner.

After a stint as a freelance reporter, I became an official reporter in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, where I met a very different breed of shorthand reporters, some of the last of the Gregg and Pittman reporters, men and women who set a high standard for comportment and excellence.

As I watched these manual shorthand writers gradually exit the business through retirement and attrition, to be replaced by stenomachine reporters, it did not occur to me to reflect on the impermanence of systems nor to recognize that the day would come when for the very same reasons that the manual shorthand writers were fading into history, technological advances, availability, and commoditization, so would stenomachine writers someday begin to fade into history.

By the early 1970s, a new technology, computerization, began to take hold with court reporters, both official reporters, and freelance. While I foresaw it as permanently changing court reporting, I did not understand that it also represented a step towards the further commoditization of the reporting business. Computer-aided transcription would play a vital role in extending the viability of shorthand reporting and also prove to be the springboard for new opportunities.

In 1981 I served as a consultant and then later as an employee at the National Captioning Institute, in Falls Church, Virginia, where we were developing real-time closed captioning. I became history's first on-air real-time captioner when we used the technology to close-caption the spontaneous portions of the 1982 Academy Awards Presentation, on ABC. On October 11, 1982, I captioned the first regularly scheduled news program, the ABC Evening News, which is now the longest continually running real-time captioned program on television.

Initially, the only computer-aided transcription system capable of producing real-time closed-captions relied on a universal dictionary and one disadvantage is you were never certain what was in the dictionary.

The afternoon of December 20, 1982, I learned that the renown pianist Arthur Rubinstein had passed away at age 95 so I made certain that piano and pianist, would translate correctly, knowing that Rubinstein's death would be a lead story. I was mindful that there was one trap waiting for me; the word "pianist" was awfully close to another word.

Rubinstein's was a long, but colorful life, that began as a child prodigy in Czarist Russia. The anchor Max Robinson had a limited time slot, and with great rapidity began, "World renown pianist Arthur Rubinstein passed away today at the age of 95, in Geneva, Switzerland." As the word, "pianist" was left in the dust I realized I misstroked it. That evening the deaf audience learned that a world renown penis was dead. There was no escape once sent off to the encoder. It was as though I was tied to a railroad track and a train was bearing down on me. I just had to keep plowing along and hope not too many people would notice the horrendous blooper.

Fortunately, while the story focused on Rubinstein's piano virtuosity the anchor spent more time on his many affairs with Europe's most elegant women, because this great virtuoso of the piano was also a master in another art. I was saved. Not one complaint.

In life and in business nobody can predict every possible outcome. Life is a series of interacting events. You can prepare and you can think you have all the answers and most often things will turn out fine. But on occasion, they will turn out to be a disaster. You best be flexible if you want to both survive and prosper.

Following several wonderful years at NCI, I returned to the freelance reporting world and formed a reporting company, in Washington, DC. Almost simultaneously, Joe Karlovits, Ed Fulesday, and I formed the company that would someday grow into the giant of the closed-captioning sector of our industry, VITAC.

Block Reporting began as a traditional shorthand reporting freelance company largely covering depositions and occasional court hearings utilizing shorthand reporters. Over time our range of services expanded and we morphed into a company that, like others in the Washington, DC market, utilized the services of shorthand reporters, voice writers, videographers, and transcribers.

In 1984 I was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Shorthand Reporters Association, beginning my service during the presidency of one of the most remarkable leaders I have encountered, the late Raymond F. DeSimone. Ray exemplified the philosophy that you either lead or get out of the way. He led and continued to lead the industry through massive changes for the balance of his career.

It was during the years of Ray's leadership through the early 1990s that NSRA grew to its greatest membership and influence, during an era when the organization was viewed as an engine of change and adaptability.

Raymond understood before most others that commoditization was coming to the reporting business and that major consumers of reporting services, such as the insurers, viewed the industry differently than traditional consumers such as attorneys. The transcript and any ancillary services, in their view, was no different when purchased from one supplier as from another, though some managed the process with greater efficiency.

From the viewpoint of the major consumers, particularly the insurers, the only critical element that differed among suppliers was the cost of the service. The singular goal of these major consumers of reporting services was to achieve the lowest price point for the services rendered. They were largely unconcerned how that was accomplished.

In 1989, as the newly installed President of NCRA, I asked a question of the members of that organization, "Who are we and what are about?"

I emphasized that change is a constant within the universe and that it was impacting society at an ever-increasing pace, and that each change creates many other changes. Technologies are born virtually obsolete.

I further stated that to merely survive was unacceptable. That remains a fact 30 years later. Your business must do more than merely survive. It must grow and prosper, and to do so you must control and manage your industry as you individually and collectively define it. There is no standing still. Either you grow your business or you shrink, and shrinking is unthinkable.

