Pandemic Publishing Roundtable – Shifting from deals to training, FIPP offers value to publishers

By Linda Ruth (Cross Posted at BoSacks.com)

Our Pandemic Publishing Roundtable—Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Joe Berger, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me–welcomed James Hewes of FIPP to talk about the diversification of publishing strategies, the fate of events, and the roaring twenties, touching on Samir and Bo’s tendency to agree or disagree along the way. FIPP is global a trade association for companies, as James put it, “formerly known as magazine companies”. Founded in France in 1925, and seen as one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious membership associations, FIPP has grown over its century of existence to include media owners and content creators from around the world.  

Joe: How has the pandemic affected FIPP? 

James: Five years ago the main reason people joined FIPP was to do cross-border publishing deals. Leading up to the pandemic and accelerated in pandemic the shift has been to learning. We added new services, including a training business and a consulting business; for example, we just started a five-module course on digital subscriptions, which is free to members. We’re not for profit, and we add the commercial bit to keep costs down for members. The networking part is more bespoke, where we facilitate meetings and conversations cross borders. 

Joe: Several major publishing associations have closed down or merged with others. Why is that? 

James: It’s been a trend for years, that these associations are no longer supported by the industry. The member companies are changing, the needs of their members changing. Also so much of the critical legislative stuff that they used to do is now pan-national. There are some issues that still need addressing; for example, we should have more concerted effort in the regulation of the big tech companies. But the ability of publishing associations at the local level to have impact has dropped. It’s less about postal regulations today, and more about Facebook and Google. In some cases the associations have stayed relevant by narrowing their focus to legislative; in a way it’s a shame. Publishers have left their old homes, and in many cases haven’t found new ones.

 Bo: Agreed. It used to be that magazine business models were consistent company to company and across borders. Now no two magazines have same the business model. 

Joe: On the level of city and state magazines there still is a lot of similarity; but outside that, we do see many different approaches. 

Samir: The survival of our associations depends on the big media companies; and we’re seeing a lot of smaller independent publishers coming into the market. I just got 12 first editions from the UK. What is being done to include them? 

James: That’s an accurate observation. The boom in independent publishing is happening everywhere around the world. The legacy publishers are also starting to adopt the tactics of the independents—lower frequencies, higher prices, higher pagination, higher quality.  Which is great, it’s lifting the whole market. We work with the independents; we give them preferential rates; we help them learn. We put in place a paywall on the site, so instead of paying thousands of pounds to join smaller publishers can access it via the paywall to learn. Those publishers are still part of the FIPP family and we work with them and help them; we get them to speak at our events, to share their knowledge and successes. We involve them, but the fragmenting market makes it a good way for them to participate, through the site. 

Linda: A lot of the reason publishers have fallen away has to do with shrinking budgets. 

James: We’re focused on value. When people come to join, we need to find out what they’re looking to get out of it. We want people to get the most out of their membership. For example our digital subscription course is a valuable benefit to members. We’re trying to create as much value as we can for our members, show they can show a return on their investment. Value is the key, and the pandemic has focused that. 

Bo: The value of the FIPP conferences is extraordinary.  

From Top Left: Bo Sacks, Joe Berger, James Hewes of FIPP, Linda Ruth, Gemma Peckham, Sherin Pierce, Samir Husni.

James: We’re now doing the D to C summit, focusing on everything having to do with direct-to-consumer revenue. A big focus is putting together the agenda.  

Samir: Will you be going back to in-person events or sticking with online? 

James: We do plan to return to physical, but we’re being cautious. The states of lockdown and rates of vaccination vary greatly country to country. My biggest caution is that companies are not going to let people travel for longer than governments. When the big companies start to travel, we’ll feel more comfortable about moving back to physical. We have a conference coming up in October—we avoided your dates, Samir, we blocked them out, it will be earlier in the month than the ACT conference. We’re making it a hybrid event where people can zoom in if they want. We look forward to 2022 as a return to normality.  The pandemic has focused our attention on how we do events in the future. The big difference: it’s easier online than in person to produce an event and get great speakers. But networking in an online event just doesn’t work. We don’t try to replicate what we do physically. First thing we got rid of is streaming, with two or three events happening at the same time. Instead, we spread the event out over more time, and people don’t have to choose. We decided not to worry too much about individual ticket sales. Instead, we go to companies and offer one price for ALL employees attending. The marginal cost of additional people attending is zero, so we go from 500 people attending to 2000.

