This is going to increase my journalistic output (and time that I can spend on the beach) exponentially.
ASTORIA, NYC- Writing is a game of volume. It is also a game of speed. The more you write, the faster you publish, the more stories you can cover and, ultimately, the more money you can make.
If it takes you two weeks to write a simple story you’re not going to make it far in this business. You need to be able to publish blog posts daily, articles multiple times per week, bi-monthly features, and, if you so endeavor, a book every year or two. To do all of this you need to have an extremely streamlined process and use tools sharp enough to cut off the fat.
I’ve always known that there was always a major chokepoint in my work flow: transcription. I’d do all kinds of interviews but then it would take me three, four, sometimes five hours just to transcribe them. As I’m sometimes doing five+ interviews per week, transcribing in and of itself became a part-time job.
Unfortunately, I’ve never had this much time. I have hard drives full of incredible interviews that I simply never typed out into a word doc — which is to say, they were wasted. Especially as I was traveling nearly perpetually back then, I just couldn’t justify sitting for hours and hours inside with headphones on when so much was going on outside my door. Every time I did manual transcription on the road it feel like some weird form of torture.
So I’ve always been looking for a way to fix this by hiring someone else to do it — tried that once and it didn’t really work out so well — or using a transcription program.
It has always been a dream of mine to find a transcription program that was smart enough to be able to accurately non-native English speakers in situations where there could be background noise. I dabbled in them, and the results were kind of humorous — as in, not good.
Then I kind of forgot about it for a while but then had some lengthy video interviews that I needed to quickly process to add into a documentary that was almost finished. I didn’t want to put an entire day into transcription, so I returned to looking for a program that could do it for me. Maybe the technology has improved?
Apparently, it had.
I found a YouTube video from a filmmaker who was demonstrating how he transcribes his interviews with this program called Simon Says. He showed how he just uploaded the files, pushed a button, and in a few minutes had a transcript with timestamps that also included a function to import it directly into his editing program (Davinci Resolve). This import function almost made my jaw drop, as it would mean that segments of the transcript wouldn’t only be matched to the proper place in the video but could be used to automatically create subtitles. It was something that I didn’t think possible.
So I tried it. Or I should say, tested it.
I dug out an old interview that I did in 2016 with a Polish guy who wasn’t a native English speaker as we were riding in a car around the dry ports and logistics centers of Malaszewicze on the border of Poland and Belarus. To top this off, I made the recording with just an iPhone without any additional audio equipment. The quality of the recording was not good, to say the least, and I struggled to make out what the guy was saying and transcribing it manually would have been challenging and time consuming. So I uploaded it to Simon Says thinking it would just output some gibberish.
But it didn’t. It actually nailed it.
I reviewed the transcription by listening to the recording while a cursor on the screen goes over the words. In this mode you can easily correct errors or make the text more readable (cut out the ums, etc). I followed the cursor down the page and watched as it interpreted mumbles and grunts and mispronunciations as actually words … and only found a few minor imperfections.
What I felt in that moment was akin to watching a magician perform a trick right in front of you as a kid. I saw it but just couldn’t believe it …
It worked, and it instantly became a part of my work flow for both videos and writing.
The only downside of Simon Says is that it is not free. There are two main payment options: either you pay $15 per transcription hour or subscribe. There are various plans: $180 a year for 24 hours of transcription / additional hours for $7.50/ hr, $400 a year for 48 hours of transcribing / $6.50 for additional hours, or $1,500 a year for 360 hours of transcription / $4 per additional hour.
I have to admit that these prices stopped me short for a moment … I hesitated, looked at other options, but then thought about all the time it would save me, how it would integrate with my video editing program, and how much more content I would be able to publish (i.e. how much more money I would be able to make), and it was no longer much of a decision.
*Note, 4/17/23: Simons Says also has a translate feature. So you can record people speaking in other languages, transcribe them, and then translate them into English. There is also a desktop version.