The companies you represent are each a part of what I prefer to refer to as the "verbatim text industry."

Identifying your industry is the key to controlling the scope of what the industry and your company is and what it can become. You may make it as broad or narrow as you desire, but finding a balance between where you are and where you want to be is going to help you decide which technologies you need to incorporate to take advantage of the opportunities that shall present themselves.

What the industry will someday look like and just who among the current players are to be the masters or holders of the keys to the gateway into that future has yet to be revealed, but hopefully, your company shall be there.

Each of your companies has an opportunity to play an expanding role in the future of the verbatim text industry provided you fashion your business to address the future in an unbiased and objective fashion. Getting it right is mandatory if your company is to grow its role within this evolving and expanding industry. How you respond to the challenges now will be critical to shaping your business model in the coming years. "The choices that you make will shape your life forever.”

It was the failure of the shorthand reporting community and particularly the leadership of NCRA to objectively comprehend and adjust to the changes impacting the industry wherein they held a dominant position for so many years that was the reason why they have come to be viewed by those who are the decision-makers in the courts as the unyielding defenders of the status quo in the face of the clear-cut evidence of broad changes that are impacting their industry, the nation, and world.

Like an ostrich, they continue to bury their heads in the sand. NCRA Past President and educator, Dr. William Oliver, has often reminded us that those who bury their heads in the sand forget that a big vulnerable target remains to stick up.

One key to success in any endeavor is not to repeat the failures of the past. It is not by mere coincidence that a great many court systems moved from shorthand reporting to digital reporting of the proceedings. It is not because a shorthand reporter cannot produce an excellent transcript of a juridical proceeding.

There is epistemological evidence that the juridical environment changed simultaneously with economic, educational and technological changes, which combined to bring new pressures upon and opportunities to court systems.

Two significant factors, above all others, motivated many court administrators to make the move from shorthand reporters to digital reporting, either partially or completely: availability and cost control. It became blatantly apparent, supported by the outcome of NCRA's own published studies, that stenotype reporters were becoming an endangered species, just as occurred with their manual shorthand predecessors, at the same time that digital reporting technologies became available and had overcome many of the disadvantages inherent in earlier analog technologies.

Additionally, when installed court administrators were convinced that digital reporting would gradually reduce the impact that preserving the record of proceedings had on court budgets.

To utilize digital reporting in a traditional courtroom required some fundamental changes in the basic concepts and practices that existed for a century, what Thomas Kuhn defined as a paradigm shift.

The gains by digital reporting in court systems have expedited the movement of the aging population of shorthand official reporters either into retirement or into the freelance industry, where shorthand reporters remain dominant, though still in short supply, even with the influx of former official reporters.

The duties of the stenographic court reporter in the digital courtroom have been supplanted by a digital reporter, whose responsibilities include ensuring that the proceedings are being clearly recorded and to produce a log that serves the needs of a future transcriber should a transcript be ordered. Digital reporters should -- and sometimes they do -- fulfill those duties, but oftentimes they do not.

While there are courts in the United States and elsewhere where one person monitors multiple courts simultaneously or where there is no digital reporter, I am of the firm opinion that every digital reporting system should be monitored individually by a trained digital reporter, and even better, one who possesses AAERT certification.

It is in the ownership of the transcript where there has been a noticeable change. In courts copies of the digital audio record are now made available from the Clerk of Court. Transcription is generally performed at the expense of the party requesting it, by a transcription service that often is approved by the court. The transcriptionists or transcribers are frequently at-home workers, just as transcribers working for shorthand reporters have largely been for years. In fact, often they might be the same individuals. Many are AAERT Certified Electronic Transcribers or CET®s.

Where a weakness exists in digital reporting in the courthouse is not at the front end. Unlike a shorthand reporter or voice writer, the digital reporter's role largely ends when the recording ends. The digital court reporter often bears no role in the production of a transcript and does not have to certify the transcript. As a result, unless the digital court reporter is particularly diligent and responsible, they have no stake in the quality of the recording or in the thoroughness of the log they maintain, and it shows in the quality of the audio in many of the files that end up in the transcription queue.

This should never be the case with digital freelance reporters. It is critical that you, as a business person, place the burden of responsibility for the quality of the deposition transcript produced by digital audio recording on the digital court reporter. It will become doubly important when you utilize automated speech recognition as a tool in the transcription process.

In 2013 the National Court Reporters Association published the results of a study by Drucker Worldwide and publicized the fact that with an average age for shorthand reporters estimated to be 56, retirements and other factors were resulting in far more people exiting the industry than entering it. By 2018 there would be a shortage of approximately 5,500 shorthand reporters.

