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The Word Is Out

The behind-the-scenes skirmish over transcripts for the bombing trials.

One of the most notable restrictions on the Oklahoma City bombing case, which has also been applied to the current civil case against O.J. Simpson, is the ban on live coverage inside the courtroom. But the indomitable spirit of capitalism, combined with the insatiable appetite of the press, has proved once again that where there's a will (and a buck to be made), there's a way.

Pubnetics, a local software company that produces public programs on the Internet and on CD-ROM, has joined in the fray over the only remaining direct access to the trial--the court reporter's official transcript.

Initially, the press requested that tape recordings of the proceedings, which Judge Richard Matsch is using solely for back-up purposes, be made available for purchase. However, defendant Terry Nichols filed a motion opposing the media's petition and Matsch agreed, prohibiting release of the tapes. This left the official transcript as the only bona fide source of word-by-word coverage. And that caused the trial's court reporter to start looking for an agent.

Marty Steinberg, president of Pubnetics, came upon this unique opportunity when approached by the court reporter. "Without the TV access, we both realized that there was going to be a tremendous demand for word-by-word transcripts," says Steinberg. "The court reporter in the first Simpson case tried to market her transcripts, but it didn't work because [Denver-based] Journal Graphics had people doing live transcription and could offer the same transcripts for much cheaper. But now there's no way to do what Journal Graphics did."

What Pubnetics wants to do is represent the court reporter as an agent, helping him distribute as many copies of his transcript as possible. The court reporter, Paul Zuckerman, would get a set amount per page, and Pubnetics would charge a service fee for electronic delivery of the transcript and for the company's software, which Steinberg claims would help the press wade through the dense documents.

Zuckerman declines comment, citing a gag order from Judge Matsch. But Jim Manspeaker, clerk of the U.S. District Court, explains, "Transcripts are the property of the court as the official public record of the proceedings, but they can also be marketed by the individual court reporter." The going rate for transcripts is $1 per page, and considering that each day there will be between 350 and 400 pages published, Zuckerman stands to make a killing. When asked if this juicy assignment was luck or manipulation on the court reporter's part, Manspeaker says it was neither. "Paul Zuckerman has twenty years' experience as a court reporter, and he was assigned to this case when the trial moved to Denver. The court reporter is a major part of the system, and any financial gain that they make off a case has been outlined by the Judicial Conference of the United States."

"The court," says Steinberg, "looks at the court reporter as an entrepreneur, so the focus for Zuckerman now has become how to market his transcripts to the public and the media so that he can maximize distribution." Steinberg's proposed system would work like this: After each day's proceedings wrap up, Zuckerman would turn in his transcripts for final approval. After that, he would hand them over to Pubnetics, which would scan them into its software system. The advantage of the Pubnetics software, says Steinberg, is that through various high-speed search capabilities, journalists could locate specific parts of the testimony, establish links between days, create a table of contents and identify patterns that emerge as the trial goes on--all in a timely enough manner that the reporters can make their deadlines.

Pubnetics also has plans to release a CD-ROM at the end of each week that would include all the transcripts from that week along with other up-to-date case information. Pubnetics plans to offer daily, weekly and monthly service options. Steinberg has already pitched his service to the media pool and says that the interest has been "phenomenal." However, two problems remain.

First of all, Steinberg says, the court is going over every aspect of this case with a fine-toothed comb, holding up his negotiations with Zuckerman. "It basically is a formality which is holding up final approval" of a deal between Zuckerman and Pubnetics, he says. "But I'm still very confident that we'll be working with Paul."

However, Zuckerman is still entertaining offers from other companies that want to market his transcripts. It appears that Pubnetics' main competition comes from Virginia's Net Court. Net Court, which is currently marketing the transcripts from the Simpson civil trial to various media outlets, contends that it is in an ideal position to distribute Zuckerman's transcripts. "My company is in the spotlight right now [with the Simpson case]," says Net Court president Scott Huesby. "We have established media contacts, so it would be to Paul's advantage to go with us."

As Judge Matsch ponders the fine points of transcription release, Pubnetics and Net Court continue to woo Zuckerman. But that's not the only sticking point. Mike Palmer, operations manager at the local CBS affiliate, KCNC-TV/ Channel 4, has qualms about signing up for a service like the one Pubnetics wants to provide. "It's a very nice service," admits Palmer, "but the cost, as well as the three- to four-hour delay between the hard copy and the electronic delivery makes it difficult for us to use. Plus, for TV, the story of the day will have to be someone talking, and we need sound bites for that, not a printed transcript." Another reason Palmer's station probably won't subscribe to the service is that if the trial ends for the day at 3:30 p.m., he wouldn't be able to wait for the transcripts, as it would mean missing the station's early newscasts. "The service just doesn't fit our business model," he says, "but I could definitely see the network [CBS] signing up." Mitch Jelniker at KMGH-TV/ Channel 7 echoes Palmer, saying the service would cost too much for the use that his station could get out of it. In his presentation to the media pool, Steinberg listed service charges of $44 daily and $650 monthly, plus $95 for the weekly CD-ROM, all of which is on top of the dollar per page that Zuckerman gets.

"This is a unique situation," says Steinberg. "There are a lot of people trying to get into transcripts right now, because there's quite of bit of money to be made.

 
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