Samir: Will we reach screen fatigue with these online events? 

James: We’ve reached screen fatigue. There’s a drop in levels of engagement because people are exhausted by screens. There’s a huge pent-up demand for in person. We’re not going to land wholly on one or the other; it’s going to be a balance of both.  

Bo: The only thing about fatigue is the feeling it wasn’t worth your time. In this virtual world, quality will survive, and it won’t create fatigue. In print the crap is falling away, what remains is quality. The same will be true online. 

Samir (laughing): There’s still a lot of crap in print! 

James: And we managed to get a half hour into the call before Bo and Samir started disagreeing. 

Bo: It’s a disservice to younger people to go wholly digital. It’s in person where you make great connections and friends for life. No one is ever going to make friends for life on a zoom call. 

Linda: With the possible exception of our Roundtable. 

Samir: Magazines companies moving to an emphasis on diversity and social justice. How is FIPP involved in that? 

James: It’s huge part of what we do now. We have a commitment to ensure our programming is gender balanced and balanced in terms of diversity. On the knowledge side we’re including diversity as a key part of our events. When we present industry trends to companies we talk about diversity. Big supporter of the BBC’s 50:50 project, which advocates creating a journalistic team as diverse as the communities about which they report. We see it as just as important as the other pillars of our industry, not as something separate and special. It’s the same with sustainability, which has to be central, not an afterthought.  If you ask companies that have successfully undergone transformation, the key was to have the right people and right culture, and you won’t have that without clear and explicit diversity goals.   

Joe: Tell us about the other arms of your organization, such as consulting 

James: Our consulting arm began last year. We were getting a lot of calls from people with questions. There was just a demand for more and better solutions. So we created a network of independent consultants who can help answer questions in a better way. The big consulting firms are bad at media companies. So we reached out to the people we know who work as independent consultants in the media to tap their skills and expertise.  As for training, that’s an extension of the people and culture piece. If you want to succeed you have to have the right skill set.  

Samir: What are some of the trends you are seeing?  

James: The idea that the pace of change is accelerating as a result of the year of restriction is actually true. Newsstand is in the pits, and many people are thinking it won’t come back. International circulation gone, and it too might not come back. On the flip side, print advertising is coming back moderately; and subscription sales are off the charts. In international markets, subscriptions have always been profitable, and now they’re becoming more profitable in the US as well. Digital subs are through the roof. People are reporting exponential increases in digital subs. Every magazine company I’ve spoken to is looking at paywalls for their content if they didn’t have them before. E commerce up massively; events have disappeared.   

Joe: Can you see events coming back? 

James: If I knew that I’d be a millionaire. If your business relies on your local businesses, if everything is contained geographically, that might survive. Cross border will be different. For example, we’ve always had a number of people from India at our events; that is unlikely to come back for another year. It would be a huge mistake for an events business to say: OK, the pandemic is over, let’s go back to what we were doing before. No one’s going back. We’ve got to start doing things differently. For companies, when a number goes off a P/L, such as travel and events, it’s hard to get back on again. 

Bo: And we’ve spent a year teaching companies how to work virtually. We’re not going to unlearn that. 

Samir: We have short institutional memories; we’re quick to forget.  

James: The 18 months after the pandemic ends will be the boom of all booms. 

Bo: The roaring 20s. James: But as for now, no one has more than 50% of their people fully vaccinated yet. We’re still a long way from that.

Pandemic Publishing Roundtable: Jim Bilton, Media Futures and The Wessenden Briefing

By, Linda Ruth

On Wednesday, almost a full year after the onset of our pandemic, nine months from the first Pandemic Roundtable, hosted by Joe Berger and attended by Bo Sacks, Samir Husni, Sherin Pierce, Gemma Peckham, and me, we met again to review the state of our industry. Our special guest was Jim Bilton, the publisher of the annual mediafutures market analysis and the wessendenbriefing, the 7x newsletter covering print and digital trends and analysis.