There remain fewer than 30 NCRA Approved Training Programs in North America, far less than once existed, of which four are not accepting new students -- I assume they are going to eliminate the program after the last student either graduates or drops out of the course. Only one program is being taught in a school that issues a four-year undergraduate degree. Approximately eight programs are either distance learning or offer distance learning along with onsite programs.

It takes most students between two and four years to develop their shorthand skills to the level where they can pass the NCRA Registered Professional Reporter examination. Historically, the dropout rate from shorthand reporting programs is in the area of approximately 90 to 95%, a fact that is hardly a secret, meaning that to fill those 5,500 empty positions within two to four years would require upwards of over 100,000 or more students, something that is not quite as likely as a snowstorm in Key West.

How many of you have children who you encouraged to enroll in shorthand reporting school rather than attend a university in pursuit of a baccalaureate degree?

It is obvious that if your reporting company is looking to service your current book of business and hopefully grow that you cannot do so should you continue to rely exclusively on shorthand reporters. Voice writers are an option, but they are not exactly pouring into the market at an adequate rate to fill the demand.

Even if you are looking to simply tread water it is unlikely you shall be able to do so long term if you rely on shorthand reporting and voice writers. The resources are simply not there and there is very little likelihood they shall ever again be.

Digital reporting provides you with a fairly simple and reliable solution that gives your company the opportunity to continue to grow your business by incorporating it into your company's operations along with your existing shorthand reporters and voice writers, but alas, you are unsure of how your current reporters might react.

As somebody who owned a reporting company for many years, I can sympathize with your concern, but I also know that it can be managed. In Washington, DC there are reporting firms that utilized multiple methods of reporting very successfully for many years because the reporters were confident and secure in their positions.

Change is a constant in our society. But more significant than change itself is our expectations and acceptance of change. A person who casually utilizes digital audio every day of their life, particularly those under 40 years of age, expects this reliable technology to be the standard for recording legal proceedings, whether in a courtroom or deposition suite. Little wonder they might question why someone in 2019 would be tapping keys on a bizarre little machine to record the proceedings.

A paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions. Henry Ford was probably the most successful person in the history of the automobile world not because Ford Motor Company built the most luxurious, fastest, or best quality automobile, but rather because Ford figured out how to build a vehicle that fulfilled the needs of the broadest range of consumers and then reproduce it en masse at the lowest cost.

Henry Ford caused a paradigm shift in manufacturing when he invented the assembly line, thereby shortening the time it took his company to build a vehicle which reduced the per-vehicle manufacturing cost and allowed Ford to make a small profit on each of an awful lot of Model Ts.

This past February the Deposition Reporters Association of California held their three-day annual conference in Santa Barbara, attended by three NCRA Board Members where the agenda included a session devoted to the future impact of technology on deposition reporting. When the conference degenerated into an anti-digital reporting demonstration Jade King, a well-known shorthand reporter who currently covers the Asian market from Hong Kong, told those in attendance, “In Australia, I have worked side by side with digital reporters since the 1990s. If you folks do not learn to work with digitals and other technology, you will be rolled over.”

Just as once existed with voice writing, the latest boogieman instilled by NCRA in the minds of many shorthand reporters is digital reporting, and the fact that some courts have in a few instances replaced shorthand reporters while installing digital reporting has encouraged that fear. What NCRA fails to tell its members is that there are many freelance companies and courts where shorthand reporters, voice writers, and digital reporters are all working together just fine, just as manual shorthand reporters and stenotypists did.

As managers, your first obligation is always to your company and its owners or shareholders, and within that framework, you owe an obligation to your customers and staff. Before incorporating new technology such as digital reporting make your customers aware that due to a growing shortage of shorthand reporters you are incorporating a new reporting technology that shall afford you the ability to continue to seamlessly service their account.

It is important that you make your staff comfortable with any new reporting technology that your company incorporates. Reassure them there is nothing to fear and that their position is secure well into the future, but be honest and explain that that for all to prosper it is critical that you must always be able to service your customers and that can no longer be accomplished by relying exclusively on the shrinking supply shorthand reporters.

I want to turn now to where I see the future of the verbatim text industry -- your company's future.

Transcripts are now being produced every day by digital reporters and transcribers using automated speech recognition and then scoping or editing the first pass. Just as with CAT, to get the most out of ASR you need quality input or audio. ASR represents a major transition for your industry. However, to maximize the effectiveness of ASR we return again to the importance of a high-quality recording of the deposition.

Cloud computing that utilizes ASR and digital audio and/or video can now provide a time-coded real-time translated deposition.

