The “Long Tail” of the Looming Court Reporter Shortage

There’s been a shortage of stenographic court reporters as of late. While a shrinking supply of stenographers might create real opportunities for qualified industry professionals, court jurisdictions will feel more pain as the shortage deepens. Though many court administrators express little concern, and respond to this comments with, “As the shortage gets worse, we will just expand the use of digital recording, so we are in good shape.” Unfortunately, things are not that simple.

Written transcripts remain the standard and preferred form of the official record. Of course, quality transcripts can be produced from digital recordings, but the management of the process to create a consistently accurate and timely transcript from digital recordings is quite different from the stenographic court reporter’s workflow. Trial court administrators who need accurate written transcripts for appeal, and appellate court administrators expecting timely transcripts, need to understand the deeper implications of this growing court reporter shortage.

Traditionally, court reporters have an odd employment relationship with the court. Not only can they collect a salary as an employee, but they also can earn additional income by producing and selling transcripts. This was a good relationship for decades. The courts received a valuable resource for a salary far lower than the skill level indicated, and hard-working court reporters could make good incomes by supplementing with transcript sales. When tape recorders were introduced in the 1970s, court reporters didn’t like it, but nobody was going to fight too hard for low-level courts with little or no transcript income opportunity.

The 1990s, however, brought digital recording, and courts began to move electronic recording into higher-level courts. Court reporters tried to fight it, but by then, the decline in NCRA membership and overall stenographer populations had begun. Qualified stenographers were migrating to courtrooms with the highest transcript demand. Court administration supported this migration, since it reduced pressure from attorneys and judges who supported traditional reporters.

In 2004, Chris Anderson, in a Wired magazine article, introduced us to the concept of a “Long Tail”. The theory states that economies will shift away from a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of a demand curve toward a huge number of niches in the tail. Huh?

An over simplification of the theory might be the old 80/20 rule – 80% of X is produced by 20% of Y. And what, exactly, does this have to do with the court reporter shortage? Let’s start with Chris Anderson’s long tail graph, an inverse power curve for you mathematicians out there:


As courts implemented electronic recording and later digital recording, it created a perfect long-tail. Eighty percent of courtroom proceedings are being recorded electronically, but those courts produce only 20% of the demand for transcript – the tail. At the head of the curve, 20% of the recordings are still produced via stenographic reporting and represent 80% of transcript demand.

The 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook Report written by Ducker Worldwide points out that currently, an adequate number of stenographic reporters exists to service the head of the curve, although there may well be some regional points of pain. However, the report goes on to say that: “Decreased enrollment and graduation rates for court reporters, combined with significant retirement rates, will create by 2018 a critical shortfall projected to represent nearly 5,500 court reporting positions.”

The looming shortage will now impact the head of the curve. If you have already implemented digital recording in your courts, the next stage of this transition will be very different. If you have begun to design and implement new rules and processes to accommodate increased transcript demand from digital recording, good for you. But there is much more to do. If you have not begun to address this new reality, now is the time to do so. You best not wait until the crisis is upon you.