When David Bowie’s hit “Changes” hit the charts in 1972, there’s no way he or we could foresee exactly what ch-ch-ch-changes were coming our way. From the papyrus of Egyptian scriveners to the wax tablets of Roman record writers to the feathered fountain pens of sermon preservationists, court reporters have morphed their way through time, always rolling with the changes. (I had to throw in a tribute to any REO Speedwagon fans.) And we’re not even finished yet with our trip through time. In 1912 we moved from pen to steno machine. And keep in mind this was 24 years before Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” depicting society being overrun by machines. So court reporters, via the brainchild of Ireland Stone, were ahead of the times. Amazingly, as we moved down the court reporting timeline, some brainiacs were able to marry 1912 intelligence with computer intelligence, and we moved into the age of computer-aided transcription, CAT for short. That was the new buzzword in the 1970s.
Now, for all non-reporters and the court reporters who never worked with papyrus, wax tablets, fountain pens, or typewriters and carbon paper, please take a little trip back in time to the court reporter’s daily grind after taking the deposition…without AudioSync. And after this trip, newer reporters might just hug your laptop.
However, before our little trip back in time, I must share that my first reporting employer, Sid Gantverg, dubbed “The Flying Fingers,” actually was a pen writer, and I had the privilege of accompanying him on a couple of assignments to watch him perform his art. His tools? A top-bound spiral-bound note pad and trusty pen…and a cigar. As his pen flew from line to line, cigar tucked into the corner of his mouth, he would simultaneously with his left hand slide the paper up so that he would seamlessly move onto the next sheet. So after the first page, all the sheets were only written on the bottom half. That was artwork, truly something to behold.
I think back to all the laborious hardcopy processes that filled our day-to-day lives as court reporters: using paper notes with our steno machines, reading off of those notes into a Dictaphone/Stenorette, working with carbon paper between sheets of transcript paper, and having to make proofreading corrections one letter at a time by rolling each sheet back into the typewriter after erasing the typo and artistically covering it with white chalk and having to line that correction up vertically so that it fell not only correctly on the line but also horizontally so that the letter fit right within the word that needed correction. Sometimes two letters needed to be fit in the spot where only one letter had been (i.e., red should be read) so we had another typewriter with a smaller pitch so you could squeeze two letters into the space of one. If you didn’t line it up correctly, pull it back out of the typewriter and start over: eraser, chalk, line it up; wash, rinse, repeat. I can still hear the gears of the typewriter platen as I yank it back out with hurried irritation.
If you were a young court reporter, you usually had the joy of being assigned the worst typist in the office, and they could give you four or five corrections on a page sometimes. Imagine putting out a rush transcript 200 pages long with a correction on virtually every page, maybe two or three corrections on every page: erase the mistake, cover it with chalk, wipe away the excess, put it back into the typewriter, line it up vertically and horizontally. Wash, rinse, repeat. And if you were lucky enough to sell two copies, that means each correction needed to be done three times. You would tear the perforated tab away from the bottom of the sheets, removing the two sheets of carbon paper, and make your corrections on each page. Therefore, if you had a 200-page transcript with an average of one correction per page, 200 corrections, and you sold two copies, you would have to do that correction process 600 times!
And doing daily copy this way……wow! Fortunately, or unfortunately, I only worked on a couple of dailies before moving to computers, which is challenging enough.
Of course, technology has made our job easier, and reporters who missed all that fun of the earlier days might find it difficult to even comprehend living the process with its tedium and stress. However, new ways bring new stress: realtime reporting, what is comically yet realistically sometimes referred to as writing naked. Truth be told, a good percentage of reporters probably would prefer to write literally naked than have their writing instantaneously appear on the screen. Everyone, court reporter or not, knows the uncomfortable feeling of typing under pressure while someone is standing over their shoulder, ready to correct each misstroke, having their fingers getting tied up and feeling flustered. And realtime reporters do that at 250 words per minute or more.
For all the changes that technology brings, the bottom line remains the same: the need for a highly skilled court reporter to create an enduring and accurate record.
So to finish with another ‘70s reference, if we thought 2020 brought challenging changes to the way reporting firms handle business and depositions are being taken, the ch-ch-ch-changes in reporting over the course of history remind me of the Coneheads’ response to Dan Aykroyd‘s reference to man’s “space travel“: astronauts to the moon? Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha.
The only thing constant in life is change, and we keep rolling with them.