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Easier transcribing

HOW TO get those spoken words into a text file? What transcription hacks do we know? And, for younger, readers, what is shorthand? These questions came before LFB's September meeting.

Lizzy Millar and Angus Batey

Speakers Lizzy Millar and Angus Batey

Lizzy Millar is a freelance minute-taker, reporter and shorthand tutor for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and through - and she opened by pointing to Branch co-secretary Nick Renaud-Komiya: "I taught him shorthand". How did it go?

"In a former life," Nick responded, "I was a staff reporter at the Health Service Journal. I had done some courses... Lizzy came in to give us some tuition on practical applications. Shorthand has proven incredibly useful. It's a skill that you need to keep alive - not that I manage to practise an hour a week. It never runs out of batteries, for a start." As Lizzy says, "You don't need to carry any kit."

Lizzy observed that the people on her courses are students on NCTJ courses, people fed up with transcribing recordings and those who might want to pass through airports and security checks. In this era of mass digital surveillance, one advantage of shorthand "on paper rather that in electronic form" is that it can't be hacked or intercepted.

Academic studies demonstrate that when you write by hand you absorb more of the meaning. You can edit shorthand on the page with a highlighter. If you're transcribing you have to get everything down and then edit. And have you ever met anyone who's regretted learning a new language or an instrument?

Lizzy understands there is a place for transcription. She would recommend a recording as a backup - especially if you're reporting a long meeting. But technology can let you down. She recalls a time when someone tapping nervously on the table wrecked an audio recording.

Angus Batey has "never learned shorthand and I've been doing this for 30 years". He is a music journalist who has now moved to cover defence. He long ago decided he needed complete transcripts. But transcription is the bane of your life. In his work, an interview of two hours is not uncommon.

Recently, he's been working on a magazine that appears daily during major air shows, reporting on conferences he'd have to write up for the next day. An editor suggested Angus try an online transcription service called to save time (but see below).

The editor would pay for the service: "it would free me up to be more productive... and save him quite a bit of cash overall." That cost is US$1 a minute - within 24 hours you get a Word document. The human transcribers "get" technical acronyms and arcane business terms.

Occasionally they make mistakes, but if they know they're not sure about something they put a note in with a timecode reference to the recording. In advance of the next airshow, Angus had to do 30 interviews in a month, so he negotiated with his editor to "split the cost of the transcription service so I can free up time". He was able to do at least twice as much work, and added that, "I am not a lawyer but I'd say that's a cast-iron example of a tax-deductible expense."

There are much cheaper services that use machine-learning to do transcription untouched by human hand. That from costs US$0.10 a minute. Its accuracy is "not that great" but it's turned around 10 to 15 minutes and useful for "quick news reports, such as in my case, Boeing's update on its woes with the 737 Max plane".

  • Soon after we posted this report of Angus Batey mentioning his use of transcription service Andrew Draper (@nordicandrew on Twitter) alerted us to the company's unilateral one-third cut in the rate it pays human transcribers. See here for what happened next.