USA Today Reminds Staff What 'Furloughed' Means

Employees at Gannett Co.'s (GCI) USA Today must be insanely dedicated.Why else would the nation's largest newspaper publisher need to explain to the workers at its flagship paper what it means to be forced to take a week off. But that's exactly what Publisher Dave Hunke decided his depressed workforce needed to hear.

"To be clear, a furlough means no one will be permitted to work while on furlough and no one will be exempt, except for business necessity," he wrote in a memo to employees that was leaked to the press. "That means when you are on furlough, there is no work, no office phone calls, no voice mail, no e-mail and no PDA checking."

This raises all sorts of depressing questions. Why is Gannett so worried about employees working for free on their own time? How is this going to be enforced? Should reporters hang up on sources who phone them at home or screen their calls? What if they find Lindsay Lohan and Warren Buffett having a romantic dinner? Should they avert their eyes, or just phone the National Enquirer?

No Longer No. 1


As the independent Gannett Blog noted, other company papers are already doing furloughs, and at least 26 USA Today employees were recently laid off. A one-year wage freeze at the national newspaper, which was scheduled to end April 1, will be extended for another 90 days because business still stinks. Fourth-quarter paid advertising pages at USA Today fell 10.5%, to 705 from 788 a year earlier. Company-wide publishing advertising revenue fell 17.9% to $790.8 million in the fourth quarter.

Last year, USA Today lost its spot as the nation's No. 1 newspaper after its circulation fell a mind-numbing 17.5%. That was the biggest circulation decline in the 27 year history of the publication that earned the unflattering nickname McPaper. Shares of the McLean, Va.-based company have soared more than 212% over the past year, coming back from record lows as investors bet that the company's cost-cutting would pay off. Some big shareholders, though, are now unloading shares, according to the Gannett Blog.

To be sure, newspapers have nowhere to go but up. Analysts Borrell Associates expects newspaper advertising revenue to reverse its 2009 decline and post a modest 2.4% gain this year. The forecasters expect newspaper ad sales to be up about 8.7% over 2009 levels in 2014. (Yes, you read that right.)

By the time the publishing industry makes its tepid comeback, the companies will be a rotting shell of their former selves. Workers won't need to be told what it means to be on a furlough. They will be painfully aware of it.

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