by Jamie S. Blair
It was on one fateful afternoon during an internet outage at my then-home office in Crown Heights that I received what would be a pivotal “now hiring” notification from Indeed.com. As a full-time New York State Notary Public, I was loving what I did: Mostly general mobile notary work and real estate loan signings. While feeling very fortunate to be in the position I was in, I also realized that I was not yet at the point where I could make a living on just those two streams of income. I had tweaked my Indeed profile settings to alert me whenever an opportunity arose involving work for anyone with a notary commission. As a driven yet realistic entrepreneur, I knew that the more diverse my set of offerings was in the notary public world, the better my chance of reaping rewards in the long run.
I noticed the internet router was not sending a WiFi signal to my laptop. My only connection to the “internet of things” was via my smartphone’s data and if a work offer came through, I had no excuse not to respond, even if doing so on my phone was a major pain in the rear as opposed to my comfortable and convenient laptop keyboard. Such was the case, on this day, with a work offer that appeared from a San Diego-based company known as StoryCloud.
Founded in December of 2013, StoryCloud was a startup venture that had promised to bring the court reporting industry into the 21st century. Co-founder Ken Kalb, an NYU film school graduate and entrepreneur, had a robust RAP of noble accomplishments, from founding technology and SEO-focused businesses to owning five distinct patents related to internet and content creation. Upon learning the history of this seemingly remarkable individual, it only stood to reason that I would embark on this opportunity to expand my notarial capabilities into yet another market segment of the legal world.
The job description for digital reporter (DR) involved a form of capturing the record for legal depositions, a line of work for which machine-shorthand stenographers had been sought-after for decades. But why did StoryCloud wish to hire a notary? As with stenography, it is best practice to have the DR be an actively commissioned notary. This way, they can conveniently swear in anyone who is about to give testimony (and an interpreter when applicable). For any deposition taking place in New York State, this would be no problem. For those depositions that took place in another state and for which I would be the reporter, StoryCloud would have a notary for that state hop on at the beginning of the proceedings to swear in the witness via remote means.
Beginning in June and up through August of 2021, I had several lengthy Zoom meetings and training sessions prior to actually working as a digital reporter. The sessions were meticulously organized; there was a checklist schedule complete with modules divided into weekly sessions. There was hands-on paid training with the provided equipment, which amounted to an innovative setup incorporating a laptop that handled the deposition tagging software connected to an iPad which captured a backup of the entire audio session and a bi- and omnidirectional microphone which sought to ensure the best possible audio quality. I would be using my own laptop to log in to the actual depositions, whether shadowing or actually being the reporter.
This marriage of machine learning and AI was, in the eyes of its inventors, the catalyst for bringing the art of capturing the record into the modern era. One distinct function of the iPad was to provide a real-time transcription of the speakers attending the depo. If the reporter needed to perform a readback of a question and/or answer, it was supposed to be a near-instantaneous means of backtracking without the need for playing back a segment of the audio in which one or more persons were “tagged” on the audio file.
Going on or off the record was as easy as pushing the corresponding button on the capturing software. Exhibits could be “marked” on the audio file by pressing the appropriate buttons. Although advanced, the real-time automatic transcription was at best crude and at worst hilarious – whatever source the iPad was drawing from to recreate the record in written form was certainly nothing on the level of Amazon Web Services. Be that as it may, this feature existed to merely aid in assembling the final transcript, which was to be done by a team of transcribers whose location was, to this day, a mystery to me.
After passing all of the training requirements and being told to “consider myself certified”, I was ready to get down to business. For each deposition I reported on, there would always be a “monitor”, i.e. someone behind the scenes who could jump in and assist on a technical issue or back me up if, say, either a taking attorney or opposing counsel had an issue with the arrangements. Having someone in my corner like this proved to be useful; there was more than one time when one of the attorneys attending the depo would be “surprised” that there was not a traditional shorthand stenographer – remote or otherwise – to capture the record using the old-fashioned method. I can even recall one such instance where opposing counsel who was not a StoryCloud client put up such an obstructionist stance over the fact that there was a DR taking the record and not a traditional steno that the managing director of StoryCloud had to jump in and appease this disgruntled attorney, assuring her that it was in no way violating any stipulations or civil practice.
For the most part, things went well, and at a pace that allowed me to both handle the assignments given to me from StoryCloud and balance an ever-increasing influx of general notary work and loan signings. In fact, business was growing at such a brisk pace that I was becoming fearful of losing business by committing too much time to digital court reporting. As someone who was accustomed to the fine art of running a company, however, I understood the importance of cash flow equilibrium: By keeping these three as my main sources of income, I would have general notary work that paid right away, StoryCloud as my exclusive DR client that paid every two weeks, and loan signing work that paid (on average) every 30-45 days. It was a well-oiled business model, complimented in such a rewarding way by my company making a name for itself by receiving nothing but 5-star reviews for my exemplary mobile notary reputation. Life was good.
I did my best to return missed calls from potential general notary work (GNW) clients during depo breaks and whenever there was an extended pause for lunch. I was fortunate enough to have other mobile notary colleagues in the general area, a last-resort option if for any reason my deposition schedule forbade me from leaving my home office to meet with someone in need.
Communication amongst StoryCloud personnel was second to none – Skype chats were plentiful, whether for swapping notes on technical issues during a deposition or just for general discussions. There would even be “all-hands” meetings for all reporters, monitors, videographers, scheduling, and main staff, taking place generally once every couple of months. Here was a forum to discuss procedures, whether our system could use improvement, and any suggestions for pretty much anything. StoryCloud seemed like it was heading in the right direction. It felt as though more and more clients would hop on to their way of doing things. The future was now, and it seemed pretty bright.