While the scope of his business is international, we were particularly interested in hearing about trends in the UK, where his business is based, and how they relate to trends in the US and the rest of the world. Our conversation took us to the continuing strength of print, the re-dedication to print on the part of key retailers, and the excitement that our audience still finds in the world of print.

Jim: I was interested in reading in a past Roundtable about the direction Barnes and Noble is taking. That is such a huge part of your market; we have nothing like that in the UK. WH Smith was formerly number one in the UK, but they expanded into travel, which seemed a good move at the time, that has backfired; now magazines aren’t their main thing, stationery is. Tesco, a supermarket chain, leapfrogged over WH Smith.  Barnes and Noble is interesting because of its connection, through James Daunt, to Waterstones. But the size of the store format couldn’t work in the UK, where the rents are so high; we don’t have the big out of town malls to the same extent as in the USA. The interesting aspect, to me, is what Krifka said about focusing back on bricks and mortar, on print, and moving away from a strong digital focus.


Jim Bilton of Media Futures

Joe: We’re interested in getting your perspective on the effects of the pandemic on UK publishing, and where you expect it to take us from here.

Jim: During lockdown magazines did worse than newspapers. Sales dropped by 30% YoY, although they came back, and overall are now down about 17%. The travel sector fared much worse, of course, going into virtual hibernation initially and are still now about 80% down.  Here many UK publishers overreacted and slashed draws more than they needed to. Supermarkets held up; and independents have a bigger share than ever before. And there’s a background issue about the health of print—in terms of physical health; copies have been taken out of waiting rooms and shops because of health concerns and people have been made to feel uncomfortable about browsing at the magazine racks. This obviously hits impulse sales and discovery at retail.


Samir
: In the US, we’ve seen a big increase in people of color on magazines; are you seeing the same trend in the UK, and is it helping or hurting sales?

Jim: Yes, we are seeing the same trend, but the impact on sales is difficult to size given everything else going on in the marketplace. One launch I can point to is Cocoa Girl magazine, celebrating Black girls. We’re generally seeing lots of small launches, specialty launches, and a bit of a trend from digital to print.

Bo: Last time I was in the UK most publications had cover mounts(Polybagged magazines with attached products of one sort or anohter) ; is that still a trend?

Jim: Yes, though not quite as much as before. There’s a big sustainability issue, and issues having to do with returns. Publishers are learning to move premiums closer to content, so they relate more directly to the content of the magazine. The same has been true of events—although of course that’s less of an issue now. But we haven’t realized how exciting our world is to our readers. Everyone’s got a wine club; but audiences want the unique content a publisher has to offer. Another trend we’re seeing is publishers varying cover price depending on content and pagination.

Sherin: Varying price issue to issue is something you really couldn’t do here.

Sherin Piece, Publisher Old Farmer’s Almanac

Jim: Yes, retail hates it, it causes problems.

Joe: Have your retailers adopted Scan Based Trading?

Jim: We’re getting it in progressively through the back door—WHS and Sainsbury have a soft version, supermarkets are getting ready for it, although each has a slightly different version. The pandemic has had the effect of creating more demand for it from retailers, who are asking for it to mitigate the demands made on their in-store personnel.  

There has always been resistance from publishers, who demanded much lower shrink levels before it would be considered. Yet the industry, led by Future Publishing, has decided to take the lead – they see it as inevitable and choose to manage it up front, to take the initiative rather than being forced to do it. Now other publishers are coming along. Wholesalers say this will be margin neutral—that retailers will concede margin but make cost-saving gains. In the US the situation got out of control, everything went the wrong way all at once. By contrast, in the UK the negotiations are tough, if the retailer wants SBT they have to give something.

Joe: In the US some publishers have seen an uptick in subscriptions with the pandemic. Have you seen that in the UK?

Jim: Subs are booming—mostly print subs. With publishers worried about their future at retail, many made the mistake of going crazy with front end acquisition. Now Hearst UK, for example, has been firming up sub prices. They, like lots of publishers, were doing short-term low-margin offers to build their files. They were overwhelmed by the response and are trying to back off on that. There were a lot of people in the funnel already, and all the cut-priced subs have done has been to shovel them in more quickly, and less profitably.

Joe: What percentage would you say subscriptions have increased?

