In a whirlwind of events Wednesday, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer lost its publisher, Pam Siddall, to the Wichita Eagle in Kansas. But it gained a newspaper veteran in Valerie Canepa, who takes the helm as president and publisher effective immediately. She comes to Columbus from Rock Hill, S.C., where she served as president and publisher of The Herald newspaper since 2003.
Sacramento, Calif.-based The McClatchy Co., parent company of both the Ledger-Enquirer and The Herald, announced the promotions at 11 a.m. Wednesday just as executives from both newspapers were breaking the news to staffers in Georgia and Kansas.
"I'm thrilled to be coming to an area that's growing as fast as probably the Charlotte area and that also is driven by the military," Canepa said before flying to Columbus for a late-afternoon meeting with employees. "I have this great affinity for the military because I have a military family. It's just refreshing to see such military activity."
Rock Hill is essentially a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., a mega-banking city of 664,000 people situated on the North Carolina-South Carolina border.
The Herald has a staff of 140 people — 33 in the newsroom — working to deliver news and advertising to 31,000 daily subscribers and 33,000 on Sundays. It also publishes three weekly newspapers.
In comparison, the Ledger-Enquirer is the primary newspaper serving a metro area approaching 300,000 people.
Its staff of 224 employees — 55 in the newsroom — serve a daily circulation of 42,000 and 53,000 on Sundays. It publishes two community-based weekly newspapers and several other niche publications.
Lynn Dickerson, McClatchy vice president of operations for 11 newspapers in the South, said Canepa is the right fit for the job in Columbus. In the meeting with Ledger-Enquirer employees, she said the new publisher is "smart as a whip, fun and a taskmaster." The Rock Hill newspaper also has the best cash-flow performance of any McClatchy newspaper, Dickerson said. That's a critical barometer in a newspaper industry that has been suffering both on the advertising and circulation fronts as more readers and advertisers migrate to the Internet.
Asked if he expected any major changes at the newspaper with the new leadership, Ledger-Enquirer Vice President and Executive Editor Ben Holden simply responded: "The only constant in this business is change. I had a great old boss. I look forward to having a great new boss."
Reached between staff meetings in Wichita Wednesday, Siddall said the day had been "kind of a whirlwind." The 365-employee Eagle newspaper, which has a daily circulation of 85,000 and 133,000 on Sundays, has been without a publisher since Lou Heldman retired in September.
Siddall called the decision to leave Columbus for Wichita, which has a metro area population topping 600,000, very difficult. The Smiths Station, Ala., native has been publisher since 2004 and saw the move as good for her career and her family, which includes her husband, Greg, and two daughters.
"Columbus is home and this was not a decision that was easy to come to," she said. "It is obviously a very good career opportunity. But beyond that, my mom and my dad and all my siblings live there. So I will always be a part of that community and miss the people because Columbus is just a special place."
Praising the staff in Columbus, Siddall said she feels good about how she is leaving the newspaper. She spoke of investments in advertising and the launch of new products, including "her" magazine and "The Business Leader," a business-to-business advertising publication.
"I feel good about things because, though we have reduced staff, we have been able to weather the storm and hold steady in a lot of areas," she said. "I will just miss all of the wonderful people at the paper. We have what I know to be the best employees."
Siddall, 39, started her newspaper career with Knight Ridder — purchased by McClatchy 16 months ago — in 1997 as chief financial officer of the Ledger-Enquirer. She later served stints as CFO with The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., before being promoted to vice president and general manager of the Ledger-Enquirer in 2003. She became publisher a year later.
Canepa, 48, is a Topeka, Kan., native who grew up in the small town of Searcy, Ark., an hour from Little Rock. Her father, Air Force Capt. William Ward Smith, was killed in action in an aviation accident in 1966 during the Vietnam War. She was only 7 years old at the time.
Her mother, left with two small children at age 27, went back to college and eventually remarried, staying in Searcy, a town of about 16,000 people.
A University of Arkansas journalism graduate, Canepa's prior newspaper experience includes reporting and editing stints at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, and the Rochester Times-Union and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle in New York.
She held the positions of assistant metro editor, community publications editor and director of community publications at the Fresno Bee in California from 1995 through 2003.
At the Ledger-Enquirer, Canepa said she plans to be a "big supporter" of the news side and doesn't anticipate making any radical changes.
"A good thing for the newsroom is that I'm a huge cheerleader and a supporter, and my philosophy is we need more people on the street. We need more news gatherers and we need to get the information out faster," she said, stopping short of promising more personnel at the newspaper.
Instead, she said, smart ideas, technology and citizen journalism will be required in an industry that doesn't have much extra capital to go around.
"Newsrooms may not get bigger, but the news gathering operation will become more robust," she said. The industry's biggest challenge at the moment, Canepa said, is overcoming bad public relations, not making the transition into a multimedia world that has put pressure on those who publish with ink on a daily basis.
"The battle now is convincing people that we are still the number one information resource, that we are the medium of choice for most people, that we are the trusted resource," she said. "We have to convince people of that and we have to particularly convince advertisers of that. And there's no proof that we're not, but the PR is hurting us . . . So that's our biggest battle. The rest is just inevitable change."
One other change in the publishing trifecta Wednesday was Canepa's replacement at Rock Hill. McClatchy tapped Debbie Abels to become president and publisher. She has been with McClatchy-owned Charlotte Observer for 34 years, serving as director of advertising operations and strategy since February.
Canepa will tour the Ledger-Enquirer today before returning home for the weekend. She and Siddall are expected to return Monday, with the former Ledger-Enquirer publisher saying farewell to those she has led the last three years.
It will be after Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, before Canepa expects to settle into her new position as president and publisher of a newspaper with roots that date to 1828, the same year Columbus was founded.