WORD FOR WORD
In two dingy rooms of the Barrister Building on Grant Street, a handful of well-educated, well-versed and digitally dexterous Denverites owe their jobs to O.J. Simpson. They aren't lawyers, journalists or even T-shirt hawkers. They're not making history, they're recording it. All night, all day.
The television-transcription firm Journal Graphics Inc. has become part of what the Wall Street Journal calls the O.J. "Gross Domestic Product," an industry born of the Simpson case that is approaching $200 million.
You've probably seen the name Journal Graphics before, flashed on your television screen, offering transcripts of everything from Bill Moyers to Sally Jessy Raphael. Its founder and majority owner, James Smith, started television transcription in 1979 with nothing but the absolute certainty that he could do the job of transcribing television shows better than what was then the industry standard. And he was right. It used to take weeks to get a transcript, but now, for enough money, you can get an electronic, computer-searchable transcript of, say, ABC's Nightline just hours after airtime.
In 1991 Smith moved the company from New York to his hometown of Denver and bought outright the building his company inhabits for what his annual rent cost in the Big Apple. Now he's reaping the O.J. whirlwind.
Marjorie Bryer, newsroom manager, figures the company has added about five full-time transcribers and expanded the hours of others since the Simpson trial began. And they're still advertising for more. The transcription office hums through three shifts 24 hours a day, putting out printed and electronic records of everything from National Public Radio's Morning Edition to ABC's Special Reports. But the biggest job by far is the O.J. trial.
Keeping up with Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Shapiro is no easy feat. Especially when hundreds of paying customers are counting on you not to miss a word, turn a phrase or twist a sentence. The programs are taped, summarized and headlined, and a list of speakers is attached. Then each tape goes to a transcriber, who starts the painstaking process of translating audio to printed word. Bryer says that the time it takes to transcribe "real time" varies, depending on the typing speed of the transcriber, the subject being discussed, and whether the speaker has an accent or a speech impediment. She's already bracing for the DNA-testimony phase of the O.J. trial, when expert witnesses undoubtedly will flood Journal Graphics' transcribers with scientific jargon.
For trial addicts who think it would be fun to get paid between $9 and $10 an hour to listen to the trial and type what they hear, good luck. There's a test that goes with the application process, and Bryer says it's none too easy to pass. She explains that it's important that transcribers know what's going on in the world so that they have a context with which to start their transcription. And she means business when it comes to current events. The written exam includes a gamut of questions running from easy--who is the vice president of the United States?--to not so easy: Who are the leaders of the Nation of Islam, the PLO and Haiti? (The latter was a three-parter that included a query as to the reasons behind the Haitian migration.) It's not surprising to find that Bryer's staff includes a Ph.D. and an M.F.A. She herself is a former teaching fellow at Harvard who holds a master's in European history.
All that brainpower isn't being wasted on mere trial addicts. According to Charles Selcer, the company's director of sales, "lots of people associated with the O.J. case" have called for transcripts because Journal Graphics is faster than the official court reporter's output. So a defense attorney looking to pick apart the prosecutor's morning statements need only wait until 5 p.m. to get a word-for-word transcript with which to do battle. The afternoon's arguments take a little longer, but not much. Bryer says the trial's entire day is usually transcribed well before midnight.
And the transcripts are available in all shapes and sizes. Selcer peddles them by the hour ($10), by the day ($35), by the segment (cost depends on the length), by the person testifying or--for the most dedicated fan--a six-month subscription for $1,795. Journal Graphics also has the ability to do sophisticated searches finding, for instance, the number of times the word "nigger" was repeated in testimony (Selcer had a request for that particular search three times in the course of as many weeks). Representatives of the Isotoner company called for a segment where the notorious "bloody glove" was discussed. One customer buys just one trial day a week--for what reason, Selcer isn't sure.
Unbelievable as it may seem, there have been more popular transcripts than the O.J. Simpson trial. Both Selcer and Bryer point to one Donahue show in which a chemist had figured out the secret behind a number of popular, commercial recipes like Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's Big Mac's special sauce and Wendy's chili. A recent ABC special on Down syndrome also was quite popular. But the O.J. spectacle, as Selcer points out, "is an ongoing saga."
For Journal Graphics, at least, that's good news.
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