Jim: Acquisition activity increased massively, but much of this was based on short-term, big-discount offers, which are now converting at quite low rates. When all this churn is taken into account, my sense is that total subs file sizes will end up being flat year-on-year in 2020. But that’s a big improvement on the 8% year-on-year drop seen in 2019.

Bo: What trends are you seeing digitally?

Jim: Financial people like digital editions; readers don’t so much. Newspapers are going into a digital black hole in terms of revenues apart from a handful of high profile brands like the New York Times or the UK Times and Telegraph. But what digital means to magazine publishers is very different from what it means to newspapers. Magazine publishers are still wedded to the issue rather than website accessed article level streams, which is the core of the newspaper digital offer.

Samir: It requires constant upkeep to maintain a digital file, a digital list. Publishers constantly collect and re-collect names, contact information. Has anyone found a way of making money?

Joe: For example, one of my publishers had 20,000 subscribers spread across the platforms; without constant upkeep, attrition can be rapid, and they’re down to a fraction of that now.

Sherin: Our only monthly publications, the OFA Extra, is digital. We send them a notice when an issue drops, and only revisit them for renewal annually. We keep it as simple as possible. People start with so many barriers, but you have to simplify that.

Gemma: We make our digital version free to print subscribers.

Gemma Peckham, Editor Rova Magazine & Oh, Reader Magazine

Jim: That’s why most legacy publishers are holding on to print. Hearst Premium—making best out a bad situation—has lower frequency, higher pagination, and a higher cover price at its core. Digital is still a thin medium that consumers aren’t prepared to pay a full amount for. To make this difficult field profitable, we might look to e-commerce. How high can print cover prices go?

Bo: Much higher than you might think.

Gemma: Magazines are still really underpriced.

Bo: We have to continually make the transformation from a perceived commodity product to a necessary luxury product worth paying for.

Jim: In the UK, everybody is putting their prices up.

Linda: What do you see as the effect of Brexit on exports.

Jim: A lot of UK publishers are going digital-only for export sales rather than shipping print across borders. And anyway, our really big export markets are the USA and Australia, not so much Europe. The Brexit issue more has to do with cover mounts and where your paper comes from, where you’re printed, what borders are crossed on the way to creating the final finished product. For example, a garden title with cover-mounted seeds had problems getting across borders. And it varies from country to country. In France and Germany, the supply chain is tightly regulated. But as we go into Brexit, everyone has their Plan B and Plan C. 

In the UK, every link in the chain is under pressure. Publishers are feeding less product into the market. Retailers are cutting ranges and the space allocated to newspapers and magazines. Yet the recent focus has been more on wholesale. We only have two mainstream wholesalers now – Smiths and Menzies – with Smiths recovering from a disastrous diversification programme which caused them some serious financial issues. In response, some of the newspaper publishers had been looking at a newspaper-only distribution network – although this has gone quiet now. If we ever went down that route, then magazines would lose many of their current advantages – five- or six-day a week magazine deliveries, sales-based replenishment and national on-sale dates.

Samir: Vogue sold out its Harry Stiles issue in Barnes and Noble. They had to replenish.

Jim: Print still has immense power in the magazine business. Look at Amazon. Around their major markets, they offer print and digital, single copy and subscription. They understand that magazine consumers want print as well as digital. Print is still the “gold standard” and is still part of the “magazine experience”. At least for the foreseeable future. Yet there is no single, simple business model that works across every market. It’s all about understanding your own audience and delivering what they want. Not what you think they want.

Dancing at the Apocalypse Bonfire

Every now and then Baird Davis, a retired Ziff-Davis Publishing circulation VP will pen an article that shows up in an industry trade journal like Folio, Publishing Executive or the BoSacks newsletter. He reviews the latest AAM (formerly ABC Audit of Circulation) statistics and offer some analysis. It may not be his intention, but Baird’s articles always felt like a slap upside the head to me and many of us magazine professionals. “Wake up, already” his op-eds  seem to say.

Years ago in what now feels like another reality timeline I was a consultant to Ziff-Davis and Baird was a level or two above my report. Sometimes he would come visit one of the magazine wholesalers I was calling on and it always felt like I was reporting in to my very stern (but fair) uncle. You know; the one you always double checked to make sure your pants were creased properly, that you were sitting up straight and your tie was tied properly.

