A decade and a half after they started working together, Felicity Duncan and Alec Hogg have teamed up again with Biznews Premium. As the editor, Felicity is responsible for helping subscribers make sense of the chaotic news flow – bringing complex issues into context. Recently relocated from the US to Ireland, here’s her story.
Well here we are in the studio in London and my colleague, Felicity Duncan is with me looking out onto the streets of London where she has just arrived from the United States. We’re going to be talking to Felicity in a moment, finding out more and more about her new role as the editor of Biznews Premium. Well, there we are, isn’t that pretty fancy that we can now mix in the music and with the sound desk?
Yes look at this, totally professional.
Indeed it is. In the smallest office in the world, I told you it was.
You know, I don’t know if it’s the smallest in the world, but it’s definitely cute.
Well two by two. I’m not so sure that people in Johannesburg would understand what two by two is.
No that’s true. By Joburg standards it’s very small.
And it’s two metres, not two feet.
Yes, I don’t think you’d fit in two feet.
You’ve just arrived from the United States.
Now the last time – well we’ve worked together a long time.
A very long time, I think it’s rude if we say how long. Aren’t you supposed to flatter me by saying –?
Oh, just a few weeks.
However, your background, you’re from South Africa.
Yes, South African born and raised in Johannesburg. I spent the first let’s say 27 years of my life there and that is where we started working together back in the good old days, the early 2000s.
You came straight out of university. The story, which is a lovely one, was I asked Anton Harber, who was your professor at the Wits Journalism School to send me his very best student and he had no hesitation to say Felicity Duncan, here she is, she’s all yours and it was great. You came allegedly on an internship programme at Moneyweb and I think your internship lasted about two weeks.
Yes, it was a short internship.
It was supposed to be six months and then it wasn’t long afterwards you were the head of the editorial team at Moneyweb.
That’s right, yes, and getting that into shape and I mean, those were the very early days of online journalism, so I think we were inventing a lot of stuff as we went along at that point.
We had a good team though, didn’t we?
It was a great team; a really wonderful team. Many people have gone their different ways at this point, but really lovely people.
If I think about you, you were still pretty young, in your twenties and you had some grizzled old fellows to look after including Barry Sergeant.
Yes, the legendary Barry Sergeant was on the team, didn’t necessarily know what to make of me at first, I think.
Yes, but in the end Barry did wear his heart on his sleeve, didn’t he?
Yes, he warmed up.
Extraordinary human being with his winklepickers and his big hats, he always wore the same clothes.
Yes, I liked to think it was that he had many versions of the same few outfits and not that it was just the same outfit every time.
Great work that Barry did though in investigative journalism and of course, we had David Mackay there and Bruce Whitfield who worked with us for a long time.
Yes, Bruce was there, Stewart Bailey.
Ron Derby, Stewart Bailey. Stewart’s very famous now. He was in Davos as a participant this year I’ll have you know.
Oh, look at that, look at him go. Yes, I’m friends with him on Facebook, so I see his progress through life, very impressive.
He also went to the United States, which is where you ended up. Tell us that story.
I went to the US on a Fulbright scholarship.
Fullbright is a programme through the US Department of State named for a senate, I think William Fulbright was his name and he invented this programme to try to build relationships with people around the world. His idea was that the United States could become a centre for international people to come in and meet, learn, and bring their culture and knowledge to the country and learn from the Americans. So, they implemented this programme, which gives out a limited amount of scholarships to people from countries around the world that enables those people to go and pursue graduate education in the US. So, I headed into America on a Fulbright scholarship back in 2005, I think that’s right.
I remember saying to you at the time, “Whatever you do, don’t get involved with an American, please come home”.
Don’t fall in love with an American, that’s true. You did specifically instruct me not to do that.
I wasn’t successful, but there are many things in your career that I have not been successful in. Where did you study in America?
My first go around there, I was at Columbia.
So, that’s the journalism school.
I think so, I mean, they think so.
Could you pick?
You could apply to whichever school you wanted to go to but then they would have to give you admission. So, you could pick to an extent, but then you had to win admission on that side.
So, you were granted admission and what was that like?
Great, the experience of being in the US was really strange at first for a young South African, as I’m sure many young South Africans who venture off can attest. There’s a lot to learn, but it was great and I think it was a really good learning experience and I like to think that I brought some of that back.
What were your professors like?
