Dear fellow dinosaurs, there's hope

HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF Norma Miller , a 55-year-old mother, appreciated the adoration from techy youths who flocked to her at the OpenNews conference.
HELEN UBIÑAS / DAILY NEWS STAFF Norma Miller , a 55-year-old mother, appreciated the adoration from techy youths who flocked to her at the OpenNews conference.
Posted: August 13, 2014

THIS ONE GOES OUT to all the dinosaurs out there. And you know who you are, you musty mail carriers, you fusty farmers, you lumbering lumberjacks and yeah, you too, you neglected newspaper reporters. Or so says the labor studies that track the doomed in quickly disappearing jobs.

It takes a dinosaur to know a dinosaur. So when this newspaper dino spotted an "old school" stenographer at a "new school" technology journalism conference last month, I got curious.

And when I saw the rock-star reception Norma Miller and her fellow stenographers were getting at the conference put on by Knight-Mozilla's OpenNews project, I did what any terrestrial facing extinction would: I tracked her down in hopes of gleaning some survival tips.

But first I had to wait my turn behind a line of young, hip coders and developers who couldn't get enough of the 55-year-old mother from Vermont. Miller and two other stenographers' live transcriptions were linked to a live-stream page where attendees could follow every word as it was spoken. The tech-savvy were hooked.

When they weren't crowded around the stenographers, attendees took to Twitter to shower the stenographers with love: "Stenographers are the kings of #srccon [source conference]," tweeted Russell Heimlich.

"Coolest talk I've heard today was probably the 10-minute conversation I had with one of the stenographers. Blew my mind," tweeted Ryan Murphy.

"Omg y'all, the stenographers are the stars of #srccon," tweeted Laurie Skelly. "Everything old is new again."

From your lips to God's ears, you data scientist you.

No offense, I told Miller when I finally edged a fanboy out of the way to get to her, but what is the deal? I would have expected some young, hip hacker or coder to be the star of the conference. And shouldn't there be an app for this?

The bubbly Miller laughed. Turns out she was just as surprised as anyone at her unexpected popularity among a group closer to her daughter's age.

Usually, she said, stenographers are the invisible record keepers, part of the woodwork. Another stenographer, Stanley Sakai, said they often have to beg for an extension cord.

And yet there they were at the Chemical Heritage Foundation on Chestnut Street, owning the joint. They were applauded. They were admired. They were high-fived - a lot. Attendees wanted to chat, and check out their machines. They wanted to know how fast they typed. Miller is certified for 240 words per minute, but she often does closer to 300 or more in bursts.

If you told Miller she'd one day be the belle of a tech conference, she would have said you were nuts. After putting in 25 years in the courts, she saw the writing on the wall. Her profession was being pushed out in favor of cheaper methods and technology. It still is. A 2011 BBC News article asked: Is stenography a dying art?

By the early 1990s Miller started looking for other opportunities. She landed a "Cinderella" gig at the BBC as a television captioner. Since 2007 she's been doing real-time transcription for deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals in classrooms. She's gotten seven doctors through medical school, she proudly says.

This was her first tech conference. And while a colleague assured her she'd be in friendly territory - coders get us, she said - Miller wasn't sure what to expect. Certainly not the celebrity reception she got.

"I'm just basking in the glow," said Miller, who owns White Coat Captioning.

Dan Sinker heads OpenNews. He had a theory.

"I think that people who like to build things on computers like to understand systems," Sinker said. "And so they are fascinated when they are suddenly faced with a system they don't understand. . . . And then I think there is just the hypnotic gratification of immediately seeing what you're saying. "

Inviting the stenographers was Erika Owens' idea, after the program manager for the project heard other people raving about them at another conference.

"I think it makes the accessibility visible," she said. "And that gets people thinking about other places where this should happen."

Before we parted ways, I had one more question for Miller. Dinosaur to dinosaur, I said, any advice for the doomed?

She smiled the smile of the knowing.

"We could have died out as dinosaurs and many of my colleagues did," she said. But, she laughed, "some of us are cockroaches and we've reinvented ourselves and made ourselves even better. It's taken some time for people to see the value . . . but it's happening."

Viva dinosaurs!


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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