As a journalist trained in the 1990s, automated transcription was—pardon the cliché—a game-changer. After losing days (weeks, months?) of my life to manual transcribing and battling with sub-par speech-to-text apps, I discovered the web-based service Otter.ai in 2018. Otter happens to be most journalists’ and writers’ favorite transcription tool, and with good reason.
With an easy-to-use interface, Otter comes a range of subscription plans to suit individuals or teams, businesses or educational settings, and even large enterprises. It has mobile apps and a Chrome extension; live transcription and captioning; meeting summaries; and Zoom, Dropbox, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams integrations. As a hard science reporter, I find the AI summaries pretty useless, but they might be helpful to other people. Despite Otter’s performance, however, I’m on the lookout for an alternative.
Decent quality transcripts in minutes
Otter has consistently featured on “best” lists for years, but as its popularity has soared, the company has continually restricted features on its plans. For example, there is a so-called free plan with 300 monthly transcription minutes. But as you are only allowed three free imports in total (it was three per month previously), the monthly quota is cosmetic. Their Pro plan, at $100 annually, used to have a generous 6,000 minutes allowance, but it was cut down to 1,200 minutes and ten uploads a month in October 2022.
With my Otter Pro plan running out later this year, I need other options. So I spoke with colleagues to find out which transcription tools they use. Journalist and author Chanté Griffin, who writes about race, culture, and faith for magazines and newspapers, uses transcription not just for interviews but also for her voice notes. Her go-to option is Rev, a service that provides automated transcription as well as access to freelance transcribers.
Rev’s $30/month subscription includes 1,200 minutes of automated transcription and claims 90% accuracy. Human transcription costs $1.50 per minute. “Human transcribers tend to be more accurate, and they can understand nuanced language and names,” Griffin says. “I also like knowing that I’m contributing to someone’s wages.”
Jackie Lam, a personal finance writer who also dabbles in profiles and reviews, has tried many transcription tools. She currently uses Happy Scribe: “The first thing I really enjoy about using transcription services is the speed. The second is the cost.” She got a deal where she has 120 minutes of free transcription time a month, which rolls over. Then, if she wants more minutes, she buys credits, which cost $0.20/minute. For human transcribers, Happy Scribe charges $2.25/minute.
My search for an Otter alternative also prompted me to take a new app for a test run—Parrot.ai. I found the transcription quality decent—on par with Otter—but the interface was somewhat fiddly. However, I would expect that to change soon, as it’s still very new. Parrot also has a free plan with 600 minutes per month and unlimited workspaces, making it a great option for newbies and anyone with budget restrictions. It also has Zoom, Slack, and Google integrations.
The other free option I checked out was Pinpoint, part of Google’s Journalist Studio. It is essentially a tool to analyze large collections of documents, including PDFs, emails, audio and video, images, and so on. Aimed at researchers, investigative journalists, and fact-checkers, Pinpoint has a very basic transcription tool—it turns audio into a time-stamped PDF, which is editable—but no other bells and whistles.
A reality check on machine transcription tools
But while automated transcription is super-fast and cheap, it comes with a huge caveat—privacy, as journalist Phelim Kine found to his horror. Dozens of automated transcription tools are available with great features and pricing, so it is easy to forget that there is no guarantee of privacy. In fact, with generative AIs being trained on text from the web, there is no knowing whether any of our transcriptions have ever been used as training data for, say, ChatGPT. The only way to ensure privacy, therefore, is to use a freelance transcriber hired independently.
The other disadvantage of automated transcription is that it only guarantees 80% to 90% accuracy. While that may seem sufficient, a tiny error could completely change the context. Lam recalls an embarrassing situation when an editor flagged an error in a figure that had crept in during the transcription: “The number was completely off—I think it was a difference between 30 million versus 30 billion or some such.” Yikes.
Griffin takes the words from my mouth when she says, “I absolutely hate to transcribe interviews… Paying for transcription services has saved my professional life and enabled me to focus on what I do best—write.”
The advantages of human transcribers
Sometimes, depending on the complexity of the subject or the requirements, automated transcription won’t cut it. If there are multiple languages—which often happens to me when, as an Indian speaking to other Indians, we often lapse into bilingual speech—regional accents, or a niche subject matter, human transcribers are your best bet. If you need accuracy, only a human being can provide that.
There is also the matter of supporting fellow professionals. “Although I enjoy the quickness of automatic transcription, I love to support human labor,” says Griffin. “This is why I work with a woman-owned business when I want human transcription instead of using a service like Rev that employs workers.”
Writers are not the only people who need transcription. Researchers, students, teachers, paralegals, court reporters, content strategists, filmmakers, entrepreneurs—the endless list—also use the services. If you need speed or are on a budget, try Parrot or Otter. If you have some cash to spare, your options increase to monthly or pay-as-you-go subscriptions of Otter, Rev, Trint, Temi, Happy Scribe, and dozens of others. If you need privacy, deadly accuracy and specialized knowledge—or you just want to support a fellow freelancer—a human transcriber is the way to go.