TheStreet.com Suggests a Detour

Uh-oh. This is gonna be bad.

Years of experience deciphering PR-ese have taught me that this is the appropriate reaction to an "earnings" release that leads off with a line like: "Company Achieves Record Revenue as Network Expansion Accelerates." I added the emphasis, because as I just mentioned, TheStreet.com's (Nasdaq: TSCM  ) Q3 news yesterday was supposed to take the form of an earnings release -- not a revenue release. When the best thing a company can say about its quarter is that it sold a lot of stuff, a Fool has to worry about how much it earned on all that stuff.

Well, how much did it earn?
At first glance, it earned a lot. Q3 earnings came in at a hefty $0.67 per share -- up sixfold from last year's Q3. That's better than the 41% at Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN  ) . Unfortunately, $0.54 of TheStreet.com's profit wasn't derived from operations, but from "the recognition of a deferred tax asset on a portion of the Company's net operating loss benefits."

Without that tax credit, the firm would have grown its per-share profits a mere 18% on 24% revenue growth -- implying both stock dilution and a deteriorating profit margin. And actual cash profits looked even worse. The company generated just $0.8 million in free cash flow for the quarter -- its worst showing since September 2005.

Also disconcertingly, revenue growth during Q3 slowed from the pace set in the first half of 2007. While a deceleration from 25% to 24% may not sound like much, it really is. Remember: TheStreet.com bought itself a new subsidiary during Q3, and this acquisition brought with it $2.3 million in revenue, post-acquisition. Back out that inorganic growth, and you'll see that organic revenue growth was a mere 6% last quarter. (Ouch.)

And how much did it spend?
I'll say one thing for the TheStreet.com -- these guys aren't stingy. Unable to grow much on its own, the firm continued to pay up to buy other people's growth. In addition to the $20.7 million spent to acquire Corsis, it paid $25 million for "Bankers Financial Products Corp ... a provider of the best bank rates online" -- a claim with which I suspect Bankrate.com (Nasdaq: RATE  ) would quibble.

Fortunately, not everything costs money. TheStreet.com hooked up with Viacom's (NYSE: VIA.B  ) "mtvU ... to distribute Personal Finance and Educational content to ... more than 550 online college newspapers." And as fellow Fool Rick Munarriz described in September, TheStreet.com also inked a partnership with Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) AOL, to try and get the shy and retiring Jim Cramer some much-needed public exposure.

Now there's an idea.


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