I think at the time, that was 2005, when journalism was really starting to try to understand what it means to have this digital revolution, what does it mean to go online, how are we going to make money, what’s happening? It was a real time of upheaval and I think that the professors were all trying to make sense of it. Most of them came from very traditional backgrounds, newspapers, TV stations, local TV and things like that and I think for them and for us it was a time of experimentation and a time when sometimes the people coming in as students had more experience of digital than the professors. So, I think it was just a crazy time to be in journalism school.
Were you ahead of the game there, given that you came from this little Moneyweb South Africa?
Yes I think so. I think that Moneyweb was ahead of the game at that point, as a digital first with a supplemental radio kind of a business. There wasn’t really anything like that out there at the time and so I think that I definitely brought in a perspective of a company that’s born online as opposed to a newspaper trying to transition online, which I think was a valuable perspective and not a very common one at the time.
Then you came back home and we had a lot of fun together in South Africa for another few years.
Yes, a couple of years, we had good times back in sunny South Africa in Johannesburg.
That was the deal, wasn’t it with Fullbright that you had to go back to your homeland.
Yes that’s right. They call it the two-year rule, which means you have to spend two years back in your home country before you can revisit the US.
And you did that, I think you spent three years back in South Africa.
Yes, I think that’s right, it was three years.
Then back to America.
Back to America, yes. I was at the University of Pennsylvania doing some studying there, living in Philadelphia.
Philly from Philly.
Yes, exactly. You may not know, Alec, but the Philadelphia Eagles are in the Super Bowl this year.
Oh, the big game.
Yes, everyone’s very excited back in Philly.
Whom are they playing?
The New England Patriots, who are widely hated, I’m told.
They are by me now and so studying, doing more work there and then we started BizNews in 2013.
That’s right and I…
And I called you.
Yes you did.
In a good way, yes and then I got back involved there. Ah, it’s crazy to think about that, 2013; it’s quite a while ago.
For me going on – well, it’ll be five years in August and we did well, what startups do, we scratched around, did lots of work here and there and then you took a job.
That’s right, yes. Then I was teaching.
People have to eat.
Yes, that is how it goes especially in the US. Then I was actually teaching journalism at a school for a while.
Now school – meaning a university there?
Yes, a university. I did that for a couple of years, then I was doing some copywriting work, and then we reconnected.
So, as editor of BizNews Premium, our future at the company, we believe that that’s the way journalism is going. Do you think we’re on the right track there?
Yes, I think so. I think the challenge, just like it was back in 2005 when I went across to the US for the first time, the challenge is, how do journalists do work and feed their families in a digital environment where you just can’t be advertising supported where that model just doesn’t work anymore and I think that what you have to do, is create something that has enough value that your readers are willing to pay for it. I don’t see another way for good quality journalism to survive the digital onslaught.
Advertising was always the mainstay of the media business and because there was advertising around, people have now gotten used to consuming or being given free content and we do that at BizNews.
Yes, of course.
We do have quite a lot of free content, but how is Premium different?
The idea behind Premium is that we definitely have the free-to-air stuff, the news of the day is on there, and we get contributors. There’s a lot of really great content there, but what we wanted to do with Premium is say, “Well, how can we add such meaningful value that people need to get behind that paywall, how can we go beyond just saying, here’s the news of the day to saying, here’s the news of the day and here’s why it matters, here’s what it means for you, here is the global context for this news, that’s what it means for your families and your kids down the line.”
We’re really trying to give people more than just what they could get off (I don’t want to name any names) more than what they could get off any other site that has a bunch of here’s what happened. We want to say, “Here’s what happened, here’s why it’s happening and here’s why it matters that it happens” and really start to give premium readers enough context and understanding that they can start to make sense of this crazy time that we’re living in.
That requires reflection and it requires a lot of reading. I know you read a lot.
Yes, I do, that’s true.
What are you reading at the moment?
Well, I’ve just decided I’m going to read your book, Alec. You just gave me a copy of it.
How to invest like Warren Buffett. Well, you know it’s –
It’s a cheap plug, but I just finally did get a copy of Alec’s book, so that’s what I’m going to be reading.
Oh dear, it took a long time, but one does need to read, you do read widely. What kind of publications do you consume?
I read the basic things, you know, The Economist is on the list there, I read the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and I also read some other, I would say more niche things. One of the magazines that I really enjoy is called the Atlantic across the pond in the US, I enjoy the journals, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs, both of those are very good in-depth global publications, so yes, those are the mainstays of my news diet.
It is interesting that as financial we have to take more and more account of geopolitics now, so hence Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. So, certainly, when I got to Davos, I’ll watch and listen to the politicians in South Africa, being a developing country that’s a very important part of it. The old style financial journalists really didn’t worry about that, what was going on in the economics and what was happening to share prices etc. and I think it’s much more interesting doing the work we’re doing today because geopolitics is so important.