This morning in a post titled “Saving Printed Consumer Magazines in the Social Media Era: It’s Significance and Challenges” Baird deals us magazine professionals a healthy dose of reality. Like truly sobering reality.

Yeah, It’s Not Like We Didn’t Already Know, But…

It’s not as though he isn’t pointing out things we already knew. But I think that these days, those of us who have some “history” in the business are just too darn busy to acknowledge what he’s pointing out. These days, we just “carry on:”

  • The number of major publishers has shrunk
  • The number of next tier publishers with influence in the business is now nearly nil
  • There were too many overpriced and overextended acquisitions in previous decades
  • Layoffs have decreased institutional knowledge
  •  Much subscription circulation is cheaply and poorly acquired
  • The newsstand business was allowed to consolidate, wither and decline

Go and read the article. Then come on back and let’s discuss. I have a few additional thoughts we can discuss.

It’s a procrastinators joke that we will always put off until the day after what we could have done tomorrow. So I would like to imagine that some magazine professionals  hesitated when companies like Ziff-Davis and Petersen were purchased in the 1990’s for $1.4 and $1.2 billion. Davis points this out, and I will highlight it. I had already witnessed up close the impact of highly leveraged purchases when a company I worked for, Family Media, collapsed in the go-go 1990’s. And yet, I remember feeling exhilarated when I heard the price Softbank paid for my then biggest client, Ziff-Davis.

I imagine, that there were circulation professionals who wondered if it was smart to load up their files with so much “verified” and “non-paid audited bulk” circulation. And yet, if that worked and the guys in the corner offices were happy…

I know of one or two newsstand professionals who murmured “This ain’t  good” into their coffee cups when the number of major magazine wholesalers collapsed from four to three to two to one. Do you think there were a few editors who wondered how they were going to review articles, get re-tweets and Facebook likes and come up with a new editorial calendar? And do their jobs with integrity?

Who’s minding the store now in consolidated America? Where can you get “lean back” immersive news (or entertainment) that is not dependent on either advertising, a stock price or the financial backing of some leveraged private equity firm? If you live outside a major city, can you even get news about what your local county board is up to?

Pro tip answer to that last question: “Most likely, no.”

Come On Down to The Apocalypse Bonfire

As a magazine professional, I have to say that it feels like I’m at the edge of some apocalyptic bonfire. The drums are hot, heavy, and completely out of synch. There’s dancing, but no one knows the steps. There is rote and tradition, but no one understands it. No one wants to follow along. A few people are having a fine time. But most are uncomfortable and waiting for that singular “Lord of the Flies” moment. It’s coming. Soon, maybe?

image
This looks fun! Source: Wikipedia

What’s Next?

Baird offers “Suggested Next Steps” and as I often do, I find myself nodding my head in agreement. But it feels like he is offering us a West Wing moment. You know, in the West Wing television show, the music swells, President Bartlet comes out from behind the Resolute Desk, says something inspiring and we all feel a bit chagrined that he had to point out to us how to behave properly.

martin-sheen-the-west-wing-ftr
You know you want to go and do the right thing, right? Source: Parade Magazine

Baird suggests that we try and put together a committee to help the industry navigate the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 era. The goal would be to try and hold the two major players, Hearst and Meredith accountable. Good idea. But I highly doubt that these two companies having survived and thrived to this moment (Either because they long range planned themselves to this moment or arrived here through luck and the foolishness of their competitors) would put up with that.

The magazine industry does need organizations that would speak for us and remind us to do the right thing. But at the moment, we’re all down at the beach, dancing at the apocalypse bonfire. If you’re still sober, you’re wondering what will happen next.

Billy Bush and Donald Trump Went For A Bus Ride – Fourteen Months Later…

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Source: Access Hollywood, The Washington Post

When I first heard about the rather vile tape of Donald Trump engaged in “locker room talk” with former Access Hollywood and suspended Today Show host Billy Bush, my thought was that Bush had experienced what I and many other people I know have experienced in their career: We were stuck in an awkward space with someone who has a lot of power over us and our careers. And we sat there and maybe nodded and laughed along while that person talked or behaved in a thoroughly unacceptable manner.

Billy Bush confirmed that in the past week when he wrote a op-ed for the New York Times that challenged the president’s rather odd assertion that it was not his voice on the tape.