Then the actual future set in: Sometime in February of 2022, I noticed there was a significant slowdown in depositions being offered to me. I had been taking depos mostly in the New York/New Jersey area and had gotten used to cancellations being an occasional thing. At this point, they were becoming more frequent. Then there was a dearth of work altogether. Other aspects of my notary business were holding steady, but nothing along the lines of sustainable income on those services alone. I actually had to remind the higher-ups that I was not only happy to take depositions outside of NY if they were available, but also open to being trained as a monitor if DR work was in that much of a decline. I was assured that StoryCloud was on the verge of acquiring a few new clients who would be providing a ton of personal injury case work within the next couple of weeks, and to hang tight.
Enter March 25, 2022 – a day that shall live in legal infamy. Sometime in the early afternoon, Ken Kalb, the CEO himself, called a mandatory emergency all-hands meeting. The first thought that ran through my mind was: Who could have unexpectedly died? Alternatively, was this really good news that all of us needed to know straight away? Like the prospect of the company going public and we could all be involved in some kind of stock option situation?
As it turned out, none of the above was true. In fact, quite the worst possible news for everyone in attendance. Right then and there, with all those present who tuned in via Zoom, Kenny-boy laid it out for us, warts and all: Effective immediately, StoryCloud was ceasing operations and shutting down.
That was it. No severance, not even a two-week notice so everyone affected could have time to undertake whatever stop-gap measures were necessary. We were collectively blindsided. Moments after Ken uttered these words, the chat board was overflowing with questions from so many admittedly shocked participants. Will we get paid on outstanding depo jobs? What happens with the equipment? Why did this even happen? Why no notice until now?
Through a thinly-disguised veil of acting as if he had any sympathy, Ken gave us the lynchpin for this whole turn of events: The investors had grown weary of seeing StoryCloud face yearly losses and decided to pull out. That’s it. There had been absolutely zero transparency about this developing situation, and at a staggering level. There was no money left. Well, no “sustainable” money; we had been, after all, promised compensation for the work we had all done in our respective positions. The most embarrassing part of all this? Just weeks before the bad news bomb had been dropped on all of us like a criminal trial triple-life sentence, I had seriously considered approaching Ken to inquire about what it would take to be an investor in his company.
To paraphrase Paul Simon: Hello FOMO, my old friend.
In the ensuing weeks, I would come to learn that this was not the most accurate summation of the story: Further research on my part – including a profusion of information brought to light by my friend Christopher Day over at the court reporting industry blog Stenonymous – revealed documentation involving lawsuits alleging that Storycloud had misclassified themselves as “court reporters” in the states of Texas and Washington, where only traditional machine shorthand stenographers could be deemed to have that moniker. Just how many depositions were reported on in those locations by StoryCloud? We may never know. It was only after the whistle was blown on them in those jurisdictions did their legal team approach Kenny Boy and insist that the company be shut down; otherwise, they could stand to face millions of dollars in cumulative misdemeanor fines.
How do you like that? So convinced was I that digital reporting was the wave of the near future that I bought right into the long-term idea of StoryCloud. I was all-in, hook, line, and sinker – on dry land. Concurrent with my research into legal retaliation, I found myself doing deep dives into the tragic stories of companies such as Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia, in what I can only describe in hindsight as a pathetic attempt to identify with those poor souls who were victims of a multi-billion dollar company mismanagement fiasco. My efforts to be at the helm of a class-action lawsuit against StoryCloud proved futile as no law firm that was versed in the machinations of such actions would touch the case with a ten-foot microphone: There were too many affected people spanning too many jurisdictions in order to solidify proof of a common negative result capable of producing any significant damage reward. It would simply not be worth any firm’s time. We were victims without bellwether trial voices.
So what happened next? All of the DR agencies that had gotten wind of StoryCloud’s sudden demise came out of the woodwork, ready to entice newly-out-of-work reporters with the exciting new opportunities that were waiting for them – one such company had supposedly “bought up” StoryCloud’s remaining assets! It was manna from heaven for these agencies, as many of them had offers of employment prepared whilst others were content to offer 1099 opportunities (sans equipment, of course). As there was a newly-established high supply of digital reporters, these agencies wasted no time in bringing low-ball hourly employment rates to the table, with the incentive of a possible eventual raise provided that the aspiring reporter become a member of the American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers (AAERT) and pass certification as either an electronic reporter or transcriptionist, depending upon how the individual was to be hired.
Of particular interest was just how quickly all the heavy hitters in the DR world found out about StoryCloud’s crash and burn. Of continuing interest will be whether or not other established DR agencies end up following the same trajectory as StoryCloud. To my knowledge, the majority of my former StoryCloud colleagues have found seemingly solid footing in the aftermath of the company’s fallout: Many have secured employment with other DR agencies, or have even experienced a career path pivot and found something new altogether. I am happy for them and of course, wish upon them only the most successful combination of skill and fortune as modern life will allow. As for me? I continue to offer top-quality mobile notary and apostille solutions while simultaneously adding new services and expanding my reach to as wide of a client base in New York State as is humanly possible, for as many hours in a given week as I can muster.
There’s no self-doubt that I’ve adopted a healthy outlook and moved on from the StoryCloud debacle. I can’t help, however, but be amazed that I actually convinced myself I was living the dream of applying my talents and ambition to work in the same industry as stenographic reporters but with only a fraction of the required training and practice that push stenographers into the category of what I consider “supernatural tradespeople” who command my respect and admiration. I have to admit that I see life differently with each new internet outage.
As George Carlin once said, there’s a reason why they call it the American “dream”: You have to be asleep to believe it.