We are now on the threshold of the 5G evolution which promises to be truly game-changing. 5G will be a truly transformative technology, enabling new services, businesses, and opportunities, while ultimately reaching over one trillion connected devices.

The future 5G network will lead to a ten-fold increase in connectivity, a ten-fold lowering of latency, and 100 times faster speeds compared to current technology. The 5G roll-out is predicted to lead to trillions of dollars being invested into the global economy and millions of jobs being created. The massive, super-fast connectivity of 5G will mean a substantial increase in the economy of scale, massive innovations such as smart cities, smart homes, and smart agriculture.

Everything will have the potential to be connected once 5G is deployed and with the near-zero latency of 5G, the boundaries of industry shall be extended beyond imagination. Anyone who does not believe 5G computing shall absolutely revolutionize the verbatim text industry as never before is delusional.

I said at my opening that the industry will change more in the next 5 years than it has in the last 100. A Paradigm Shift is underway in the verbatim text industry, and as a result, you shall share many additional mutual issues.

AAERT, NCRA, and NVRA each strive to address and represent their members, but who is representing the unique interests of the businesses that are vested as stakeholders in the verbatim text industry?

NCRA and NVRA have exhibited little interest in the success or failure of your companies beyond advertising in their publications and exhibiting at their conferences. NCRA recently canceled its Corporate Sponsorship Program and ten days ago formed a task force to campaign to challenge your right to use digital reporting, positioning itself in direct opposition to the interests of your companies.

AAERT has a broader model for membership than NCRA or NVRA, which includes membership categories for corporations and sole proprietorships, and vendor membership for service or goods providers, but AAERT is primarily concerned with the training and certification of digital reporters and transcriptionists and their needs -- which is as it should be.

I ask you again, who is representing your interests, the interests of the various businesses that are vested as stakeholders in the verbatim text industry?

Just about every industry has a trade group funded primarily by the businesses in that particular industry, organizations whose primary purpose is to establish guidelines and provide learning tools for companies within the industry to help transition it into a vastly changing world while serving as an external voice on behalf of the industry. The businesses work together to help solve problems and come up with solutions to industry-related issues.

Now is the moment to recognize that there exists as never before a need for an association of companies vested into the verbatim text industry. It could be as broad in scope as the founding members decide, but it seems natural that it would initially include the companies that currently provide verbatim reporting services to the legal, communications, and other industries, as well as hardware and software providers and other suppliers to the industry.

A verbatim text industry association would provide the means for the industry to take a stand from a position of greater influence on issues affecting its member companies. In so doing, it could play a critical role in tearing down the walls existing between methodologies of reporting that serve as anathema to your businesses. It will strengthen the industry, improve communications across the industry, identify common issues, and provide a flexible tool to protect and defend the industry's interests.

By acknowledging a greater view of the industry in which you share a mutual interest you will collectively direct and control the expansion of that industry and share a mutual concern for its well-being. In so doing all shall share a stake in the immense opportunities for growth, security, and greater success and wealth.

It gives birth to an entity that will not serve as a limited guild-like builder of walls restraining the industry, but rather one that will expedite its expansion far beyond its current boundaries and help guide its transition into an exciting and opportunity-rich future.

The future is very bright for the verbatim text industry. Digital reporting and automated speech recognition represent a solution to the shortage of shorthand reporters and voice writers and a pathway to expanded opportunities.

Again, I do not mean to diminish the importance or capabilities of any of the methods for preserving the verbatim record. They all can perform the functions they are designed to perform very well.

There is no logical reason why shorthand reporters, voice writers, and digital reporters cannot work side-by-side in the same courthouse or reporting firm.

Our companies and our mutual industry can no longer tolerate the practitioners of any one technology discrediting the other technologies purely to advance their own self-interest. The courts will not long tolerate it nor shall our customers. We are one industry with shared values and a common history -- yes, a common history.

There are those among us who fear change, question change, are unwilling to change. I say to you that we cannot fear. We must push forward and conquer our fear. We must be the masters of our fate. We must control our industry, the verbatim text industry, or others will come in and assume control.

Our industry has evolved many times over and shall evolve again. Technologies come, technologies evolve into new forms, technologies disappear, but our dedication to perfection in the verbatim record must never be abandoned because that is our mutual lodestone.

We can learn to adapt, to manage change, to accept differences, and to pass on to future practitioners of verbatim reporting the great traditions of professionalism and excellence that have earmarked those who came before us and ourselves.

I believe, as deeply as I have ever believed, in my very heart of hearts, that our industry has a great destiny and that together we can put aside our differences and fulfill our destiny.

Remember, "The choices that you make will shape your life forever.”

That is why you are here this day and that is my message to you.

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