Bit by Bit: Love of Learning Leads Alumna to Digital Media Success
Editor's Note: This first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Focus, Columbus State University's twice-a-year magazine.
By Bill Sutley
wenty-three years after graduating summa cum laude from Columbus College, Pam Siddall is still obsessed with learning.
“My favorite phrase is, `I don’t know what I don’t know,’” says Siddall, whose thirst for knowledge serves her well as executive vice president for one of America’s largest media groups. “I know I’m rarely the smartest person in the room, so I learn from other people. The only way is to listen and ask questions.”
[caption id="attachment_2954" align="alignright" width="222"] Pam Siddall returned to the South and became the Birmingham News' first female publisher in 2010.[/caption]
Siddall’s success also is a product of a work ethic that has her jetting regularly between offices in Birmingham and New York City as executive vice president of Advance Local, a media empire that reaches more than 30 million consumers through 12 local news and information websites scattered from New Orleans to New York, all ranked No. 1 among local media in their respective markets.
Advance Local’s largest presence near Siddall’s roots in rural Lee County, Ala., is AL.com, which combines the newsgathering muscle of Advance Local newspapers in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville with other resources.
“Journalism is vital to the community, no matter what platform you’re on,” Siddall says. “If you want to consume news on your iPhone, Twitter feed or print product, our job is to make sure it’s there.”
Despite the fact she’s plugged in 24/7 to online and social media that didn’t exist when she was in college, Siddall credits her alma mater with playing a role in her success. “Everything I learned at Columbus State is woven into everything I do,” she says.
[caption id="attachment_2955" align="alignleft" width="251"] Newlyweds Greg and Pam Siddall enjoy a Florida beach about the time she was a Columbus College student.[/caption]
An accounting major, she worked full-time at a Columbus CPA firm while attending school full-time.
“I had an amazing boss who let me have the flexibility to take classes during the day and get my work done at night,” she said. “That forces you to manage your time.”
Fonda Carter, associate dean for undergraduate programs at CSU’s Turner College of Business, was a novice faculty member when she first met Siddall as one of her accounting students.
“You knew even back then she would be very successful,” Carter said.
Time-management is especially crucial now as Siddall balances the demands of her professional life with that of being mother to two teenage girls, Haley, 18, and Annika, 13. She credits Greg Siddall, her husband of 25-plus years, with helping her maintain that precarious balance.
Siddall first got into newspapers when she was hired in 1997 at age 29 as chief financial officer at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. She says she’s grateful for the confidence expressed in her so early by then-publisher John Greenman, unaware then that she would move into his job in seven years.
“I was pretty willing to do anything they asked me to,” she says. “There were challenges, but I was willing to jump in and solve problems. I learned that attitude matters.”
Her ascension at the Ledger-Enquirer and beyond coincided with a painful period for newspapers, but Siddall remains bullish about the promise of the medium.
“Newspapers play a special role in a community,” she says. “I knew that within the first few months of working with John Greenman. It goes beyond a job. You have an amazing opportunity to leverage good in a community.”
After nearly three years as president and publisher at Columbus, Siddall moved to the same role at another McClatchy newspaper, the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. She returned to the South and left McClatchy as 2010 dawned, becoming president and publisher of the Birmingham News. By 2012, she was overseeing operations of that newspaper, as well as Advance newspapers in Mobile and Huntsville.
“It was a challenge, but it proved to be the right decision,” Siddall said of her moves from Columbus to Wichita to Birmingham. “They were all wonderful.”
In her current role (promoted to executive vice president in February after only nine months), which she assumed in mid-2013, Siddall has a much deeper commitment to the digital side of her privately held parent company, serving a much broader geographic area.
[caption id="attachment_2956" align="alignright" width="208"] Siddall, from left, daughters Haley and Annika, and husband Greg pause during a family vacation in Italy in March.[/caption]
“I’m working across all our markets on strategy,” she said. “As soon you think you have something figured out, there’s something new. It’s like putting together a different puzzle every day. When you’re talking about the digital space, you’re talking about mobile technology, video, desktop, tablet – everything. If you can’t appreciate technology and the value it brings to readers and advertisers alike, you’re in the wrong line of work.”
That appreciation is tempered by her caution as a parent; her daughters didn’t get cleared to dive into the Facebook pool until mom had swum a few laps.
“The one piece of advice I offered is not to put anything up you don’t want to be seen by the world,” Siddall says. “That’s critical and applies to everybody. Don’t play out your emotions on social media.”
Social media is one of the primary ways Siddall now keeps in touch with friends and family in the Columbus-Lee County area and beyond. That’s helpful since most of the time she’s on the move — spending many workweeks shuttling between several Advance markets where she talks strategy with local market leadership.
Asked what advice she would offer today’s college graduates, Siddall mentioned the importance of believing in yourself, listening to others and, yes, to keep learning what’s necessary to reinforce that self-esteem.
“Folks are always going to tell you why something can’t be done,” she says. “But at the end of the day, you do what you’re passionate about. And never stop learning. That intellectual curiosity is crucial. Be vulnerable and willing to learn from other people, regardless of their position in the company.”