The initial blow out from this tape, as you know, is that Billy Bush lost his job and a big piece of his reputation. Donald Trump went on to become our president and the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.

Let’s leave aside all of the politics for the moment.

And let’s stipulate that men should not sexually harass women and that there are no excuses whatsoever for sexual harassment of any sort. While that’s obvious,  I’ve noticed that some of my male counterparts are slow on the uptake and need a bit of educating.

People harass others because they can and they get away with it. History is full of stories of the fortunate and powerful  taking advantage of the less fortunate and less powerful.

Beyond sexual harassment there is the harassment that I described in the opening paragraph of this piece: The taking advantage of another person because you hold power over their careers. That’s what I wish to address. That is something that I can speak to. It’s what has made me spend some time thinking about what is happening right now with the #MeToo movement and why I think it is a good thing.

Maybe you’ve been in this situation? You’re sitting across the desk from an important  buyer or a potential client. You know this person well enough. Things seem to be going swimmingly. Then out of the blue the person tells a horrible joke, makes a sexist or racist comment. What do you do? Do you call them out? Act shocked at what they said? Remember, you need to close this deal, right?

Perhaps you’re at a trade show with a client. This client represents 25% of your business.    The representatives of a black owned business walk into the show hall. You’re client stares in their direction. And then proceeds to let out a stream of racist invective that stuns you. It rocks you back on your heels.  You never knew this person thought that way and you’ve known them for a long time. What do you do? Clearly the client thinks that either you are with him, or you’re not going to say anything. Can you afford to lose 25% of your business in one week? What they just said is horrible! Should you keep silent?

Let’s say you’re new to your trade. You’re traveling far from your home base and out for drinks late one night with some other traveling colleagues and the manager of the company that you’re calling on. The night breaks up and all of the other colleagues decline to drive the over-indulged manager to his home. They laugh when you politely volunteer to drive him. “Watch out” one of your “friends” calls out as you help him into the rental car. Later, in front of his house, his hands wind up all over you and you have to brush him off and kick him out of the car.

The next day you don’t make a sale. Your appointments are canceled. For the next year your calls to this manager go unanswered.

Or maybe you’re out to dinner with some business associates and the discussion turns to a young CSR at a company you all do business with. The conversation turns to her attractiveness, how much they’d like to have sex with her, and then, of course, to her apparent “bitchiness” because she has turned them down. You chime in that you actually like her and get along well with her and why would you proposition her? That’s wrong, she has a long time boyfriend – so what is their problem? The table turns cold. You’re not included in the rest of the conversation or any of their meetings the next day.

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The scenarios I just played out for you are real enough. They are things I’ve either directly experienced, or have heard from colleagues and friends.

None of these happened in Hollywood, Washington, DC, or in the vaunted halls of high-end publishers or the Fortune 500. The people who precipitated these events were not high-flying wealthy men (They were all men). They were every day kind of guys. People who live next door or down the street or work one floor over.

When Sarah Silverman asked the question, “Can you love someone who did bad things?”” I understand. How do you keep liking someone who you know has reprehensible views? Has tried to force their will on someone else? In today’s do-it-yourself gig economy of the 21st century, you may have to work for that person. Do you take their money? Do you keep silent?

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Can you love someone who did bad things? Can you work for them?

What if someone you work for gaslights, harasses, overworks, mistreats and ultimately fires a business associate? And you get promoted into their position? Do you take the job? Do you walk out in solidarity with your friend and colleague? Let me ask you: How much do you owe on your mortgage? School loans? Credit cards? Does your child need health insurance?

There are no simple and easy answers to any of these questions. I dare myself to walk in others shoes. I dare you to walk in mine.

I started this post right after the “Access Hollywood” tape came out. I never finished it in part because of the “heat” of the presidential race but, also because I just didn’t know what I wanted to say. I am not sure that I do even now. But I feel like talking about it.

I wish the world were a better place. I wish we could be kinder to each other. I wish people in positions of power and authority, especially people in “business” would spend more time mentoring, teaching, elevating and less time preening, shouting, demanding and failing to understand or acknowledge the humanity of those who cross their paths. I find it sad that they can’t even understand their own humanity.

Author and journalist Daniel Pink wrote:

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”

He is right. We need more empathy – in the work place, and in our every day lives.