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An oddly placed reward at Gannett…

Some companies put together pay packages designed to keep top executives around until they retire. At newspaper chain Gannett (GCI), it’s almost like the board can’t wait for them to find the exit.

Proxies these days lay out just what companies will have to shell out in various circumstances when executives depart — everything from retirement to termination “for cause” (eg, felony conviction). The result: sprawling tables with multiple headings covering nearly every eventuality.

But you don’t often find big numbers in the column labeled “Potential Payment Obligation Upon Retirement/Voluntary Termination.” At Gannett, however, simply walking out the door would bring Chairman and CEO Craig A. Dubow a cool $19.3 million, as of Dec. 31. In last year’s proxy that number was a much more modest — if you can call this modest — $7.5 million for Dubow.

To be fair, nearly half of that ($9.5 million) is his pension. But much of the rest comes courtesy of a feature triggered just this year: All stock options and restricted-stock units granted since mid-2005 vest and become his the day he walks out the door for the last time, as long as he isn’t fired for “good cause” (specifics include misappropriation of funds, persistent neglect of duties or a felony conviction). His options then remain exercisable for as long as four years. The value of those options was listed at $5.9 million, compared to zero in the 2009 proxy.

Gracia C. Martore, Gannett’s president, COO and CFO, gets a similar deal, with equity grants since early 2005 vesting on departure and options remaining exercisable for as long as three years. Her take: $10 million.

Both executives also get some nice perks in retirement: legal and financial counseling, up to $25,000 a year in medical coverage for the executive and their family and $75,000 over five years to charities of their choice. On top of that, Dubow gets lifetime Medigap coverage once he hits 65, three years on the company airplane (albeit at his own expense), title to his home-office equipment, and an outside office and secretarial assistance for three years. He even gets three years’ of “home computer assistance” — presumably calling the Geek Squad when the laptop doesn’t boot up properly. Altogether, the company values Dubow’s perks at more than $90,000, Martore’s run about half as much in the first year.

Sure, getting fired, at least after a change in control, would be more remunerative: $39 million if Dubow is fired within two years of a deal — or if he quits during a special 30-day window at the one-year anniversary. Dying would be more lucrative, too, at $31 million. Still, we’re sure execs don’t see much incentive there.

But millions just to hit the links for executives who haven’t exactly been careful stewards of shareholder assets and have basically managed earnings through massive job cuts seems like a very poorly designed reward.