Yes, it’s very interesting you know. There was a time I would say, maybe we call it the Greenspan years, where everyone was sort of like, “Politics is dead, we’ve got a consensus on what works and politics doesn’t matter. What matters is what monetary policy is and what individual companies are doing and it turned out not to be true. We hit the crisis and suddenly politics was the most important thing and you had Keynesian back in monetary policy’s total upheaval. Now given some of the crazy political developments that we’ve seen in the last two, three years, geopolitics is right at the centre of what’s driving markets in a way that I think you hadn’t seen since probably the nineties.
Yes, America versus China.
Even where we’re sitting in the UK, Brexit.
Brexiting and so you’re back from America.
And we’re going to be working closely together, but you’re also across the water. Why Ireland, why have you decided Ireland?
Well my husband is American and actually of Irish extraction. His family says we have to do some research on their lineage while we’re across here.
What’s his surname?
Okay, a good Irish name.
No, I think it’s not actually technically Irish, I think they’re English people who moved to Ireland. I think that’s why we have to do research.
Okay, find out exactly where the family tree began and of course avoid anything that couldn’t be discussed in front of the children.
Exactly, we’re going to give a clean, sanitised version of the family tree. So my husband is American and for both of us, Ireland is a good middle ground between proximity to his family, my family, and it’s a lovely country.
Proximity to your family in South Africa, of course so there’s the roots back home only a couple hours’ time difference. It does make it a lot easier than in Philadelphia.
Oh, absolutely, in Philadelphia we were looking at six or seven hours time difference, here we’re down to one or two depending on the time of year, which is much better. I’ve already been talking to my mum on the phone so much more now that we’re in the same time zone.
And of course working with your old friends again, Jackie Cameron.
Jackie said to me, in February this year it’s 18 years that we’ve been working together, can you believe it?
It’s like a lifetime.
That is a lifetime.
You and I, we’re not far behind.
No, we’re very close actually. If it was 2001, I think that we started working together, goodness so it’s 15 years then.
It really is –
It’s a long stretch, but we’re now moving into the most exciting time of the future and really looking forward to where BizNews Premium goes.
Yes, I think it’s very exciting and I think that subscribers are going to be excited.
What are you going to give them?
What aren’t we going to give them?
Oh sorry, okay why would someone pay a fiver here in the UK, it’s a fiver which you can’t really buy a whole lot for. In South Africa, people still see five Pounds as being worth something, but we’ve kept it low purposefully so that we can have as many people as possible who can afford to access it, but why would they go for Premium rather than just sticking with your free-to-air?
The difference between the premium and the free-to-air site is again, what I said, is the difference between the news and what’s happening, and the news and why it’s happening and why it matters. That’s what we really want to do with Premium, is help people make sense of the events that are happening around them, help them use that information to make good choices for themselves, and for their families and help them just really understand how the world’s changing and how that’s going to affect them so that they can do the right things, that their kids can make the right choices.
So, adding value, giving them an opportunity to understand a little more in depth rather than trying to make up their minds reading commoditised information.
Yes, exactly and I think this kind of thing is more important than ever now that we are in the era of fake news, when your friends post something on Facebook, looks good, right; you don’t know where it’s from.
The Pope endorses Donald Trump.
Yes, exactly you know and you see that. It looks very plausible on the face of it and I think that more than ever, people really need guides to the world and you know I really hope that we can build Premium into something that people can rely on as a guide to the world and to what makes sense.
I have no doubt that you shall do so and I will be supporting you all the way, adding podcasts, adding writing. The two of us will be very closely involved in the Premium as well as the other members of the BizNews team and of course webinars, special seminars and clubs.
Yes, exactly like a club for South Africans with a global perspective.
And those who want to consume non-fake news.
Yes, exactly, hopefully a large group.
Hopefully a large group. Well, Felicity Duncan, it’s been such a joy working with you over the years and I am so excited about what we’re going to be doing on this next chapter.
Me too Alec, thank you.
I just had to finish off with a little bit of this music, just to show that I can do it now. You never thought that the technophobe in me would be able to come in front of a mixing machine, did you?
No, this is impressive stuff, look at you, like all these dials and knobs and you know what you’re doing.
Yes, it looks like an airline pilot centre.
Yes, mission control over here.
Don’t you miss sunshine?
Oh, man, yes.
Oh boy, sunshine come back, all is forgiven, would love to have you here. That’s Felicity Duncan, the editor of BizNews Premium.